Environmental groups outline $1.3B worth of federal plastics reduction, recycling recommendations

Dive Brief:

  • More than 250 groups in the Break Free From Plastic movement are recommending 13 actions — worth a collective $1.3 billion in annual federal funding — they believe the Biden administration and Congress should prioritize in any future stimulus legislation. 
  • Top suggestions include $500 million for new or improved MRF infrastructure and $250 million for organics recycling infrastructure. Another $150 million is suggested to establish reusable foodware systems, water refill stations and other updates at government buildings, publicly funded educational institutions and other sites.
  • The report also urges against funding or supporting areas such as plastic exports, plastic carbon sequestration, and chemical recycling, or any other processes converting material into fuel and uses that are “of lower quality and functionality than the original material.”  

Dive Insight:

Groups from all corners of the national recycling dialogue see the potential to advocate for their agendas under the Biden administration and a Democrat-controlled Congress, amid a period of heightened interest in recycling issues throughout the country. This latest report builds on the Presidential Plastics Action Plan released in December, with support from the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Beyond Plastic, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Surfrider Foundation, Greenpeace and numerous other groups focused on climate, environmental justice and local sustainability issues.

As momentum builds toward another pandemic relief package, and talk percolates about future infrastructure or climate change-related packages, these groups saw an opening to build on their initial message.

This is not the entire federal plastic pollution agenda, we crafted this very narrowly to deal with stimulus funding,” said Judith Enck, executive director of Beyond Plastics and a former U.S. EPA regional administrator, noting this could also apply to other funding legislation. This is relevant for all federal budget decisions.”

Aside from some funding in the recently signed Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, there has been limited money or policy directed toward recycling issues at the federal level in recent months. The recycling industry and other stakeholders anticipate Congress may take up related bills again at some point this session, a move this report’s authors support when it comes to the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, but are looking at more incremental moves in the meantime.

In addition to recommending a collective $750 million worth of processing infrastructure investments, the report also calls for $50 million to bolster recycling measurement and data collection along with more regulation of companies in the plastics supply chain and $50 million for the U.S. Department of Commerce to create an Office of Waste Reduction Innovation and Recycling Market Development.

Other proposals include $50 million for an AmeriCorps program dedicated to related issues, $45 million for stormwater infrastructure and marine debris, $25 million for “green chemistry” research, $6 million for water bottle refill stations at national parks and $1 million to reduce single-use plastic at the U.S. Capitol and legislative offices. The report also calls for $150 million to research health effects from plastics and $25 million for investigation and enforcement of petrochemical industry violations in environmental justice communities.

Many of these proposals envision the EPA expanding on existing work or managing funds for new programs.

“EPA does not comment on possible legislative proposals,” said an agency spokesperson via email. “However, the Agency’s new leadership team is aware of the issues involved in recycling plastics and reducing waste, and will be working with EPA staff to determine next steps, guided by science, the law, and the need for transparency to protect public health and the environment and advance environmental justice.”

During this week’s confirmation hearing, EPA administrator nominee Michael Regan described plastic as a “significant challenge” and pledged to give the issue a close look. That came in response to a question from Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who was a co-sponsor of the soon-to-return Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.

“While our office is still reviewing the details of today’s proposal, the contours of it are very compatible with plastics proposals Sen. Merkley has introduced and supported in the past,” said spokesperson Martina McLennan via email, noting the senator is “deeply concerned” about this issue and looking for quick action. “It’s terrific news that advocates are continuing to move this critical policy conversation forward.”   

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works and a leader of the Senate Recycling Caucus, could not be reached for comment. In December, he described the EPA’s 2030 recycling goal as a “wasted opportunity” and on Thursday he participated in the announcement of the Recycling Leadership Council’s new policy blueprint.

That group’s proposal shared some overlap on certain goals but diverged when it comes to areas such as reducing plastic production. “While we haven’t yet read the report since it was just released, this problem requires a united effort across industries to bring a range of new and unique solutions to the table and we look forward to reviewing it,” said a spokesperson for the Consumer Brands Association, lead group on that effort, via email.

In a December response to the initial Presidential Plastics Action Plan, the American Chemistry Council called such ideas “misguided” because they overlook potential benefits from plastics and pledged to work on broader efforts under the Biden administration. In Enck’s view, any legislative efforts to secure funding or maintain the current level of plastics production and attempted recycling are missing the point.

I view plastic recycling as distinctly different from other materials, because plastics recycling has been a failure. So yes support infrastructure for paper, metal, cardboard, glass,” she said, “but plastic recycling is a unicorn.”

Timing of a potential pandemic stimulus package remains fluid, but Congress began advancing the process this week and the Biden administration has repeatedly said it hopes a bill could be passed before unemployment benefits expire in mid-March.

Additional reporting by Megan Quinn


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