Update: Legislators unveil Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act
An illegal dumpsite in Taos County, New Mexico
New Mexico Recycling Coalition

Update: Legislators unveil Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act

The legislation aims to phase out single-use plastic products, hold corporations accountable for wasteful products and reform recycling collection.

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Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California along with Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 Feb. 11, legislation that would phase out unnecessary single-use plastic products, hold corporations accountable for wasteful products, reduce wasteful packaging and reform the nation’s waste and recycling collection system, they say. 

“The plastic pollution crisis is past the tipping point. Our communities, our waterways and even our bodies are at risk,” Udall says. “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,” he continues. “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.”

According to a press release from Udall’s press office, the legislation is co-sponsored by a number of senators and representatives already.

The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act plans to provide national leadership on the issue of reducing plastic pollution and improving recycling collection systems, according to a news release from Udall’s press office. It also aims to shift the burden of cleanup to corporations that produce plastic waste. According to the news release from Udall’s press office, the legislation aims to:

  • require big corporations take responsibility for their pollution, requiring producers of plastic products to design, manage, and finance waste and recycling programs;
  • spur innovation, incentivizing big corporations to make reusable products and items that can be recycled;
  • create a nationwide beverage container refund program, which is successful at the state level;
  • reduce and ban certain single-use plastic products that are not recyclable;
  • establish minimum recycled content requirements for beverage containers, packaging and food-service products, while standardizing recycling and composting labeling; and
  • spur massive investments in U.S. domestic recycling and composting infrastructure, while pressing pause on new plastic facilities until critical environment and health protections are put in place. 

Support and concern for the recycling legislation

Associations and industry groups have mixed views on the proposed legislation. 

The Plastics Industry Association (Plastics), Washington, 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.”

Radoszewski adds that the association thinks that other legislative measures that were previously introduced—including the Realizing the Economic Opportunities and Values of Expanding Recycling (RECOVER) Act, the Recycling Enhancements to Collection and Yield through Consumer Learning and Education (RECYCLE) Act and the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act—provide better approaches to address plastic pollution than the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act.

However, Sarah Pierpont, executive director of the New Mexico Recycling Coalition (NMRC), says that association is supporting the federal legislation, which she says would create a “huge shift in how we manage plastic production, disposal, recycling and accountability” in the United States.

Pierpont reached out to members of the JTR (Jobs Through Recycling) Professional Recyclers Network email list, asking them to consider submitting a letter of support for the legislation to Udall’s office at plastic@tomudall.senate.gov and to Lowenthal’s office at plastic@mail.house.gov. She adds that Udall’s office began reaching out for stakeholder input on this legislation six months ago and has received feedback from more than 200 stakeholders.

She adds that NMRC is compiling a database of plastic pollution images in New Mexico (and across the country) to share with Udall’s office, adding, “These images are a powerful tool to show the destruction plastic can cause in our environment.” 

While Pierpont says the NMRC is “the voice of recycling” in New Mexico, she adds, “yet we understand that the current plastic waste crisis cannot be managed by proper solid waste systems and recycling alone. It is important to stop the flow of new plastic into our environment.”

In the letter the NMRC submitted in support of the legislation, Pierpont writes: “Today, 14 percent of oil and 8 percent of gas is used for the manufacture of petrochemicals, the essential feedstock of plastic production. The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2050, 50 percent of the growth in oil demand will be related to petrochemicals, meaning we are extracting fossil fuels, not for energy but for our plastic soda bottles that we use once.

“And plastic consumption continues to climb, with global plastic production expected to triple by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.”

In her letter, Pierpont states that the proposed legislation “has the promise to turn off the flood of single-use plastic and plastic pollution at the source while holding plastic producers responsible for collecting and recycling materials.”

The letter also states, “To make recycling work, manufacturers must ‘close the loop’ and manufacture new plastic items out of recycled material, not from ethane pumped from wells and piped over America’s waterways and communities to plastic manufacturing facilities. The proposed legislation would require plastic beverage containers to include an increasing percentage of recycled content in their product before it enters the market. This creates a domestic market for our recycled plastic materials.” 

Pierpont says the proposed legislation would require producers of covered products to design, manage and finance programs to collect and process end-of-life products that would normally burden state and local governments. “Producers will cover the costs of waste management and cleanup, as well as awareness raising measures for covered products, which includes packaging, containers, paper and food-service products, regardless of the recyclability, compostability and type of material,” she adds.

The legislation also would institute a 10-cent national refund requirement for all beverage containers, regardless of material, to be refunded to customers when they return containers.

Additionally, some single-use plastic products, such as plastic carryout bags, expanded polystyrene food and drinkware and plastic utensils would be phased out of sale and distribution if the legislation is adopted.

The proposed legislation also would introduce a fee on the distribution of carryout bags and set minimum recycled content requirements for plastic beverage containers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be required to implement postconsumer minimum recycled content for other covered products and material types after the National Institute of Standards and Technology conducted a review to determine technical feasibility, according to the bill.

The bill would prevent plastic scrap from being exported from the U.S. to non-Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, which can be sources of ocean plastics because of insufficient waste management infrastructure.

Finally, the legislation would temporarily halt permitting for new or expanded virgin plastics production facilities so environmental agencies can investigate impacts on the environment and communities.

Pierpont writes in her JTR post, “Please let me know if you have any questions about NMRC’s support of this proposed legislation, plastic waste, recycling in New Mexico and how this legislation will help New Mexico’s sustainable materials management/recycling programs.” She can be contacted at 505-603-0558 or at sarah@recyclenewmexico.com.