Washington — Democrats in Washington are stepping up pressure around packaging and single-use plastics, with two lawmakers unveiling a broad plan that they say seeks to shift waste and recycling costs onto companies and away from governments.
The plan from Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., would seek to move the U.S. closer to something like the European Union's plastics strategy, and its introduction came as former Vice President Joe Biden urged a transition away from plastics at a campaign event Feb. 9 ahead of the New Hampshire primary.
Udall and Lowenthal are set to formally introduce their legislation Feb. 11 and held a press conference to outline their plan to require packaging producers of all materials — not just plastics — to fund waste and recycling programs. It includes other provisions that would apply to all material types, like a national 10-cent container deposit to boost bottle recycling.
But the legislation, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, also includes some plastics-specific provisions like bans on common single-use plastic items like carryout bags, expanded polystyrene foam carryout containers, shipping packaging and plastic utensils.
It also has some provisions that are newer in plastics policy debates, calling for a three-year moratorium on new resin plant construction and banning exports of plastic waste to many developing countries.
At a Feb. 10 news conference, Lowenthal pointed to the large investments going into new plastic production, with an estimated tripling of plastic production in the next 30 years, as a long-term challenge. He said it's a big reason why he and Udall want to put more financial responsibility on the industry to deal with waste.
He also framed it as larger than bans or similar legislation aimed at reducing litter, saying that increasing plastics production will potentially account for an increase of 20 percent of fossil fuel consumption, and along with that increasing air, water and greenhouse gas emissions.
"If you want to have a plastics industry and you want to grow that industry, we have to change our model in terms of who is responsible and who is paying for it," Lowenthal said.
Udall said he believed there's a lot of interest from the public and in Congress for doing more around plastics issues. He estimated that taxpayers spend $10 billion a year supporting a recycling system that is not working well.
"There is tremendous bipartisan support for tackling plastic pollution in Congress right now," Udall said. "The problem is that the solutions have been mostly supplied by industry, who would rather see taxpayers and governments resolve the issue.
"We expect to see states and local governments start replicating this bill across the country," Udall said, suggesting that he does not necessarily see it as a partisan issue.
"I wouldn't worry too much about having a Democrat in the White House. We have seen when you produce something that the public loves and has huge public support, President [Donald] Trump has signed those kinds of bills," he said.
It's not clear how quickly the legislation would move through Congress, though, given that it's a sharp departure from what has historically been a limited federal role in waste and recycling policy.
Udall and Lowenthal both said the current legislation, the Save Our Seas Act 2.0, has wide support and passed the Senate. But that focuses on cleaning up waste already in the environment, rather than redesigning waste systems or products at the front end.
The Udall-Lowenthal legislation would be the most detailed yet from Washington and in some ways mirrors approaches taken by the European Union and its plastics strategy.