Proposed sweeping national legislation could fundamentally change the plastics industry and how the material is handled after use.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., are seeking input on a new effort that would hit on many of the hot-button issues plastics are facing.
Extended producer responsibility, nationwide container deposits, product bans, labeling requirements and "awareness-raising levels" are all part of an initial outline the legislators released July 18.
The proposal also specifically mentions a ban on expanded polystyrene in foodservice ware, disposable coolers and shipping packaging.
"We have passed a tipping point in the plastic pollution crisis," Udall said in a statement. "We are in dire need of action to tackle this enormous problem. The ripple effects of plastic waste are everywhere."
The proposal also would set state goals to collect "a high percentage" of single-use plastic drink bottles and to standardize recycling collection across communities and states, according to a statement announcing the idea.
Another requirement calls for 100 percent recyclability for plastic bottles, packaging and some other products. Those items also would need to include "a significant percentage" of post-consumer resin.
Another aspect of the proposal calls for a federal fund to pay for pollution reduction, remediation and research. Funding would come in part from bag fees and unclaimed container deposits.
Extended producer responsibility is an approach where manufacturers pay for the end-of-life management of the products they create. The concept has taken hold in Europe, but to a lesser extent in the United States, where there are a limited number of state EPR programs to handle tough-to-recycle products.
Mercury-containing products, such as thermostats and automotive lighting switches, are one popular EPR example. Some states also have EPR laws for electronics.
Product producers would be "required to design, manage and finance programs for end-of-life management of their products and packaging as a condition of sale. These programs may or may not use existing collection and processing infrastructure," a statement from the legislators said.
"Producers will help cover the costs of waste management and cleanup, as well as awareness-raising measures for food containers, packets and wrappers, drink containers, cups and lids, tobacco products with filters (such as cigarette butts), wet wipes, balloons and lightweight plastic bags," the proposal states.
Opponents of EPR often counter that these added costs will increase the price of the products they sell to consumers.
The legislators, in releasing an outline of the proposed legislation, want stakeholder input by Aug. 21. Those interested in providing feedback can email [email protected] and [email protected]
Plastics industry trade groups had a mixed reaction to the proposal.
"America's plastic makers are fully committed to doing our part to help end plastic waste, and we welcome the opportunity to work with Congress in shaping legislation that will help cleanup and protect our environment," the American Chemistry Council said in a statement.
But ACC did raise concerns about the idea of prohibiting the use of certain plastics.
"Unfortunately, the outline of new legislation ... suggests banning certain plastics, which, studies show, would have the unintended consequences of increasing greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts," the group said in statement.
Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, welcomed the idea of addressing the issues.
"I try not to look at the specifics per se because this is such a broad shot across the bow that tries to cover everything that's out there in terms of potential problems relative to recyclability," he said.
"They are talking about everything. We're just happy that there's a dialogue and discussion going on. Because, historically, this is not the type of activity that happens on the federal level. So there are going to be some good things and there are going to be some things that those of us in the business every day know are really not going to work," he said.
Alexander likes the idea of creating a uniform collection and recycling standards, a move that would go a long way to solving other problems.
"We're happy to have this conversation going on. But, again, it's such a catchall you have to wonder if there is a result, you have to wonder what it's going to look like at the end of the day," he said.
Over at the Plastics Industry Association, the trade group indicated it supports the proposed Save Our Seas Act 2.0, a comprehensive bill designed to address marine debris.
"Senator Udall's outline contains a collection of several policy options that have been tried in cities and states around the country that do not address the root causes of marine debris," Scott DeFife, vice president of government affairs at the Plastics Industry Association, said in a statement.
"Domestic U.S. bans of otherwise completely recyclable materials do not address global litter or waste management issues, which is why we are also working to support investments in recovery and recycling infrastructure so that no plastic material ends up in the environment," DeFife said.