Washington — The right government response to plastics pollution and litter is a big topic, as a wide-ranging congressional hearing Oct. 29 certainly showed.
The new head of the Plastics Industry Association, Tony Radoszewski, for example, urged a House Natural Resources Committee hearing to avoid bans and consider the benefits of plastics.
On the other side, actor Ted Danson, who is vice chair for environmental group Oceana, urged Congress to look beyond recycling as a solution and develop policies to reduce single-use plastics.
The public forum came two days before Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., who chaired the hearing, and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., unveiled what they called "discussion draft" plastics legislation that's the boldest introduced in Congress thus far.
In an Oct. 31 statement, they said their bill proposed an extended producer responsibility system for plastics companies, a national 10-cent deposit on containers of all material types, a ban on some single-use plastic products beginning in 2022, a fee on carryout bags, minimum recycled content standards for containers, protection for state and local governments that want to enact tougher plastics laws and put a moratorium on new plastics facilities and updates to clean air and water laws to reduce plastics pollution.
"Today we face a global plastic pollution crisis that threatens our waterways, wildlife and public health," Lowenthal said in the statement. "The amount of plastic waste in our communities and the oceans is evidence of the urgent need to tackle this issue, an effort in which the United States is currently lagging."
In his opening remarks at the hearing, he emphasized EPR systems to have companies pay more for handling plastic waste.
"The financial burden of cleaning up pollution should not be solely on the taxpayers," he said. "It's imperative that the companies that manufacture and sell these products take ownership of their environmental impact."
The hearing also included some sharp words from the ranking Republican on the Water, Oceans and Wildlife subcommittee, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who took issue with putting restrictions on plastic use that he said amount to "blaming American consumers for plastic waste that reaches our oceans."
"Blaming America first seems to be a recurring theme, but the facts paint a very different picture," McClintock said, citing studies that said "between 88 and 95 percent of all the plastic debris in the ocean comes from 10 rivers, none of which is anywhere close to the United States."
He noted a 2015 study that estimated the top 20 marine debris-emitting countries generated 10.76 million metric tons of plastic waste a year, while the United States contributed only about 1 percent of that amount.
"The entire United States contributed less waterborne plastic pollution than North Korea," he said.
Radoszewski picked up that theme in his comments, citing studies that show 90 percent of ocean plastic starts in 10 rivers in Southeast Asia and Africa.
But he said the plastics industry recognizes that more needs to be done and does not want to see its products in the environment.
"Our industry agrees that there is a plastic waste problem," he said. "But the urgency of the situation cries out for a situation more thoughtful than simply saying no to a material that lowers greenhouse gas emissions, is more efficient to produce than other materials like metal, paper and glass and has delivered numerous benefits to society as a whole."
Another panelist, scientist and National Geographic fellow Jenna Jambeck, pushed back on the narrative that ocean litter is mainly a problem for Asia, arguing that since United States generates a lot of waste per person, the government should look at container deposits and producer responsibility programs.
She said the U.S. generates between two to six times the per capita waste of many countries, and she noted that overall only 9 percent of plastic is recycled in the country.
Jambeck, who authored a key 2015 study on sources of marine plastic and is a leading researcher, said the historically poor design of packaging for recyclability contributes to waste problems in developing countries.
She said 50 percent of U.S. plastic packaging waste for recycling has typically had to have been exported overseas, mostly to low-income countries, where it then is at higher risk of getting into the oceans.
"That's been a major problem because we've been relying on low-income countries to manage that material," she said.
The hearing also heard from the Houston-based group, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, which talked about the impact of plastic factories on the health of people living in fence line communities.
And Danson said that if the plastics industry were a country, it would be the world's fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., came to the hearing with a paper bag full of plastic litter he said he found along beaches in his district. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., talked about microplastic particles being detected in the environment in his district.
McClintock, however, challenged his colleagues and panelists to articulate what they would replace plastics with.
"I haven't heard a single alternative offered by the critics of plastics," he said. "I think it's become very clear that plastics are found to be a far better solution economically and environmentally to the materials that we've used in the past."
In a short interview after the hearing, Lowenthal said he saw a lot of bipartisan interest in addressing plastic waste. He and Udall invited public comments on their draft bill by Nov. 21. Lowenthal acknowledged their proposal is uncharted waters for waste policy in Washington but said "we've never had such a crisis such as this."