Story at a glance

  • Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 on Tuesday.
  • The bill aims to shift costs of managing waste and recyclables from the local and municipal governments (and taxpayers) that currently pay the price to the producers of the materials that end up in the bin.
  • With more awareness about the flaws of the recycling system in the U.S. and heightened concern about ocean plastic pollution, this just might be the time that significant changes to plastics production and recycling could be realized.

A new bill that Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) introduced in Congress on Tuesday would — they say — go beyond patchwork solutions for improving the U.S. recycling system and cleaning up existing plastic pollution in vital waterways. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 is different than other bills previously introduced to address plastic pollution because it would require plastic producers to help the U.S. government clean up the mess, lawmakers explained in a conference call with reporters on Monday.

“Our legislation applies one of the core principles of environmental law: ‘the polluter pays.’ It is time for multi-billion-dollar companies to step up and cover the costs of cleaning up the waste from their products,” says Lowenthal. “As a major exporter of plastics waste, we also have a responsibility and a duty to address this problem.”

The bill aims to shift costs of managing waste and recyclables from local and municipal governments to the producers of such materials. Its potential to be enacted is still a long shot, especially since none of the bill’s more than 30 co-sponsors are Republicans. 

As of now, global plastic production is projected to more than triple by 2050. If it becomes law, the bill introduced Tuesday would put new plastic production facilities on hold “until critical environment and health protections are put in place,” according to Udall’s office. Given the rapid growth that the plastics industry continues to undergo, this provision of the bill could have a particularly significant impact.

Environment America’s conservation campaign senior director Steve Blackledge puts it this way: “If you want to stop a bathtub from overflowing, you have to first turn off the tap. Right now, our rivers and oceans are filled with plastic waste, and marine animals are suffering, if not dying, as a result.” He adds, “The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act outlines the first comprehensive federal plan to turn off the ‘plastic pollution tap.’”

The U.S. has been grappling with the flaws of its recycling system for just about two years now, after China changed its import policy in 2018 on scrap materials. For years, many U.S. municipalities had been shipping a large percentage of the recyclables that they collected abroad, particularly to China. Combine this recycling reckoning with the increased concern about ocean plastic and the consequences for marine life, and you’ve got our current situation. Udall and Lowenthal hope that this just might be the perfect storm that will enable major changes around the plastics issue to become law.

Zero waste program director with U.S. Public Interest Research Group Alex Truelove says, “We’re inundated by plastic pollution, and yet we continue to make more each year, harming our planet and ourselves. Finally, we have a federal bill that offers real solutions, drawing from successful ordinances across the globe.” 

In fact, the bill draws upon state-wide laws that have been enacted across the U.S., including bans on the most harmful single-use plastics. 

Truelove continues, “This bill addresses our problem at the source, by reducing the amount of disposable plastic we use, and by encouraging a shift toward better and reusable materials. For our children to inherit a less-polluted Earth, that’s exactly what we need.”

Published on Feb 11, 2020