Washington — The plastics industry unveiled changes Dec. 13 to strengthen its voluntary Operation Clean Sweep program to reduce pellet pollution from its factories, but environmental groups monitoring the issue questioned industry self-regulation and called for a tough zero discharge standard.
The American Chemistry Council and the Plastics Industry Association, which jointly administer OCS, said they were strengthening the program by requiring companies to report "unrecovered releases" greater than 0.5 liters or 0.5 kilograms. That information will be aggregated and reported publicly annually.
"Companies that make plastics are deeply committed to continuous improvement in all aspects of their operations, and we're making it a priority to enhance the rigor and transparency of our pellet stewardship program," Steve Russell, vice president of ACC's plastics division, said.
But environmental and investor groups that have filed lawsuits and shareholder resolutions over pellet pollution said the changes fall short.
They argue that a $50 million federal court settlement against Formosa Plastics Corp. USA this year for pellet pollution in Texas means industry can't self-regulate and that stronger enforcement is needed. The federal judge in that case ruled that Formosa was a "serial offender."
"While today's announcement is fine, it is voluntary and doesn't come close to what is going to be required to ensure plastics companies stop discharging plastic into waterways across the country," said Julie Teel Simmonds, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity.
"The recent Formosa lawsuit shows that plastics companies aren't going to self-regulate, and the state agencies often do no better," she said.
Her group, which is active in pellet pollution cases nationally, called for the mandatory zero discharge standard that Formosa agreed to in the court settlement, which was finalized Dec. 3, to become an industry standard.
"We need the federal government to finally regulate plastic pollution, and this includes zero discharge of plastic and strong enforcement," said Diane Wilson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and a member of the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper group.
Beyond regulations, the Formosa settlement shows that companies face financial risk over pellet pollution, according to socially responsible investment firm As You Sow.
"The recent $50 million settlement by Formosa Plastics for pellet spills demonstrates the financial risks to companies and their investors from poor handling practices and the need for individual corporate accountability," said Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president.
As You Sow brought shareholder resolutions in 2019 against ExxonMobil Chemical Co., Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. and Dow Inc. To settle those complaints, the companies agreed to individually disclose pellet spill information.
MacKerron said the OCS policy should also be for individual company disclosure, rather than industry aggregated reporting.
He said his group plans to bring more pellet pollution shareholder resolutions in 2020.
Industry officials, however, said the changes to OCS were a good step forward.
Russell said ACC plastics division companies have committed by 2020 to implement the OCS Blue standard, a more stringent set of OCS practices industry adopted two years ago, and are on track to do so. The original OCS program started in 1991.
Companies that participate in the OCS Blue program agree to conduct regular training, audits and inspections, implement prevention and management procedures and report some information to the trade association.
The new standard for reporting unrecovered releases applies to OCS Blue participants, the industry groups said.
"Our members are part of the solution when it comes to eradicating plastic waste in our oceans and waterways," Tony Radoszewski, president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, said in a statement.