Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act a Bold New Step to End Plastic Pollution

Ocean Pollution – Floating Bags and human plastic waste in the open ocean. 3D illustration.

Yesterday Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which after months of build-up​ will kick off what is likely to be a heated fight over the legislation. The bill would shift the onus of managing plastic waste to producers of plastic bottles, packaging and assorted items, along with creating a national container deposit system.

While there were no Republican co-sponsors of the bill, it’s the most comprehensive plastic pollution legislation to date and an important step in moving the responsibility of waste management away from struggling municipalities and to the companies that sell plastic in the first place.

Why This Bill Is Different: As Waste Dive reported, “the act comes in the midst of a significant uptick in federal legislation focused on waste and recycling.

  • Several of the bills currently in play are popular with industry, thanks to their focus on issues such as infrastructure and education.
  • But the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act homes in on supply chain issues more directly, a contrast the lawmakers emphasized.
  • Along with Lowenthal, Udall argued the other bills have largely been supplied by industry, including the “Save Our Seas 2.0” Act, which focuses on plastics at the end of their lifecycle.

“Ours is the only bill in Congress that deals with the source of the problem,” Senator Udall said on a call with reporters.

What’s In It: As the New York Times explained, the act would increase the nation’s meager recycling rates through measures such as,

  • A national “bottle bill” that would incentivize people to return their empty soda and water bottles by providing a 10 cent refund for each bottle.
  • It would also require companies that produce and sell food service and plastic packaging to pay for the waste collection, a burden that now falls primarily on taxpayers.

The bill also calls for a pause on creating new plastic producing plants, which have been a boon for the oil and gas industry and a job generator in states like Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania.

Additionally, as Waste Dive explained, certain types of plastics increasingly under fire due to their low recyclability rates and potential for pollution would also be banned beginning January 2022:

  • This would include plastic carryout bags; expanded polystyrene “food service products” and shipping materials; plastic stirrers and utensils; single-use bottles for shampoo and other hotel toiletries; and “non-compostable” produce stickers.
  • Plastic straws would also be limited, but still available upon request. Relevant federal agencies would moreover be tasked with proposing measures to reduce the environmental impacts of plastic tobacco filters, electronic cigarette parts and derelict fishing gear.

Reaction From the Plastics Industry: The American Chemistry Council took issue with this bill as they have championed the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act which is far more industry-friendly. They responded to the introduction of the Udall/Lowenthal bill by saying,

“Suggestions, such as a moratorium on new plastic facilities, would limit domestic manufacturing growth, jobs, tax revenues for local communities, and other benefits. Society needs plastics to live more sustainably….Thus the moratorium and bans on plastic products are likely to increase environmental impacts while limiting access to a material that enables society to do more with less.”

Why This Matters: Our planet is literally drowning in plastic. Humans ingest thousands of microplastic particles each day, and we still have very little understanding of how this impacts our health. While we rely on plastic for its convenience, durability, and even for its use in medical products, we are finding it from the bottom of the Mariana Trench to the top of Mt. Everest. Despite what the plastics industry says, recycling as it’s been proposed since the mid-20th century does not work so long as the makers of plastic do not own their products at end of life.

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