A bipartisan bill to boost plastics recycling could soon find its way to the president’s desk, but a more controversial package is dividing lawmakers and stakeholders.
A multi-track effort is afoot in the House to rein in the staggering 8 million tons of plastic dumped into oceans each year.
Lawmakers in the lower chamber are now preparing to take up legislation dubbed Save Our Seas 2.0, which sailed through the Senate earlier this month to the applause of Republicans, Democrats, and The Washington Post editorial board.
That bill aims to boost recycling technologies through a “Genius Prize,” while also charging the diplomatic corps with a global effort to prevent plastic pollution and incentivizing ship operators to collect plastic found at sea.
A new Republican strategy on environment policy bodes well for those policies. But Save Our Seas 2.0, the second iteration of plastic-pollution legislation led by Sens. Dan Sullivan and Sheldon Whitehouse, is largely noncontroversial and cautious.
“This is an important step, not the end of our work,” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, the sponsor of the House companion bill, told National Journal.
Lawmakers across the aisle and Capitol will soon have to position themselves on a far more controversial package—one that is praised by advocates against plastic pollution and denounced by industry and recyclers.
Rep. Alan Lowenthal and Sen. Tom Udall are set to introduce legislation in February that would, according to a staffer for Lowenthal, force plastic producers to set up coalitions to collect and recycle plastics, akin to a system underway in Canada’s British Columbia province. The bill will also establish national container and deposit rules for beverage distributors.
And a ban on some single-use plastics, including carryout bags, is triggering some of the most pointed opposition from industry groups.
“While we agree that plastic waste must be addressed, domestic bans of otherwise completely recyclable materials will not solve our country’s waste management issues,” John Grant, a top lobbyist for the Plastics Industry Association, said in a statement. The association declined a request for an interview.
The plastic-recycling rate in the U.S. is just 8.4 percent annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent analysis. Environmental experts say new plastic production is often much cheaper—but more energy-intensive and polluting—than recycling.
Rock-bottom prices for natural gas, a critical input to plastics, are bolstering the plastics industry, and fossil-fuel producers are increasingly eyeing petrochemical and plastic production as a fallback amid growing pressure to curtail energy-related greenhouse-gas emissions.
But another core component of the Lowenthal-Udall legislation is attracting both intrigue and concern: a potential ban on plastics exports to non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.
“The export restrictions are a critical element of this legislation. They are important to not only build up a domestic recycling infrastructure, but also necessary from an international human rights and environmental-justice standpoint,” Lowenthal said. “These are nations that simply do not have the infrastructure to be able to handle not just the volume, but also the longer-term impacts.”
Despite evidence that mismanaged recycling practices in China and other Asian countries led to mass plastic dumping, exports constituted roughly 40 percent of the 8.4 percent U.S. recycling rate in 2017, according to Jan Dell, an independent engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup.
“There’s no way we can keep blaming other countries for plastic pollution while we keep sending them our plastic waste,” Dell said. “We’re causing the problem and hurting their efforts to stop by continuing to export.”
At least 88 percent of river-borne ocean pollution flows from 10 rivers mostly in Asia, including critical waterways like the Yangtze, Yellow, and Mekong, according to analysis of a 2017 study. China, traditionally the most popular destination for U.S. plastic-waste exports, closed its doors on the trade at the outset of 2018 as part of the country’s National Sword policy.
Now, U.S. plastic-waste exports are headed to some of the globe’s poorest countries, where recycling infrastructure is limited and some primitive recycling practices threaten public health. Those countries include Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, Dell’s research shows. Meanwhile, a 2015 study ranked the U.S. at 20th globally for mismanaged plastic waste, meaning Americans are also contributing significantly to plastic pollution.
China isn’t the only country cracking down on the plastic-waste trade. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is vowing to end plastic-waste exports altogether. The United Kingdom is planning to push legislation to ban plastic exports to non-OECD countries.
But much of the exported U.S. plastic waste is successfully recycled. And the U.S. recycling industry is coming out in opposition to export restrictions ahead of the Lowenthal-Udall-bill release.
“Recycling will happen if there’s a market,” said Adina Renee Adler, senior director for international relations at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. “A lot of this is on the manufacturing industry. We try to encourage companies to use more recycled plastic in products and make more products that can be easily recycled.”
Just last week, Nestlé announced it will invest more than $2 billion to shift from virgin plastic to food-grade recycled plastics. Pepsi and Walmart, along with other companies, have also made recycling commitments.
But Judith Enck, an advocate against plastic pollution and former EPA regional administrator, says the Lowenthal-Udall package is the only legislation with the teeth to tackle a daunting plastics crisis.
“The problem with Save Our Seas and a lot of the other things being considered in Washington is they propel the myth that we can recycle our way out of the plastic-pollution problem,” Enck said.
“They’re just like 20 years behind the times in terms of what the real issues are related to plastic.”