Washington, D.C. — Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley wants to use his perch atop a key Senate subcommittee — and a series of six hearings — to come up with some national strategies around plastics environmental and health challenges.
At the first of those hearings March 30 in Washington, there were signs both of partisan differences and cooperation, as several scientists testified about the climate impact of plastics production, how plastics are used in lightweight composites and the science around microplastics.
"Our goal … of this series of hearings is to just be as honest as we can to understand the life cycle of plastics and the impacts they're having and how to mitigate those impacts," Merkley said. "Hopefully by the end of this series of hearings we'll have a number of tools that we'll understand better and consider whether there are strategies we can take at a national level to address the significant concerns."
Senators at the hearing of the Environment and Public Works Committee noted some areas of agreement, like current bipartisan work on a third version of the Save Our Seas laws that passed in 2018 and 2020.
But differences were also on display. The highest-ranking Republican on the waste management subcommittee, Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, accused Democrats in an opening statement of wanting to "focus on ending American energy production" rather than supporting innovation to develop chemical recycling.
Mullin said more than 20 states, including Oklahoma, have passed laws favored by industry that would regulate chemical recycling as manufacturing, rather than as solid waste facilities.
He also told the hearing that petrochemicals are vital to manufacturing green energy technologies.
"Nearly every component of an EV and the batteries they run on require petrochemicals," he said. "Wind turbines aren't made out of the wind. Solar panels aren't made out of the sun. These are all made possible from petrochemicals."
But Merkley, who is a lead sponsor of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act and other Democratic plastics bills, pushed back on contentions he wanted to eliminate plastics. Rather, he said the hearings are aimed at finding ways to mitigate the effects from a rapid rise in plastics production.
"Just to be clear, this set of hearings is not with the goal of eliminating plastic production nor of eliminating composites," Merkley said. "The fossil fuel industry is envisioning a massive increase in the production of plastics, but that will only amplify the problems and makes it even more urgent that we address them."
The wide-ranging hearing looked at many environmental issues around plastics, from single-digit recycling rates to microplastic contamination from plastic fibers and particles that shed from clothing, car tires, paints and the breakdown of plastic products.
Merkley, who introduced legislation last year to address the climate change and environmental justice impacts of plastics production, said solutions could be similarly wide-ranging.
"In some cases, it may be an alternative material. In other cases, it may be a microfiber trap on a washing machine. In other cases, it may be effective recycling and reintegration," he said. "And of course plastics comes in many different chemical compositions."
In comments at the hearing, Mullin also noted private discussions he's had with Merkley and raised the possibility of finding areas of agreement.
"Thank you [to Merkley] for actively reaching out to me; I enjoyed the breakfast we had," Mullin said. "While we have different views on multiple things, including this, I believe that us working together with the respect that we started out with, I believe it can possibly come out with some maybe positive outcomes."
Merkley did not say what topics future hearings would cover, and aides for both Mullin and Merkley did not respond to a request for more details.
Merkley heads the Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice and Regulatory Oversight Subcommittee, which held a lengthy plastics hearing in December.