Washington — There was a bipartisan consensus at a U.S. Senate hearing June 17 that the country's recycling system is deeply troubled, with lawmakers in both parties calling attention to financial burdens on cities and taxpayers, and broad challenges around plastic waste.
But as far as what exactly to do about it, there was less agreement on that.
Several Republican senators at a hearing in the Environment and Public Works Committee pushed back on Democratic legislation that would ban some single-use plastics, while Democrats focused on some broader policy changes. Senators repeatedly came back to plastics issues over the two hour discussion.
EPW Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., for example, noted in his opening remarks that many states and cities have suspended single-use plastics bans or taxes as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
"COVID-19 has called into question taxes and bans on single-use plastics," he said. "The pandemic has reminded us of the critical role that single-use plastics play in protecting public health."
But the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., argued that plastic waste remains a problem, both for recycling and as a source of pollution in the oceans and environment.
He said policymakers should not consider recycling a "silver bullet," and he and other Democrats advocated looking at broader measures to reduce consumption and reuse products.
"We need to focus on the challenges that plastics present to our recycling system, namely single-use plastics," said Carper, who is a co-chair of the Senate Recycling Caucus.
"Since the mass production of plastics began in the 1950s, we've produced more than 8 million metric tons of plastics, half of which has been produced over the last 13 years," he said. "Of all the plastics ever produced only 9 percent — only 9 percent — have ever been recycled."
If Republicans and Democrats were generally on opposite sides of hot-button plastics bans, there was more agreement that recycling wasn't working and cities needed help, suggesting that could be an area of legislative agreement.
Barrasso, for example, noted that cities in Wyoming are facing hard choices about funding recycling.
Instead of generating revenue for governments as it did in the past, recycling has now become a cost, he said, noting low prices for fossil fuels for virgin materials and the 2018 China ban on scrap imports both hurt the economics of recycling.
Cities in Wyoming are facing a choice, he told his Senate colleagues: "What other public services will not be granted because of the money that's going to be used for the cost to recycle?"
Carper also argued that the costs of recycling shortcomings shouldn't fall on the public.
"As we grapple with the fallout of China's policies and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the price that consumers will have to pay for curbside recycling services is likely to rise, not fall," he said. "That means that many consumers will be forced to make a choice, a Hobson's choice, to either pay for recycling services or put their money toward basic needs."