Written by: Natalia Brown
On Tuesday, February 11th, US Senator Tom Udall and US Representative Alan Lowenthal introduced unprecedented federal legislation to address the plastic pollution crisis.
“The plastic pollution crisis is past the tipping point: our communities, our waterways, and even our bodies are at risk. We are already bearing the cleanup costs of mountains of plastic waste, and it will only get worse for future generations. We have a responsibility to act now before the overwhelming public health, environmental, climate and economic effects of plastic pollution reach the point of no return. Our solutions are not only possible—they are practical and are already being implemented in cities and states across the country, including in my home state of New Mexico. But we need a comprehensive, national strategy to tackle this tidal wave of pollution before it is too late. We must drive the innovation necessary to break free from this unnecessary, toxic waste stream that is also accelerating the destruction of our planet via climate change. This bill calls on all of us, from companies to communities, to address this crisis head-on so that we can create a plastic pollution free world.” – US Senator Tom Udall
In short, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 offers a common-sense, comprehensive systems-based approach to address the plastic pollution crisis. It has tremendous potential to launch our nation’s resources in the right direction— increasing accountability, responsibility, and management efficacy.
Here’s an overview of its key provisions:
Mandating Producer Responsibility
Each time we dispose of packaging materials—whether plastic, paper, glass, or metal; the waste management burden trickles down to the hands of local and state governments. In effect, there is a strong disconnect between the design, production, and waste management phases associated with any given product.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act sets forth requirements for producer responsibility including the development, implementation, and administration of necessary collection and reprocessing programs. This includes co-ops between producers, cleanup efforts through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and investment in recycling and composting infrastructure.
Requiring Nationwide Container Refunds
In practice, offering incentives is a powerful, tangible force for motivating public behavior and cultivating new habits. With that in mind, the act aims to foster circular economics by instituting a requirement under which all beverage containers returned by customers could be redeemed for a 10-cent refund. If unclaimed, the refunds would go back to beverage producers to supplement their investments in collection and recycling infrastructure.
“Beginning in January 2022, some of the most common single-use plastic products that pollute our environment, cannot be recycled, and have readily available alternatives will be source reduced and phased out from sale and distribution” [BFFP Pollution Act].
This will include prohibitions on plastic carryout bags, some food and drink ware, and expanded polystyrene products (aka Styrofoam).
Additionally, federally-funded studies and literature analysis on plastic tobacco filters, electronic cigarette parts and derelict fishing gear would be utilized for the relevant agencies to enact mitigative programs and policies.
Carryout Bag Fee
What’s more effective than incentives? Disincentives— that’s right! Simply stated, the physiological phenomenon of loss aversion suggests that people dislike losses more than they enjoy benefits.
To that effect, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would impose a fee on carryout bags. The resulting profits would be used to fund access to reusable bags, local cleanup efforts and improved recycling infrastructure. Alternatively, a business could retain the fee if they implement an incentive program that credits customers who opt for bringing their own reusable bags.
Minimum Recycled Content Requirement
With a new wave of investment and research being devoted to recycling infrastructure across the nation, there would certainly be a growing supply of recycled plastic for future production. Fittingly, this bill would require an increasing percentage of recycled content in manufactured beverage containers.
It doesn’t stop there! The EPA would also be required to implement recycled content minimums for other products, but the bill acknowledges that this is secondary to review by the National Institute of Standards and Technology on technical feasibility.
Recycling and Composting
Conflicting and out-right misleading labels on packaging have made responsible waste management frustratingly inconsistent and demoralizing for most well-meaning individuals. To address this issue, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act calls for the EPA to develop standardized recycling and composting labels for both products and receptacles to encourage proper sorting and disposal.
Encouraging Domestic Responsibility
Every minute, it is estimated that the equivalent of 60 double-decker busloads of plastic waste are burned or dumped in developing countries. Current rates of mismanagement pose serious health, safety, and environmental risks. Poorly managed waste serves as a breeding ground for disease vectors, contributes to global climate change, and promotes urban violence. Conservative estimates attribute over one-million annual deaths to the adverse health effects of these practices; including diarrhea, malaria, heart disease, and cancer.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act directly prevents the export of plastic waste, scrap and pairings to non-OECD countries who lack the proper resources for management.
Source: World Bank [projected waste generation, by region]
Protecting Existing Action
The significance of this bill is partly attributed to its unparalleled scope. As the first proposed body of federal mandates directly addressing the plastic pollution crisis; this act has the potential to elevate accountability and sustainability in product design, manufacturing, distribution, and waste management.
Motivated by an understanding of the local threats posed by single-use plastics on local economies in coastal communities, the well-being of vulnerable populations exposed to their eco-toxic effects, and the substantial contribution of the plastic life cycle to climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions; states and local governments across the nation have already taken legislative action to address the plastic pollution crisis within the bounds of their reach. Notably, the bill protects state and local governments to enact more stringent standards, requirements, and additional product bans as deemed appropriate.
Pause New Plastic
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act provides valuable time for environmental agencies to “investigate the cumulative impacts of new and expanded plastic-producing facilities on the air, water, climate, and communities before issuing new permits to increase plastic production” [BFFP Pollution Act].
To address the impacts of existing producers, this legislation would update regulations to eliminate plastic pollution coming from their facilities. It would also encourage updates to the Clean Air and Clean Water Act emission and discharge standards to ensure that plastic-producing facilities integrate the latest technology for pollution prevention.
“We are running out of time to deal with this crisis of our own creation, and this legislation is a bold first step on the path to implementing lasting solutions.” – US Senator Tom Udall
Questions about thriving in a plastic-free world, cultivating more sustainable habits, or engaging in local legislative action? Suggestions for future Trash Talk topics? Shoot me an email email@example.com!