A large piece of plastic waste lays on the shore of Sears Island on Wednesday after a spill occurred from a ship from Northern Ireland. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

WASHINGTON – Legislation that would require plastic packaging producers to create and pay for recycling programs will be reintroduced Thursday as part of an effort by Democratic lawmakers to stem the millions of tons of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans every year.

Backers of the bill by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., say they are hopeful for movement with Democrats now in control of the Senate and Merkley taking over as chairman of a key subcommittee. The bill did not get a committee vote in the previous Congress.

At a March 18 hearing on ecological threats from plastic pollution by the House Appropriations Interior-Environment Subcommittee, Chairwoman Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said the tools for addressing plastic waste are available now.

“But unless we substantially increase the ambition and scale, the problem will only grow worse as pollution growth outpaces solutions,” Pingree said.

The Merkley-Lowenthal measure is expected to include a requirement that the companies that make plastic packaging also design and finance recycling programs, often referred to as an “extended producer responsibility” approach.

Nicole Collier, senior director of corporate affairs at Nestle, the largest food and beverage company in the world, said at the appropriations hearing that her company and a number of competitors support a producer responsibility approach.

The company has set a target to make 100 percent of its packaging reusable or recyclable by 2025 and to reduce its use of new plastic by one-third in that time, she said.

“We realize that systemic change is needed to achieve our packaging goals and prevent recyclable materials from being sent to landfills and to increase the amount of recycled material that is collected and processed in the U.S. and made available for reuse,” Collier said.

The bill also would establish a national container deposit system, in which those selling sodas and other beverages are required to include a refund price on every container.

Among other provisions: a ban on certain single-use products, minimum requirements for recycled content and a pause on new plastic production facilities.

Waste management

Those making the plastic say the real problem is not with their products but waste management systems that allow discarded items into the environment.

They say they are open to improvements in waste management and more resources to accelerate the development of advanced recycling, but oppose government mandates aimed at curtailing production.

“Bans never work, innovation does,” Joshua Baca, vice president of the American Chemistry Council’s plastics division, said during a Tuesday press call with industry leaders criticizing the proposed legislation.

They said plastic in the environment is never acceptable but that the legislation would hinder development of advanced recycling facilities.

They extolled the virtues of plastic to health and public safety during the ongoing pandemic, to reducing food waste and making lighter products that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Winnie Lau, senior manager for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ preventing ocean plastics project, testified at the hearing that the world has yet to get a handle on what is an ever-mounting problem.

Pew estimates that without action, the amount of annual plastic pollution is expected to triple by 2040, she said, and that will mean four times as much plastic in the ocean as there is today.

Only 15 percent of global plastic waste is recycled now.

One reason for that is the many different kinds of plastic in circulation have to be separated, which is expensive. The use of recycled plastic can cost more than making new or “virgin” plastic, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Lau said recycling needs to be part of any solution, but won’t be enough to get the job done by itself.

The solution has to include eliminating avoidable plastic usage and moving to new containers that can be reused rather than discarded, she said.

“We simply will not be able to recycle our way out of this problem,” she said.

Yvette Arellano, founder and director of Fenceline Watch, a Houston-based environmental justice organization, said that’s why the legislation being introduced this week is important, particularly its pause on new plastic production facilities. Once plastic is created it’s hard to eliminate, she said.

“If we can stop it at the source, that’s what’s going to be the most preventative,” Arellano said.

Story by Joseph Morton.