Plastics Legislation: 2021

HR 5845, otherwise known as the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, is one of the major pieces of plastics legislation to reach Congress in 2020, with an updated 2021 version being reintroduced this year. (The full text of the 2020 bill is available here)

The bill seeks to address our plastic pollution problem by targeting single-use plastic products and packaging, and requiring greater responsibility on the part of manufacturers in finding a proper recycling solution.

Details of the Bill

Producer Responsibility

A large part of the bill focuses on producer responsibility. Producers are to form organizations overseen by an advisory committee consisting of parties such as recyclers, composters, public and private organization members, etc. that manage their recycling, producing, and reporting efforts. Organizations will be responsible for collection of waste material either through curbside pickups, drop-offs, or agreements with other third-party entities.

Areas in which funding will be required will be towards collection coordination, product redesigns to reduce waste, and the development of recycling and composting infrastructure.

Each organization will be required to submit a Product Stewardship Plan where they lay out the parties involved, the funding breakdown, performance targets, education plans, compliance plans, management practices, and any plans for transitioning to reusable goods. The bill establishes some minimum requirements for the performance targets (available here) which sets some minimum recycled content standards that all organizations must abide by. In addition, organizations are required to establish plans for education and outreach around recycling, composting, and general waste management.

As a means for accountability, each organization will need to produce an annual report documenting the amount of plastic goods they sold, and subsequently were able to recycle, providing additional details such as the final destination of the waste, any contamination that entered the stream, and efforts made to reduce environmental impacts throughout the material lifecycle.

Single-Use Plastics

As stated in this bill, retail and service establishments will be banned from providing customers with single-use plastic bags. There still exist exemptions to the definition of “single-use plastic” bags; for instance produce bags that are used in supermarkets are exempt from this ban.

Additionally, establishments will be banned from providing or selling single-use plastic utensils, and cannot provide plastic straws to customers unless explicitly requested. This bill maintains this exception for the purposes of providing access to those with disabilities who may require plastic straws. There is an additional clause that states that if the National Council on Disability and other advocates deem an alternative material as sufficient, plastic straws will be completely banned. Additionally, the sale of plastic straws in bulk will still be permitted.

Recycling and Composting

This bill sets a minimum requirement of recycled content to be used in the production of plastic beverage containers. It additionally establishes the need for a study to determine how much post-consumer plastic would be safe to incorporate into food-grade plastic containers.

Establishments will be required to reconsider the design of the products in order to reduce the environmental impacts and improve waste management conditions of said products. This could be done by incorporating more recycled materials, using more renewably sourced materials, reducing the amount of material required altogether, etc.

Additionally, more clear labeling standards will be established such that consumers will have less confusion over whether or not the products they are purchasing are recyclable or compostable. A key change here would be to remove the chasing arrows symbol from any product that is not recyclable to eliminate consumer confusion.

Finally, export of plastic waste that is overly contaminated or not properly sorted to other countries will be banned.

Additional Provisions in the 2021 Version

The updated version of this bill released in March 2021 builds off of the 2020 bill with some additional provisions around waste export loopholes, establishing more aggressive timelines for recycled content minimums, and language around microfiber and microplastic pollution, etc.

Our Thoughts on the Bill

This sounds like a pretty solid bill that definitely has good intentions. The idea of making the producers of our plastic goods take part in finding a solution to the disposal of those products is a great way to keep them responsible and engaged. The Product Stewardship Plan and the subsequent annual reporting in theory appears to be a good way to keep all involved parties accountable towards their sustainability goals.

We especially like the idea of incorporating a need for education and outreach, since it’s very clear that many of us just don’t have enough information around what happens to our waste or even what goes into making all of the things we use on a daily basis. More education and mutual understanding is definitely a good thing. The one hesitance here would be that we need to ensure that the onus of recycling and waste management not be put on the general public as has been done in the past. Yes, we all can do our part and contribute to better recycling efforts in our communities, but the producers are going to be the major players here who will have the largest impact and who are more well equipped than the average person to handle recycling the scale at which we need it to be addressed.

The main outstanding issue here is accountability. For years we’ve heard about large companies making wide sweeping sustainability commitments only to have those efforts go dark with very little change. While we’re hopeful that these legal requirements and reporting efforts will go a longer way in establishing better practices for manufacturers, it remains to be seen whether or not these large corporations will truly follow suit. The penalties established in this bill are minor slaps on the wrist and essentially nothing to large corporations, so without a little more teeth, it may be difficult to say whether or not large manufacturers would be willing to make the effort.

As far as the efforts around single-use plastics go, this is relatively standard to those of us living in California where single-use plastic bags are already banned, and where many retailers have already switched over to paper or other material straws. We like that the bill contains a clause in which retailers should maintain an inventory of plastic straws for customers who request them. As we mentioned in our blog post about the plastic straw ban, this effort was an ableist movement that took very little if any consideration for those who may actually require plastic straws to aid their food consumption.

As we established in our plastic straw ban blog post, we are not advocates of entirely banning “single-use” plastic straws, particularly because we believe they have the potential to no longer be “single-use” since our technology enables us to recycle them. We will reiterate, however, that we support all efforts for sustainable living. If you can go without a plastic straw, please do; but we also encourage you to apply that kind of mentality to all aspects of material consumption.

This point does bring us to one part of the bill that we believe is lacking in substance. The Recycling and Composting section of the bill establishes minimum recycled content standards in plastic products (notable beverage containers), discusses education and consistent labeling around what is or isn’t recyclable, and establishes restrictions on the export of plastic waste to other countries. It doesn’t, however, determine any sort of dedicated plan to improving our recycling and composting infrastructure. Infrastructure gets some mention throughout the bill as part of the Stewardship Plan details; however, without set guidelines or expectations, which the bill could have provided, it’s difficult to say what kinds of effort will be put into improving the infrastructure in execution. One of the major reasons for why we have such an enormous plastic pollution problem globally is simply because not enough funding and effort has been dedicated toward finding an effective solution. The recycling infrastructure in our country alone is limited to years-old optical sorting technology, which only gets us so far as bales of sorted plastic to be shipped off elsewhere for the actual recycling to be done (or not done).

As a company that has made it our mission to make plastic pollution the solution, we’ve been operating within an environment that is extremely apathetic to our cause. We all know there’s a plastic problem, but we don’t care enough to invest in efforts that will actually address them. In this respect, this bill is just another plastic straw ban but at a larger scale. It’s a band-aid solution that believes the answer to our plastic problem is to simply reduce all the ways in which we rely on it.

There are some great policy initiatives nestled in this bill, and if overseen properly, can do a lot of good by way of making manufacturers more conscious of their effect on the environment. But if we truly want to tackle this behemoth that is plastic, we’re going to need some real, detailed, and accountable changes in our country’s recycling infrastructure.

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