EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — When it comes to the ever-growing problem of plastic waste and what to do about it, state legislators are hoping there is strength in numbers. On Monday, lawmakers from nine states, including California, joined forces to hold producers of plastic packaging responsible for the waste they generate.
“Pollution doesn’t know state boundaries. A piece of plastic, a poorly-thought-out, manufactured, single-use item that flows into California can easily end up in the waterways of Colorado. Maryland’s problem is also New Hampshire’s problem. Washington state is not separate from Oregon,” said Henry Stern (D-Malibu), a California state senator and board member of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators — a nonprofit that represents 1,000 lawmakers in all 50 states.
On Monday, Stern was one of ten state legislators who introduced the formation of a National Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging Legislator Network in the hopes that a more synchronized, uniform, and interstate approach to so-called EPR legislation would be easier for industry to implement.
Already, EPR programs exist for a variety of products, including paint, carpet, mattresses, batteries, and pharmaceuticals, but not for plastic. While EPR legislation takes many forms, at its most basic level, it shifts the burden of collecting and sorting product packaging to the manufacturers who created it, and adds the environmental cost of those products to the price people pay for those goods at the time of purchase. The goal is to simultaneously reduce the amount of waste that is landfilled or incinerated while encouraging more reusable and less hazardous materials.
Last year, a California bill called the Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act narrowly failed in the California legislature, but it is back for another go-round in 2021. Designed to increase plastic producers’ responsibility to reduce waste at its source, and to ensure the materials they use are fully and truly reusable, recycle, or compostable, SB 54, as it’s known, could go before the legislature again this summer. A similar citizen-backed initiative is also slated to be put before California voters as a ballot measure in 2022.
“We’re trying to reinvigorate the recycling market and say to producers: you can keep producing products, but you have to do it in a more environmentally friendly way. It has to be compostable, reusable, or recyclable,” said the bill’s co-author, Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica). “Will it be captured and turned into another product? If not, come up with a different approach.”
Curbside recycling in the U.S. currently recovers only 32% of available recyclables in single-family homes, according to the 2020 State of Curbside Recycling report from the nonprofit group, The Recycling Partnership. What is collected for recycling has wildly varying rates of actually being recycled because it isn’t cost efficient or is too contaminated or lacks a buyer. Just 27% of glass, 16% of paper packaging, and 9% of plastics are recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Last year, 35 states introduced legislation to tackle the plastic pollution crisis, according to the NCEL. And on Monday, lawmakers from nine states shared legislative initiatives targeting extended producer responsibility.
In Oregon, HB2592 would make producers responsible for all costs of the waste they produce, including collection, transportation, management, and litter cleanup, by charging them fees based on how long a product is designed to last and how easy it is to recycle. Hawaii is considering H1316 to require that packaging producers take responsibility for their waste through fees and annual reports detailing environmentally sound waste management plans.
“In Hawaii, an island and ocean state, we don’t have many options for in-state recycling,” said Hawaii Representative Nicole Lowen. “We ship it to other countries, and it’s unclear how much of what we think we’re recycling is actually recycled and at what cost to human health. Local recycling programs are not a singular solution to the problem.”
In Washington, SB5022 would require that packaging made from plastic and other materials be 90% reused or recycled by 2040. In Maryland, HB0036 would require producers of certain packaging, containers, and paper products to submit a stewardship plan to the state by October, 2022, and would prohibit a producer from selling products covered under the bill without an approved stewardship plan by 2024.
“We’re in alignment with the objective of what all the stakeholders are trying to do: figure out how to get more packaging materials out of landfills and the ocean and back into commerce as feedstock for new products, but the devil is in the details,” said Tim Shestek, the American Chemistry Council’s senior director of state affairs for the West Coast.
While the Council has committed to 100% of plastic packaging being recyclable or recoverable by 2030, Shestek said, “we want to figure out how do we set policy that is fair, that doesn’t unnecessarily raise prices for consumers, that makes sure the focus is on the broad packaging stream, not just plastic, because if you develop an EPR program just for plastic, you have a possibility of distorting the market and shifting folks into other materials that may have unintended environmental impacts that cost more to produce in terms of water or greenhouse gases.
“We’re supportive of a comprehensive approach to packaging regulatory requirements,” he added, “but we want to make sure they’re feasible to implement.”
A federal EPR bill is also in the works called the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. Introduced by California Representative Alan Lowenthal in February 2020, the bill would phase out a variety of single-use products including plastic utensils. It would also make producers of certain products fiscally responsible for collecting, managing, and recycling or composting the products after consumer use. And it would require minimum percentages of products that must be reused, recycled, or composted, as well as an increasing percentage of recycled content in beverage containers.
“What you’re going to see beyond extended producer responsibility is a broader movement of interstate coalitions that aren’t simply waiting on Congress to act,” Stern said. “State legislators are the tip of the spear in preventing environmental injustices from befalling our communities and our waterways.”
EPR programs, according to the NCEL, are an opportunity to reimagine the country’s recycling programs by facing the reality of their failure.
From the early 1990s through 2017, China handled almost half of the world’s recyclables; the U.S. alone sent China 7 million tons of plastic annually. But that changed in 2018, when China banned the import of almost all plastics and other recyclables, diverting them to local landfills and incinerators and developing nations that were ill equipped for the deluge.
Plastic pollution is not an easy problem to fix.
“The plastic industry is getting ready to take off even more,” said Bucknell University environmental economist, Thomas Kinnaman. “Whatever you have that’s not made of plastic, our whole world will be made of plastic soon — double, triple the amount of plastic they’re producing right now.”