While growing concern over plastic pollution and climate change is prompting new legislation at the city and state levels, single-use plastic bans and extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations may soon be passed at the federal level as well. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) recently circulated a discussion draft of a bill that amends the Solid Waste Disposal Act, originally passed in 1965. Specifically, the proposed law would ban certain single-use plastics, institute a 10-cent nationwide container deposit, place a moratorium on new plastics facilities, and require producers and users of plastics to take responsibility for collecting and recycling materials.
As written, the bill requires companies that produce certain products to pay for and coordinate the recycling collection, sorting, and cleanup of any plastic waste associated with their products. While that would be a major shift for the U.S. market, we are the only industrial country that does not require industry to share the responsibility of recycling programs, according to Claire Koelsch Sand, a board member of the Institute of Food Technologists and owner of Packaging Technology and Research, a consulting group based in Stillwater, Minn. “The proposed legislation is in line with what global companies, packaging suppliers, and consumers have employed effectively to fund collection and sorting since the early 1990s,” she says. “The technology and logistical roadmaps are there for rapid adoption in the U.S.”
Others in the field note that the topic of recycling programs shouldn’t be about pointing fingers in terms of who pays. “This is a shared responsibility between municipalities, consumers, and industry,” says Nina Goodrich, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and executive director of GreenBlue, a nonprofit organization focused on sustainability based in Charlottesville, Va. “We need to build awareness in the community and to recognize that all pieces of the value chain have some level of responsibility.”
Industry Response to Plastic Pollution Problem
Without federal regulations, industry has approached the problem of plastic waste in a number of ways. In the 1990s, designers streamlined packaging to use as little plastic as possible. Next, the industry experimented with alternative materials such as metal, glass, and paper, which also proved problematic in terms of their carbon footprint. “Material switches are like moving deck chairs while the Titanic is sinking,” says Sand, pointing out that transporting heavy yet recyclable glass bottles, for example, results in unwanted carbon emissions.
Industry has also experimented with using biodegradable materials—think six-pack rings made of barley and wheat remnants that are a byproduct of the brewing process—although those might introduce more problems than they solve. “First, it’s never a good idea to intentionally create packaging that’s litter friendly,” says Goodrich. “Second, ‘biodegradable’ is a very vague term that doesn’t have time or temperature boundaries that can be proven,” she adds.
Compostable containers may be a good solution in closed systems such as stadiums where a large quantity can be composted in a controlled environment. However, composting also creates greenhouse gases, creating other unintended environmental consequences, notes Sand.
A New Focus
The latest approach focuses on the hurdle of collection and sorting. To that end, industry has recently made great strides in its understanding of what interferes with the ability of a material to be sorted or reprocessed. “You may start out with a 100-percent recyclable PET bottle but then add a metal closure on a cap or use ink, coatings, adhesives, or labels that aren’t recyclable, and that product goes straight into residual trash,” says Goodrich, adding that the Association of Plastic Recyclers offers resources that pinpoint which label manufacturers have passed the organization’s critical guidance tests.