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 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
Incentives are a powerful force for motivating changes in individual and corporate practices. With that in mind, this bill proposes a requirement for customers to be eligible for a 10 cent refund in return for used beverage containers. If unclaimed, the refunds would go back to beverage producers to supplement their investments in collection and recycling infrastructure.
The bill also sets important benchmarks for changes in production and consumption: “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.”
This will include prohibitions on plastic carryout bags, some food and drink containers, and expanded polystyrene products (also known as Styrofoam).
Additionally, the bill calls for federally-funded studies and literature analysis on plastic tobacco filters, electronic cigarette parts, and derelict fishing gear to guide federal agencies in enacting pollution mitigation policies.
Carryout Bag Fee
What’s more effective than incentives? Disincentives— that’s right! This boils down to a principle of behavioral economics called loss aversion: people dislike losses more than they enjoy benefits.
As a disincentive for consumers to use fewer plastic bags, the bill proposes a fee on carryout bags. The money generated by this fee 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, this bill intends to support a growth in the supply of recycled plastic. The minimum recycled content requirement would mandate for beverage containers, such as plastic bottles, to be produced with a certain percentage of recycled content. This threshold would be set to increase overtime so that producers are constantly being encouraged to use less virgin plastic.
The EPA would also be required to implement recycled content minimums for other products, but this is dependent on assessment of technological feasibility by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Recycling and Composting
Conflicting and out-right misleading labels on packaging have made responsible waste management frustratingly inconsistent and demoralizing for most well-meaning consumers. 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 doubledecker busloads of plastic waste are burned or dumped in developing countries. Current rates of mismanagement due to exploitative trade policies pose serious health, safety, and environmental risks beyond our borders. Poorly managed waste serves as a breeding ground for vector-borne diseases, contributes to global climate change, and has even been found to increase rates of violence in urban areas. Conservative estimates attribute over one-million annual deaths to the adverse health effects of these practices.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act addresses the export of plastic waste, scraps, and pairings to non-OECD countries.
Source: World Bank [projected waste generation, by region]
Protecting Existing Action
One of the reasons that this bill is a significant achievement for plastic waste reduction advocates is its unmatched scope. We have never seen a body of federal legislation proposed to directly address the plastic pollution crisis; any existing progress has been the result of market-based changes or efforts from lower levels of government. This Act has the potential to elevate accountability and sustainability in product design, manufacturing, distribution, and waste management in much more comprehensive way.
“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
Although we have not seen any federal action on these issues, state and local governments have already enacted legislation to address the plastic pollution crisis within the bounds of their reach. Many of these local officials have been motivated by a more intimate understanding of the threats posed by single-use plastics on local economies in coastal communities, poor health outcomes for vulnerable populations exposed to their eco-toxic effects, and the substantial contribution of the plastic life cycle to heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. Importantly, this bill protects state and local governments’ previous actions. It also supports their enactment of more stringent standards, requirements, and product bans as deemed appropriate.
Pause New Plastic
Finally, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act provides time for federal 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.”
To address the impacts of existing producers, this legislation would call for the EPA to update regulations for the elimination of plastic pollution from industrial 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.