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Ubiquitous Plastic Junk Catching Lawmakers’ Attention

Aug. 2, 2019, 9:01 AM

A ban on plastic foam food containers and packaging, fees on carryout bags, and standardized plastic recycling collection all could become part of a national plastic waste bill now in its early stages.

Due to “decades of inaction, pollution from plastics have become a global crisis and federal action has been long overdue,” Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) told Bloomberg Environment in an email.

Lowenthal and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) recently released an outline of legislation they plan to introduce in the fall after gathering ideas from consumers and businesses.

The outline comes amid legislative momentum surrounding plastic waste: Other lawmakers introduced an update to a marine debris control law in June and a zero-waste grant program in late July.

A group of representatives also wrote to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in July, calling on the department to improve the nation’s plastic recycling infrastructure following China’s decision to refuse most imports of foreign recyclable material last year.

‘Comprehensive Solutions’

Some cities and states have enacted their own plastic waste pollution legislation in the past, but “this is a time to put forward comprehensive solutions at the federal level that meet the scope of the problem and will support communities across the country that are dealing with unprecedented levels of plastic waste,” Udall said in an emailed statement.

The outline focuses on increasing plastic producers’ responsibility for managing waste, helping to pay for cleanup, and raising awareness on the environmental footprint of plastic that can become junk, like food containers, cups and lids, plastic cigarette butts, wet wipes, balloons, and lightweight plastic bags.

The legislation would offer incentives to develop less-polluting alternatives, but the outline doesn’t provide specifics.

A similar plastics strategy was adopted by the European Commission in 2018, which inspired the lawmakers’ effort.

It’s unclear whether the legislation would advance in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Plastics Industry Opposition

The Plastics Industry Association, a trade group for plastics manufacturers, has opposed bans on plastic products that can be recycled.

The lawmakers’ proposal “contains a collection of several policy options that have been tried in cities and states around the country that do not address the root causes of marine debris,” the association’s vice president of government affairs, Scott DeFife, said in an emailed statement.

“Domestic U.S. bans of otherwise completely recyclable materials do not address global litter or waste management issues, which is why we are also working to gain federal support for increased domestic recovery and recycling infrastructure so that no plastic material ends up in the environment.”

The American Chemistry Council, another group representing plastic manufacturers, and Ocean Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group, said they were excited to talk to the lawmakers about the proposal.

“I think we have a lot of great ideas” for Lowenthal and Udall, said Craig Cookson, senior director of recycling and recovery for the ACC’s plastics division.

The organization “can’t really comment yet, though, until we see specifics,” he said.

Multiple Approaches

Udall and Lowenthal aren’t the only members of Congress thinking about how to tackle plastic waste.

Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) in June introduced the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act (S. 1982). It builds off a bill signed into law last year that, among other things, said Congress felt the president should support ways to reduce derelict fishing gear and other waste that enters the oceans.

Save our Seas 2.0’s focus on repurposing plastic resources and improving infrastructure in the U.S. is promising, Cookson said. DeFife said the Plastics Industry Association also supports it.

Kevin Allexon, senior manager of government relations at Ocean Conservancy, called it “a really ambitious, comprehensive next step to the original SOS Act, which was modest in its substance, but an important first step forward.”

Sullivan said it was “very bipartisan.”

“The president and the whole administration are very supportive of it,” he said in an interview, adding he had discussed the bill with President Donald Trump, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, and others.

Sullivan said he hoped the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee would consider it as soon as the August recess ends.

Whitehouse said he thinks the bill can be fast-tracked to Senate passage using unanimous consent, a procedure under which legislation can be swiftly passed on the floor as long as no senator objects.

Grants for Waste Prevention

Another plastics bill, the Zero Waste Act introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) on July 25, would create a federal grant program through the EPA to help communities invest in efforts to prevent plastic waste.

Omar’s bill “really gets to the heart of what it’s going to take to build a more circular economy and to move communities toward zero waste,” said Denise Patel, the U.S. and Canada program director for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, an advocacy network that promotes zero waste, with all products reused, repaired or recycled.

Americans’ awareness of plastic waste could be creating a good moment for political action, Allexon said, pointing to photos circulating online that show plastic straws stuck in the noses of turtles and plastic six-pack rings around the necks of birds.

“It’s the prevalence of those visuals. It’s the widespread understanding from the public of just how pervasive this problem is,” he said. “I think it’s captured people’s attention, and I think it hits us where we live.”

Patel also sees people connecting to the plastic waste dilemma “from a lot of different ways,” adding, “in that respect, I think it is possible for there to be a bipartisan zero waste solution.”

—With assistance from Dean Scott.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maya Goldman in Washington at mgoldman@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com