The push for a national tax on virgin plastic is gaining momentum, with a key senator on ocean and climate issues introducing legislation for a 20 cents-per-pound fee on virgin material to boost use of recycled materials and "hold the plastics industry accountable."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who in the past has allied with the plastics industry on the Save Our Seas laws, introduced legislation Aug. 6 that would tax virgin plastic sold into single-use products as a way to make recycled resin more cost-competitive.
"On its own, the plastics industry has done far too little to address the damage its products cause, so this bill gives the market a stronger incentive toward less plastic waste and more recycled plastic," Whitehouse said in a statement.
The legislation, the Rewarding Efforts to Decrease Unrecycled Contaminants in Ecosystems Act, would put an excise tax on virgin plastic, starting at 10 cents a pound in 2022 and rising to 20 cents in 2024.
It would apply to virgin plastic in single-use applications, including packaging, beverage containers, bags and foodservice products. It exempts exported virgin resin, post-consumer recycled plastic and key medical uses.
An industry group said it opposed Whitehouse's measure, while noting his past support for two separate pieces of marine plastic and debris legislation, the Save Our Seas Acts, that plastics groups also supported.
The American Chemistry Council instead called on Whitehouse to back a plan it released in July for the federal government to require 30 percent recycled content plastic in products and take other measures.
"While we applaud Sen. Whitehouse's past efforts in helping to pass two Save Our Seas Acts, we believe our comprehensive strategy is a more effective approach to accelerate a circular economy for plastics," ACC said.
Whitehouse, who has spoken at industry conferences on plastic environmental issues, sits on both the Senate environment and finance committees, which would be key to hearing the proposal.
His plan comes two months after the head of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., put a similar but smaller 5-cent fee on virgin plastic into climate legislation in that chamber.
Whitehouse pointed to low recycling rates for plastic and damage from plastic pollution, citing studies that project more plastic than fish in the oceans by midcentury and health risks to low-income and communities of color near virgin plastic production facilities.
"The boom in global plastic production has led to a crisis of plastic pollution that threatens many of our most valuable natural resources and harms the poor and minority groups disproportionately," Whitehouse's office said in a statement.
He called plastic production a growing climate concern, saying it could account for 20 percent of global oil consumption by midcentury, and he pointed to low recycling rates and low production of recycled plastic.
"Only 9 percent of plastic waste in the United States is sorted for recycling, and less than 3 percent is actually recycled," his statement said. "Compounding the problem is low production of recycled plastic. In 2019, recycled plastic accounted for just 2 percent of global plastic production."
He said the U.S. has four percent of the world's population but accounts for 17 percent of global plastic waste.