The top Democrat on the U.S. Senate environment committee is urging the federal government to adopt extended producer responsibility for plastics, including having the industry help fund recycling programs.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., urged a much bigger role for Washington around recycling in detailed comments to the Environmental Protection Agency as it develops the country's first national recycling strategy.
Carper, who is the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, took one position at odds with prominent Democratic-backed legislation: He said he opposes national bans on single-use products.
But in comments to EPA that he released Dec. 4, Carper said that with low recycling rates and plastics production globally expected to double in the next decade, it is "critically important" to find ways to reduce plastics use in addition to recycling more.
"Plastic producers should fund much-needed recycling infrastructure," Carper wrote. "EPA's draft National Recycling Strategy should incorporate product stewardship policies for plastics and other materials that are woefully mismanaged today."
Officially, Carper's is speaking only for himself, but with President-elect Joe Biden expected to name his choices to head EPA and other environmental agencies soon, the senator's comments could be seen as a window into Democratic thinking on legislation and executive actions.
He mentioned plastics 35 times directly in the text of a seven-page comment letter, where he argued that poor markets for some recycled plastics and China's ban in scrap imports are increasing pressure to address the problem.
"Growing national pressure and attention on the production of plastics should be examined and reflected in EPA's draft National Recycling Strategy and, yet, EPA's draft … entirely ignores these critical issues," he said.
The federal government should take steps to bolster markets for recycled plastics and other single-use materials, he said.
"We know that recycling is market driven, so any approach to re-envisioning our national recycling strategy must first acknowledge that existing single-use plastics recycling markets are insufficient to effectively promote both recycling and an effective circular economy," Carper wrote.
He called for mandates around recycled content and government procurement, as well as product stewardship and design for recycling.
Many business and environmental groups have filed comments to EPA around the strategy, with some calling for more focus on boosting markets for recycled plastic.
The American Chemistry Council said in Dec. 3 comments that EPA should incorporate what it calls advanced recycling, or chemical recycling, in the national strategy.
It also called for a harmonized federal role around education and standards for the thousands of local recycling programs in the U.S., which largely set their own rules.
In his comments, Carper noted that industry groups are starting to endorse product stewardship and pointed to a September report from The Recycling Partnership. He urged EPA to pick up those ideas.
Carper did make one comment likely to be well-received by plastics industry groups, when he poured cold water on nationwide product bans like those called for in the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, introduced by prominent Democrats this year.
"A nationwide ban on all single-use materials is simply not an option," Carper said. "American society still relies heavily on single-use products for medical and other essential uses. And with so little material actually being recycled, finding ways to reduce plastics usage is critically important."