The latest U.S. Senate hearing on recycling and the circular economy saw lawmakers making some very unfavorable comparisons between recycling rates for plastics and other packaging materials.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., for example, wondered at the Sept. 22 Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing what the paper industry and its recycling rate of about 65 percent could teach the plastics packaging industry and its 13 percent recycling rate.
"We've heard a lot about plastics and the low numbers," Capito said, asking a paper industry witness what "lessons learned" from that industry "could be correlated to a more efficient and successful plastics recycling."
Similarly, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., noted the paper recycling rate of more than 60 percent and said, "I wish we had the same in plastics and other materials."
In a hearing that covered a lot of ground, other lawmakers focused on bottle deposits and extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs, including a joint plan from the American Beverage Association and the World Wildlife Fund.
ABA and WWF released a plan in June that calls for federal EPR programs, with some degree of state or local flexibility, and they noted that could include "tipping fee surcharges, deposit return systems and new infrastructure financing programs."
Roberta Elias, WWF's director of policy and government affairs, told the hearing that the beverage industry wants higher recycling rates to supply enough high-quality material to meet recycled content goals.
She referenced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, sponsored by EPW committee member Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and said ABA and her group both support concepts in that bill, which called for a national EPR system and a national container deposit system.
EPR plans generally require industry to financially support or manage recycling programs, as opposed to having it be primarily a government-funded venture.
"WWF, ABA and many others support Break Free concepts," Elias said. "We hope that standalone EPR will ultimately pass.
"We also hope that this chamber will make the most of moving vehicles, including to secure public-private investments in infrastructure, a national deposit return system and a virgin plastic fee such as that articulated in Sen. [Sheldon] Whitehouse's Reduce Act," she said in her opening remarks.
Whitehouse, D-R.I., introduced a 20-cent-per-pound tax on virgin resin used in single-use plastic packaging in August, and it's reportedly being considered as part of Senate Democrats' $3.5 trillion social spending and tax plan.
The senators didn't directly debate either Whitehouse's or Merkley's legislation, but there were clear signs of disagreement about the role for government among the lawmakers.
The highest-ranking Republican on the panel, Capito, said that while she shared concerns about challenges in recycling, she took issue with some unspecified plans floated by colleagues.
"While some of my colleagues in Congress have proposed various policies, regulations and mandates do not create effective, long-term markets," she said. "Falsely inflating the market for recycled goods with federal dollars does not help either. It simply prolongs the unviability of the sector, which could end up right back where we are today when the funding is gone."
Still, Capito noted the financial burdens put on city recycling programs when China stopped importing lower-value scrap in 2018. Those problems were underlined by a lack of U.S. demand for recyclate.
She pointed to a Senate workshop that she and EPW Chairman Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., hosted earlier in September, where they looked at technological advances in the recycling industry.
"For example, one company has successfully recycled over 2 million pounds of post-use polystyrene at their facility in Oregon through chemical recycling," Capito said, in an apparent reference to the Regenyx PS recycling plant in Tigard, Ore. The plant is a joint venture of chemical recycling firm Agilyx Corp. and PS producer Americas Styrenics LLC.
"The best way to address the depressed demand for recycled materials is to develop new innovative markets and technologies," she said.
But some of her Democratic colleagues made pointed references to challenges with plastics pollution in the environment and called for stronger government action.
Whitehouse said that at least 98 percent of the plastic products today are manufactured with virgin resin.
"It's basically entirely new plastic going in; there's essentially no meaningful recycled contribution," he said. "There's a lot of noise and talk about recycling. The industry loves to talk up recycling, I think to help create the general appearance that plastic gets recycled.
"It is kind of performance art, to stand up a relatively fake narrative that recycling is real," Whitehouse said.
Merkley pointed to vastly different PET bottle recycling rates in different states, depending on whether they have container deposits.
He noted a recent study that said five states have PET bottle recycling rates over 50 percent — Maine, Oregon, California, New York and Vermont — while in most states the rate is less than 20 percent. He asked a witness from the North Carolina state government, where he said the PET bottle recycling rate is only 8 percent.
"No state has succeeded in having a significant amount of bottles recycled without a deposit system," Merkley said.
The hearing did not have any plastics industry witnesses, but the American Chemistry Council said it submitted formal comments and issued a news release noting its five-point plan for federal legislation, including for EPR and for regulations requiring 30 percent recycled content in plastic packaging by 2030.