Some in the business community may see divided government in Washington as their best outcome from the election, thinking that it will make it harder for a Joe Biden administration and Democrats to push major changes in environmental or tax policy.
But for the plastics industry and its big issue of recycling and waste, I don't think it's that simple.
I say that because while divided government will slow things down, there's a clear feeling among both plastics lobbyists and environmental groups that some of the hot-button single-use plastics bans, recycled-content mandates and taxes to pay for recycling infrastructure upgrades will remain big issues. In particular, state and local governments will stay focused on it.
Their recycling programs are heavily impacted by poor markets for plastics, and they'll be looking for ways to pay for better infrastructure. You also can't ignore the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their budgets.
Those were some of the ideas bandied about during a Nov. 17 webinar on the election and packaging policy from the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment.
As well, environmental groups expect more to happen. They point to a Biden administration that, even if Congress is gridlocked around big legislation, could use its regulatory powers to advance their priorities like new EPA rules on releasing plastic pellets into waterways or regulations around environmental justice.
And some in the plastics industry see opportunities to build consensus. The new head of the American Chemistry Council's plastics division, Joshua Baca, argues that broad industry agreement has formed around packaging fees or recycled content laws and that could pave the way for legislation. He said sometimes having agreement among enough of the impacted industries is as important as having agreement between Democrats and Republicans for legislation to pass. A good point. It all adds up to a very dynamic time.
Of course, the federal government is structurally designed to work slowly. Ameripen President Mike Prentiss, who is also director of state government relations for Procter & Gamble Co., noted the likely divided government and threw some cold water on the idea of major federal packaging legislation happening quickly.
But he and Ameripen lobbyist Andrew Hackman argued that the pressure bubbling up from state and local governments is a wild card that could make the dynamics around plastics different than some other environmental issues.
"Activity is going to be fast and furious at the state level," Hackman said.
Both he and Prentiss said it's very possible a few states next year could pass some type of producer responsibility or packaging fee and recycling legislation. Once that happens and businesses face fragmented approaches around the country, they may want Washington to step in and at least bring a uniform approach, Prentiss said.
"There is a potential role for the federal government to play, especially if multiple states take action, and we end up with a splintered or inconsistent patchwork of different requirements," Prentiss said. "For companies that operate in all 50 states, having to comply with multiple different types of programs can get very complicated very quickly."
On this issue, all three levels of government — local, state and federal — can prod one another.
Hackman said he could see scenarios where if the federal government does not move quickly, some states on the West Coast or the Northeast could grow frustrated and pass their own laws, which in turn will put more pressure on Washington to act. That pattern played out in recent years around toxic chemicals policy and labeling for genetically modified organisms, where state action ultimately pushed the federal government, Hackman said. He thinks the packaging concerns are more intense.
"Probably the only thing I think that's close to being similar is GMO, over the last decade or so, but I think even the intensity and pace around these issues is stronger and faster than that," he said.
We'll get a clearer picture of how divided Washington is in early January, after the runoff election for both of Georgia's Senate seats determines which party controls that chamber.
But even if political control of Washington remains divided, that won't end the issue, when there's a lot of pressure from below.
Toloken is a Plastics News assistant managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.
Plastics News editorial cartoon by Rich Williams. Cartoons are available for purchase at www.plasticsnews.com/data-lists/cartoons