‘Beyond the crisis point on plastic waste’: New bill is wake-up call, says senator

Living on Earth
Plastic beach pollution

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) have introduced a new draft bill that aims to curb the nation’s overwhelming amount of plastic waste.

Related: As the world grapples with plastic, the US makes more of it

The bill would ban certain single-use plastics, institute a 10-cent nationwide container deposit and compel producers to take the lead on recycling.

“We’re beyond the crisis point on plastic waste and people are starting to wake up.”

Sen. Tom Udall, (D-NM)

“We’re beyond the crisis point on plastic waste and people are starting to wake up,” Udall says. “More and more Americans are demanding action. And that’s why we’re writing this bold legislation. All you have to do is walk outside and look around. We see it around us every day. The ripple effects are everywhere, [in] rivers and oceans, food and water. It’s even inside our bodies.”

Udall said one concerning statistic particularly stood out to him as he made his plans for the bill: Studies show that humans consume a credit card’s worth of plastic each week through water, food and air emissions.

Related: Inside the long war to protect plastic

Udall expects major industry players will oppose some of the proposals in the bill but predicts they will have to come to the table. “I’m confident they will,” he says. “There is so much work at the local and state level, but the debate in Washington, DC, is lagging. I’m working to change that.”

Among the ideas in the bill on which Udall expects to see pushback is the requirement that polluters foot the bill for the damage their products have caused and for changing their industry practices. But this principle, known as “polluter pays,” is “used in environmental laws across the board in the United States,” Udall says.

“The producers of these products need to pay for the collection and recycling of their materials, not pass the cost on to consumers and local government.”

Sen. Tom Udall, (D-NM)

“The producers of these products need to pay for the collection and recycling of their materials, not pass the cost on to consumers and local government,” Udall says. “I think if producers are expected to be responsible for managing their waste, they’ll design less wasteful products. … The key here is getting the producers to start working on recycling rather than them shifting it over to consumers and local governments.”

Related: Can you go plastic-free? This London family did. 

Udall says he and Lowenthal are meeting with industry and want to hear their comments. In fact, they’re asking everybody — industry, citizens, consumers — to give them comments on the bill before Nov. 21. 

“[W]e want to try to work with everybody to get a very good bill. I think it’s important that we focus on that in this process,” Udall says. “If industry doesn’t want to work with us, then we’ll move ahead because we know there’s such strong public support.”

Udall says he would also like to see national standards governing how plastic gets recycled and reused. In states with container deposit laws, he points out, the material is returned at rates much higher than the national average. Oregon, for example, recycles 90% of the containers covered by its bottle deposit system.

“[Nationally], we’re lucky if we hit 10% in terms of actually recycling things that go into the waste stream, and there’s no doubt that this has a huge climate impact,” Udall says. “So, we’ve got a proven method to make sure we get good, clean material back for recycling.”

The bill includes a ban on styrofoam cups and plastic cutlery, which currently are not recyclable. “There are many alternative products that are out there, so a ban on single-use plastics would help grow markets for those alternatives,” Udall notes.

In addition, the bill calls for a moratorium on new facilities that make virgin plastic, with a special focus on ethane cracker facilities that are starting to pop up across Appalachia.

Related: Ethane crackers raise concerns about climate change and pollution

“When you look at these ethane cracker plants, their carbon impact is enormous, their carbon footprint is very big, they harm the surrounding communities — and those communities are often disadvantaged,” Udall says. “[This gets] to the heart of environmental justice. A temporary halt on them would allow us to study the effect they have on our environment and to update EPA regulations.”

While contentious politics remain an obstacle to any environmental legislation, ultimately, plastic pollution affects Democrats and Republicans alike, Udall says.

“We want to get bipartisan support,” Udall says. “We want to involve industry. And we’re hearing from a lot of offices about this, including some Republicans. We have a great partner [in] the House, Alan Lowenthal. He’s telling me there’s a lot of activity over there. So we feel very good about it.”

This article is based on an interview with Steve Curwood that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

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