Washington — The Save Our Seas Act 2.0, the main federal legislation to this point on marine plastic pollution, passed two U.S. Senate committees in recent days, but not before a key plastics industry provision on chemical recycling was taken out.
The bill has strong broad bipartisan support, but cracks may be emerging. A coalition of environmental groups issued a Sept. 25 statement calling the legislation weak, and the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., noted concerns around incineration and urged more changes before a full Senate vote.
The industry-backed provision that was removed called for a National Academy of Sciences study around what industry officials call chemical recycling.
But a coalition of environmental groups, including Beyond Plastics and Break Free From Plastic, said that section of the bill had promoted "false and risky solutions to the plastic pollution crisis including incineration, gasification and pyrolysis."
The American Chemistry Council said critics misunderstood the study. ACC said the NAS review, sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, would analyze air emissions and the cost competitiveness of technologies to convert plastics waste into products, defined in the bill as "chemicals, feedstocks, fuels and energy."
"It's indicative of a misunderstanding around the technology and what some are saying about the technology," said Keith Christman, managing director of plastic markets for Washington-based ACC. "Of course, it is not incineration."
But in comments during a Sept. 25 committee vote, Carper called it a "study on incineration" and said concerns prompted it be removed. With that provision gone, the bill passed the committee on a unanimous vote, including with Carper's support.
Nonetheless, Carper suggested that the legislation may need more changes and made an apparent reference to concerns outlined by environmental groups in a Sept. 24 letter to the committee.
"In recent days ... we have heard from several other critics of this legislation that suggest we may have some additional work to do on this legislation, and I am committed to that effort before the measure is considered by the full Senate," said Carper, who is co-chair of the Senate Recycling Caucus.
The chief Senate sponsors of the bill, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said they hoped to move the legislation quickly and noted broad support in Congress and in the Trump administration. Sullivan said it also had support from industry and ocean environmental groups.
A more modest predecessor law in 2018, also called the Save Our Seas Act, passed with virtual unanimous support and was signed by President Donald Trump. Sullivan and Whitehouse said they hoped to duplicate that.
But plastics waste issues have gotten much more attention in Congress in the last 12 months, and this tussle over Save Our Seas 2.0 reflects that.
Environmental groups are weighing in more, and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., are drafting legislation that's likely to be more in line with their approach. They've raised the possibility of European Union-style bans on some single-use plastics, a national deposit law and recycling rate targets for plastic bottles.
Judith Enck, director of Beyond Plastics, said the coalition wants Congress to reject SOS 2.0, although she suggested the bill could be revised to include some Udall-Lowenthal ideas.
Enck, who headed the U.S. EPA regional office for New York and New Jersey in the Obama administration, said SOS 2.0 focuses too much on collecting single-use plastics after they're already in the environment and not enough on reducing plastics use.
"The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act does virtually nothing to require a reduction in the production of plastics while propping up an anemic approach to recycling," she said. "Congress can and must do much better on this urgent matter."
Christman said ACC strongly supports the bill because it includes many good provisions and responded to the environmental groups by pointing to studies that said alternatives to single-use plastics can have a worse environmental footprint.
The bill includes many provisions, including a revolving loan fund for states to improve U.S. waste infrastructure, a trust fund for domestic marine debris cleanup and sections that would elevate plastic waste in U.S. trade policy and support an international agreement on marine debris.
The Plastics Industry Association said it still supported the legislation after the NAS study was removed.
“We’re happy with the legislation’s focus on improving our domestic recycling infrastructure and do not believe that the most recent changes to the bill will stifle the innovation in plastics recycling that’s happening every day — indeed, we believe the bill will ignite innovation in recycling,” said John Grant, government affairs director with the association.
The environmental group Ocean Conservancy, which partners with the plastics industry on some initiatives, put out a statement Sept. 26 saying it supported the law and urged its passage. But the group also said it wanted to see future legislation work on "reducing our reliance on single-use plastics."
Both Whitehouse and Sullivan view SOS 2.0 as addressing marine plastics pollution from Asia.
"The good news on this legislation is this is an environmental issue that is actually solvable," Sullivan said. "The estimates are that 10 rivers in Asia constitute almost 70 percent of the ocean plastics pollution in the world. ... We can actually address this. We're doing it in a bipartisan manner."
"There is a very clear focus — there are five Asian nations that have lousy upland waste management that cause the majority of this ocean plastic to be dumped into the Pacific," Whitehouse said.
Another portion of SOS 2.0 passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also on Sept. 25. A third piece still has to be considered by the Senate Commerce Committee. And on the House side, there are seven different committees looking at it.