National Harbor, Md. — It may not have been as dramatic as President Richard Nixon going to China, but a stage at the Plastics Recycling Conference saw some longstanding opponents around recycling policy move toward common ground.
Specifically, a plastics industry trade group and a congressional aide behind the industry's most hated legislation in Washington — the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act — found themselves agreeing that companies should pay a lot more to support recycling.
Craig Cookson, senior director of plastics sustainability at the American Chemistry Council, suggested ACC and the BFFPPA actually are in broad agreement on a policy called extended producer responsibility.
Cookson noted industry positions have evolved, and he said he agreed with producer responsibility comments on the stage from Shane Trimmer, who helped write the BFFPPA as legislative director for retiring U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif.
"We definitely should be able to do something here," Cookson said. "Shane and I are not that far off."
ACC unveiled a federal legislative policy plan in mid-2021 that included, for the first time, the plastics association endorsing EPR policies.
BFFPPA, for its part, also includes EPR provisions. It applies them to all packaging materials, not just plastics.
Trimmer told attendees at the recycling conference that the Break Free Act envisions producer responsibility similar to a system in British Columbia.
He said that system gives companies substantial authority, compared with more government-directed EPR programs in Europe or Ontario.
"When we were looking at the model that would fit best within the United States, there were a lot of mechanisms we were looking into, and we felt that the model that is more run by the brands, [similar] to what we see in British Columbia, is the model that fit the best with how we are currently operating here in the United States," said Trimmer, who until January had been the legislative director to Lowenthal, the lead House author of BFFPPA.
"A big part of why we chose that one is we felt it was one that industry would be more likely to be excited about," said Trimmer, who is currently the legislative director for Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.
The verbal agreement doesn't mean Washington is anywhere close to passing a law around a complicated topic like EPR, and no one at the event suggested it's happening soon. But panelists at the conference, held March 7-9 in suburban Washington, said it showed growing consensus in the U.S. around EPR and said it pointed to the opportunity for future deals.
EPR advocates see it as the key to getting more money into city recycling programs.
"I've got to agree there's high-level alignment here," said Kaitlyn Trent, a plastics campaigner for Greenpeace. "We've done a lot in five years, and I think we're going to do a lot more in the next five years, especially with the global plastics treaty happening."
As well, Rachel Goldstein, North American policy director at candy maker Mars Inc., told the conference that she agreed with Cookson, Trimmer and Trent.
"I can see there are high levels of alignment among stakeholders," she said. "We didn't see that five years ago."
Cookson said ACC is taking policy positions on things like EPR that it would not have publicly supported a few years ago: "We've evolved in a lot of ways."
The group's formal policy position in 2021 endorsed what it called "American-designed" EPR, and Cookson told the conference — sponsored by the Association of Plastic Recyclers and Resource Recycling Inc. — that should mean that brands pay into the system, that funds are directed for recycling and that the system that doesn't "disrupt" innovation.
Nonetheless, there were still plenty of areas of disagreement on the panel, including around chemical recycling policy.
In addition, there are many other powerful interests around EPR that would need to be satisfied in Washington, like consumer product companies and the solid waste industry.
Cookson said there are parts of the mammoth Break Free legislation that ACC opposes. The group has been vocal in fighting a provision that freezes permits on new resin plant construction for three years.
But on EPR, he suggested there are political opportunities.
"I can't say it about all of Break Free, but the producer responsibility stuff, I think there's real opportunities out there," he said. "I think we all agree that supply is an issue. I think we all agree that we need strong end markets and that recycled plastic targets are a good idea."
Both the ACC plan and BFFPPA also included government-mandated recycled-content provisions in plastic products.