Beyond Reuse and Recycling: How the United States Could Really Reduce Plastic Production

Last week, a panel of experts made a simple, common-sense recommendation for dealing with the problem of plastic pollution in the United States: Stop making so much plastic.

“Not generating waste in the first place is the best thing you can do for the environment,” said Jenna Jambeck, professor at the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia and co-author of a high-profile report released. last week by the National Academies. of science, engineering and medicine.

It is an idea that environmental activists have espoused for years. Beyond recycling and reusing the 42 million metric tonnes of plastic the United States throws away each year, they say, we should reduce the tide of plastic that is made in the first place. Plastic production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution that harms frontline communities, and plastic waste clogs ecosystems around the world. Making less plastic would help on all three fronts.

Now that the recommendation is coming from influential national academies, advocates hope federal policymakers can give it greater credibility, raising a major question: What would a national strategy look like to gradually reduce unsustainable plastic production?

Perhaps the most direct route would be to put in place a national cap on the production of new – or “virgin” – plastic. According to Paulita Bennett-Martin, director of federal policy for the nonprofit ocean protection organization Oceana, this could involve the passage by Congress of a law authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, to decide on ‘a specific amount of new plastic that the country can produce each year. perhaps by targeting the production of “nurdles,” tiny plastic balls that form the building blocks of larger products. Each year, the EPA could gradually lower its production cap for nurdles, until within a year – say 2035 – it is no longer legal to make products from new plastic.

The advantage of a production cap is that it would cast a wide net, covering a wide swath of the plastic production pipeline through a single policy. And scientists have already argued for a global virgin plastic production cap. In a special report published this summer in the prestigious journal Science, the researchers called for a “legally binding agreement” to, among other things, gradually reduce the creation of new plastic by 2040. Their recommendation was based on the momentum from the February UN meeting. Environment Assembly, where many governments have expressed interest in an international pact to fight plastic pollution.

In the United States, there is a precedent for the EPA to ban chemicals that are harmful to human health and the environment, including polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, and fully halogenated chlorofluoroalkanes. But the United States has never phased out a product as widely used as virgin plastic, and any attempt to do so would no doubt meet with ideological opposition from the Conservatives and litigation from the plastics industry. Most supporters think a more realistic solution is a sweeping piece of legislation called the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which uses other levers to reduce the manufacture of new plastic, such as a requirement that plastic beverage bottles must be made. be made from at least 50 percent post-production. of materials recycled by consumers by 2030 and 80% by 2040. It also proposes a moratorium on expanded plastic production facilities until they can undergo an EPA environmental impact assessment .

Alan Lowenthal, the California Democrat who introduced the bill to the US House of Representatives in March, said his multi-faceted approach would gradually reduce plastic production just as effectively as a production cap “order and control “. But by incorporating market mechanisms and incentives, it is more likely to be tolerable for the plastics industry.

“They would be much more resistant to a cap,” Lowenthal told Grist. “It’s easier for us to use market forces.”

For example, the bill aims to make recycled plastic cheaper to buy than virgin plastic – in part thanks to its minimum requirements for recycled content, which are expected to increase demand and create a larger market for recycled plastic. . Companies making more than $ 1 million in revenue from plastic products will also be required to participate in an “extended producer responsibility” scheme, which will impose a fee on companies that choose to make their products from virgin plastics. . This system will also impose greater financial responsibility on plastics companies for collecting and managing products after their use, making it more expensive to produce large quantities of disposable plastic. The plastics industry doesn’t really like these ideas, Lowenthal said, but sees them as less “offensive” than a production cap.

Lowenthal also noted that the bill would include a phase-out of production, but only for specific types of single-use plastic products, like cutlery and grocery bags. Because these products represent such a disproportionate share of the world’s plastic pollution, he and others argue that phasing them out is an important step on the road to a cleaner future.
Conservationists tend to agree, pointing to the growing number of states that have put in place bans on single-use plastic products. Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator and founder of advocacy group Beyond Plastics, cited her home state of New York as a good example: after a ban on the distribution of plastic bags began to be applied in October 2020, Enck has seen a decrease in waste from plastic bags.

“Banning and phasing out some of the worst plastic offenders makes perfect sense,” Enck said. She called states like New York “labs” for such policies, hoping they will ultimately lead to a nationwide phase-out of single-use plastics – similar to the Single-Use Plastics Directive. unique that the European Union implemented in July of this year. Under the directive, EU member states are banned from manufacturing 10 single-use plastic products, including polystyrene straws, plates and food containers.

Of course, industry opposition poses a significant barrier to much of the proposed US plastics law. Although plastics trade groups like the American Chemistry Council say they support a “national strategy” to reduce plastic waste in the environment, they remain opposed to any effort to decrease plastic production – which , as made clear in last week’s National Academies report, is an essential part of any effective strategy to tackle plastic pollution. The American Chemistry Council even argued that reducing plastic production would lead to “worse environmental outcomes, especially related to climate change.” In response to Grist’s request for comment, the board said it based the claim on the fact that lightweight plastic materials require less fuel for transportation than alternative materials like glass and aluminum. The council also said it opposed a cap on virgin plastic production and the Break Free From Plastic Pollution law, although it supports much weaker versions of some provisions of the law, such as a minimum standard. of recycled content for the manufacture of plastics.

Lowenthal dismissed their complaints, saying their position “has nothing to do with science.” He expressed optimism that, despite the industry’s “push-back” and opposition from some members of Congress, important provisions of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act will be passed in 2022. The draft Act currently has 121 cosponsors in the House and 12 in the Senate. He is supported by high-level politicians, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Enck agreed with Lowenthal, hoping lawmakers will see the industry’s past efforts to undermine the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act and other policies aimed at reducing plastic production in the United States. “We have to listen to the science,” she said, referring to last week’s report from the National Academies. “We have some really smart ideas and policies to tackle plastic pollution. But what the environmental community doesn’t have is the political strength that the chemical producers and the fossil fuel industry have.”