Federal legislation focuses on plastics, recycling
From left: Steve Alexander of the APR; Jonathan Black, senior policy advisor to Sen. Udall; and Sarah Peery, the legislative assistant to Sen. Portman, at the 2020 Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show
DeAnne Toto

Federal legislation focuses on plastics, recycling

Steve Alexander of the Association of Plastic Recycling says policy must play a role in enhancing the U.S. recycling system.

February 25, 2020

Legislation that has been introduced at the federal level seeks to address deficiencies in U.S. recycling infrastructure, with one targeting grants for recycling education and the other taking a more comprehensive approach with a heavy focus on regulating single-use plastics.

Negative press

Recycling has been receiving a great deal of national and local press recently, and the coverage oftentimes is critical or skeptical, particularly when it comes to plastics. Recent headlines include “Most plastics in our recycling bins aren't getting recycled, new report finds” and “America’s 'recycled' plastic waste is clogging landfills, survey finds.”

Both stories were about a review of America’s recycling system by Greenpeace USA, Washington. The organization says it surveyed 367 material recovery facilities (MRFs) and found that only polyethylene terephthalate (PET, or No. 1) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE, or No. 2) plastic bottles and jugs should “legitimately be labeled as recyclable by consumer goods companies and retailers”  according to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requirements.

The FTC says brands can include recyclability claims on their packaging when recycling facilities are available to at least 60 percent of consumers or communities where the item is sold.

The survey found that plastics Nos. 3-7 cannot be labeled as recyclable because they have low acceptance by MRFs, minimal to negative material value and negligible processing capacity in the U.S. “Consumers cannot ‘check locally’ on recyclability for Nos. 3-7 plastics, as many labels instruct, because those plastics are being sent to landfill or incinerator,” Greenpeace states in a news release about the survey.

The Washington-based Plastics Industry Association (Plastics), has responded to the Greenpeace report saying it is “part of a targeted campaign against the nearly 1 million Americans employed by the plastics industry.”

Plastics adds that the U.S. lacks sufficient recycling infrastructure for all materials. “However, life-cycle analyses consistently show that, on the whole, plastics are more environmentally beneficial than alternative material—and even more so when they are successfully recycled into new materials,” the trade association says.

Plastics says it supports legislation like the Realizing the Economic Opportunities and Values of Expanding Recycling (RECOVER) Act, which would allocate funds to recycling infrastructure improvement, and the Recycling Enhancements to Collection and Yield through Consumer Learning and Education (RECYCLE) Act, which was introduced by U.S. Sens. Rob Portman and Debbie Stabenow and would create a new federal grant program through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help educate households and consumers about their residential and community recycling programs.

Recycling’s role in plastic sustainability

Steve Alexander is CEO of the Washington-based Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), which hosted the Plastics Recycling Conference in association with Resource Recycling Inc., which the APR owns. During the National Legislation in the Spotlight session, he said the APR is “trying to bring facts to the marketplace” regarding plastics recycling and that demand is needed to support plastics recycling. “We need to enhance demand for material, and we need to increase the value.”

The APR introduced its Recycling Demand Champions program in the last decade. The program’s members commit to purchase new volumes of PCR through “work in process” (WIP) durable goods or other applications, thereby playing a prominent role in expanding the market for mixed residential plastics, driving investment, increasing supply and producing more high-quality PCR, the association says.

To add value to postconsumer resin (PCR), APR is introducing a certification program that would give consumers of PCR a third-party endorsement of the material, Alexander said. The second phase of the program will be aimed at certifying the percentage of PCR used by a brand.

“Plastics recycling is the sustainability solution to plastic packaging,” Alexander said. “Without recycling, sustainability doesn’t happen.

With that in mind, he said the APR is beginning to understand that policy must play a role in enhancing the U.S. recycling system.

Targeting single-use plastics

The RECYCLE Act and the more controversial Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act were the focus of a plenary session titled National Legislation in the Spotlight at the 2020 Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show, which was Feb. 17-19 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Alan Lowenthal introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act to the Senate and House in mid-February.

In response to the legislation, Greenpeace Plastics Campaigner Kate Melges says, “This legislation is a game-changer because it comprehensively tackles the issue of single-use plastics. For too long, corporations have diverted blame for the plastic pollution crisis they have created. They have told us that if we just recycle more or participate in beach cleanups that we can turn this around. That has not worked. It is time to end our reliance on single-use plastics and prevent petrochemical companies from locking us into decades of additional plastic production.”

Plastics’ has expressed concerns about the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020.

“The title of this bill suggests it is more interested in garnering headlines than it is in finding solutions,” says Tony Radoszewski, president and CEO of Plastics. “Plastics only account for 13 percent of municipal solid waste in the U.S. Any effort to specifically target plastic materials—that after life cycle analysis, prove to be more environmentally desirable than other materials—would be misguided at best and harmful at worst.”

Jonathan Black, senior policy adviser to Sen. Udall said the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act touches on four areas: package design for recyclability, increased demand for recycled content, recycling infrastructure and consumer behavior.

“While bans are in vogue, something more comprehensive is needed,” he added. “Plastic is a very valuable tool that has gotten a bad rap, but there are products and processes that are attracting a lot of negative attention.”

The bill includes a source-reduction component that targets plastic items that are not widely recyclable and damaging to recycling machinery and for which alternatives are available, Black said.

It also would introduce producer responsibility for all forms of packaging. When it comes to recycling, he said, producers look to everyone else and don’t have financial or other responsibilities. The proposed legislation would set strong recycling targets and get producers invested, Black said.

It also would introduce a national container deposit program modeled after Oregon’s bottle bill, he said. A 10-cent refund would be placed on beverage containers regardless of the material they are made of.

The bill also spells out postconsumer recycled content targets for plastic beverage bottles that would grow from 25 percent by 2025 to 80 percent by 2040.

In its current form, the bill places a ban on plastic scrap exports to developing countries, though export would be permitted to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. Black said we should be building these processes in the U.S. as they provide employment and other benefits.  

Perhaps the most controversial part of the bill is the temporary pause it would place on new plastic production facilities if enacted in its current form. Black says the U.S. is “building new plastic production like gangbusters,” and the bill would put that on hold for up to three years while the EPA and other federal agencies studied the impacts of this new production and updated regulations as needed.

He said the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act as introduced “is not a final product,” adding that he believed the bill would move in whole or in part through Congress.

Targeting education

Sarah Peery, the legislative assistant to Sen. Portman, acknowledged the many benefits of recycling, including job creation, waste reduction emission reduction and pollution prevention.

However, she added that the EPA estimates the U.S. recycling rate to be only 35 percent and that nearly $9 billion in recyclables are landfilled annually.

Peery said consumer confusion is one of the top recycling challenges, affecting the participation rate and contamination, adding that Congress can play a role in recycling education.

The RECYCLE Act would authorize $15 million in competitive grants over five years for consumer education. It also would direct the EPA to create a model recycling program toolkit for grantees and require the EPA to more frequently review its Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines, revising them as needed.

“One of the best ways to hold a parent accountable is to teach the child at school about recycling,” Peery said. For this reason, the RECYCLE Act would target recycling education for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs.