The phrase to remember from 2021 may be Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR. Whether it is a reaction to the Pandemic Plastic of 2020, with its explosion of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Styrofoam Clamshell takeout containers, or the realization that our plastic waste doesn’t magically disappear, bills to make polluters pay have been introduced on the state and federal level.
Even before the plastic documentaries and PBS Frontline reports of the past two years aired, the plastic pollution crisis became my personal cause during a stay at Buffalo General in 2018. While there, the news reports were all focused on the Chinese National Sword policy which stopped our plastic waste exports to China. I had suspected that recycling was not working prior to this after a trip the previous summer to see my daughter in Savannah, GA. The ocean-freighter docks were overfilled with bales of used plastic, with our Savannah River tour guide pointing out that the numbers were growing, waiting for someplace to ship to. Also, companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi have been making recycled content pledges since the beginning of the 21st century with no progress being made to meet the goals. If companies that large weren’t using recycled materials, what was using all of the plastic being collected for recycling?
Even today, it is unlikely that a plastic bottle returned to your local store will be recycled into a new plastic bottle. Most recycling today turns our plastic packaging into downcycled products like decking material or polyfill for pillows and winter coats. And that’s only happening to some of the plastic. The only reliably recycled plastics are #1 (PETE) and #2 (HDPE) bottles. And with our national recycling rate under 9%, there’s a lot more that bypasses a recycling center and rides straight to a landfill.
That’s also true of our local recycling programs. For example, the current “best items” guidelines for plastic recycling from Modern Recycling (the contracted recycler for many municipalities) include only jugs and bottles with small top openings and lists as unacceptable items like Styrofoam, plastic bags and film and coated fiber products (like coffee cups and milk cartons). This reflects the current market for recyclable plastics. If companies like Modern can’t find a buyer who will convert the collected and sorted plastics into new items, it’s not getting recycled.
New York currently has EPR legislation for items like car batteries, tires, and used motor oil and it was one of nine states that considered an EPR law on packaging this year. The bill (S.1185-C Kaminsky /A.5801 Englebright) would follow models of existing laws in Europe and Canada and would shift the burden of managing packaging materials (paper, plastics, metals) at the end of life from the municipality to the producer. Ideally, this will make the producers reduce their packaging use and make their future packaging easier to recycle. Unfortunately, unlike the EPR bills recently passed and signed into law in Maine and Oregon, the New York legislation failed to make it out of committee but will be reintroduced in the 2022 session.
On the federal level, EPR is one of the key provisions in the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (S.984 Merkley/H.R.2238 Lowenthal). In addition to EPR, the BFFPPA also addresses issues for the nation that New York lawmakers have already tackled, including a bottle bill and a ban on hard to recycle items like Styrofoam single use food containers. It would also put a pause on the expansion or new construction of plastic production facilities.
This is one of many pressing environmental issues that have been ignored for too long. Of all plastic ever made, 80% of it still exists in landfills or the environment, and will be there for hundreds of years. If left unchecked, plastic production is expected to quadruple by 2050, and in 30 years, the weight of plastic in the ocean will outweigh the fish. The throwaway society would not exist without the advertising of the plastics industry starting in the 1950s. It’s time for the industry to be held responsible and make the real polluters pay for the waste caused by single use plastic.
Lead image: Photo by Nick Fewings