Retooling the economy to meet the climate crisis has both opportunities and risks for the plastics industry, as a pair of recent decisions by President Joe Biden on electric cars and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on packaging illustrate.
First, the opportunity: On Aug. 5, Biden announced a target that by 2030, 50 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. should be electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell models. That goal was immediately praised by the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council, which noted the role plastics play in making cars lighter, building better batteries and extending the range of electric vehicles.
Biden portrayed it as helping the U.S. take a leadership role in the technology and supporting domestic jobs. He also announced the development of new fuel economy and emission standards that ACC saw as another positive for lightweight plastics in cars.
But the next day, across the country, the risks were on display, too.
Brown on Aug. 6 signed legislation making Oregon just the second state, after Maine, to adopt extended producer responsibility legislation that will require companies to pay more to shoulder the burden of packaging recycling.
Plastic packaging recycling rates are dismal, and China's 2018 ban on imports of low-value plastics and paper scrap exposed the serious shortcomings with recycling in the United States.
EPR systems are complex, and a lot remains unknown about how they'll impact packaging material choices. But as EPR systems take shape and assess fees, certainly the use-and-dispose model for most plastic packaging is not good.
In both Oregon and Maine, there has to be a lot of detailed rule writing by governments to figure out fees companies pay and how to adjust for things like recycled content, recycling rates and overall environmental impact of the packaging.
But it's clear that in both states, governments are fed up with taxpayers footing most of the bill for packaging recycling. The EPR laws so far are not going the way the packaging industry would prefer.
In each state, the industry group Ameripen knocked the new laws.
St. Paul, Minn.-based Ameripen, which counts plastics firms Berry Global, Charter Nex Films, Dart Container and Dow Inc. among its members, said both Oregon and Maine are not giving industry a big enough role.
In Maine, Ameripen noted specifically that it supported a different EPR bill than the one that ultimately passed, which it said leaves companies "on the outside of the process and forced to foot the bill for a system where the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is the sole decision-maker."
In Oregon, it said similar things, that it was "disappointed" the new law "does not grant producers a greater role in the development of the program."
Ameripen made it clear that it believes companies have some financial responsibility for collecting and recycling and wanted to work with the states.
But it seems that so far, states are saying that because they've had the financial burden of unrecyclable packaging, they want to be the driving force behind how the EPR systems are designed.
The federal government is also paying much more attention, as shown by the recent news that a key U.S. senator on plastics policy wants a 20-cent-per-pound tax on virgin resin to help recycling, clean up marine debris and address environmental justice and pollution impacts from plastic production.
Which brings us back to Washington and electric vehicle policy.
ACC welcomed the Biden administration's ambitious electric vehicle target and its push for new fuel efficiency standards because they will "expand opportunities for lightweight, durable plastics" and for technologies to drive down emissions.
ACC noted that plastics make up 50 percent of a car by volume but only 10 percent by weight.
"We're pleased that President Biden's executive order calls for 'expansion of the full domestic manufacturing supply chain,' which includes the companies that create the modern plastics that will play an essential role in enabling electric vehicles," said Joshua Baca, ACC's vice president of plastics.
Other federal legislation is also recognizing the role of plastics.
ACC pointed out that House transportation and energy spending plans for next year include money to work on lower carbon vehicles, including plastics automotive recovery.
One House subcommittee, for example, noted in budget language "the importance that lightweight plastics and polymer composites play" around vehicle safety, innovation, fuel efficiency and adding skilled manufacturing jobs.
"Lightweight plastics help automakers build safer, more fuel-efficient cars and are essential to creating our nation's low-carbon infrastructure," Baca said in commenting on the House plans.
That's the landscape for the plastics industry in Washington and state capitals today.
There are opportunities to make a good case that plastics have an important role in meeting climate and environmental goals in durable goods like cars. But there's also increasing pressure to do more — and contribute more financially — around plastic packaging waste and environmental pollution from plastic production.
Underlying it all is the need to continue working on the long-range goal of decoupling plastic resin manufacturing from fossil fuels so that we can make most of the plastic we need from renewable sources like recycling existing materials or using bio-based feedstocks.
Steve Toloken is a Plastics News assistant managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.