Leveling the playing field for recycled plastics
Single-use plastics have been both a boon and a burden for people and the planet. For example, plastic packaging helps keep food fresh for longer, minimizing food waste and loss, as well as making food more accessible to millions of people. But we also know that plastic increasingly pollutes our oceans and clogs freshwater systems, harming scores of wildlife populations. And it has also become an increasingly significant contributor to the climate crisis, with greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production poised to reach 1.3 billion tons annually by 2030 — the annual equivalent of 300 coal-fired power plants .
It’s time for a smarter approach to plastic production that retains the vital services all of us have come to rely on while minimizing impacts on the climate, nature and local communities. One big piece of the puzzle will be establishing a circular system that prioritizes recycled plastic over virgin plastic. In other words, we need to make it profitable for companies to reuse the plastic we’ve already produced, rather than producing heaps of new plastic every year.
Before diving deeper into those solutions, let’s first take a look at how we got here. The nation’s solid waste management laws were enacted before disposable items became so prevalent and before we understood the full potential of recycling. Currently, 20,000 different municipalities govern the nation’s recycling programs, all with different requirements and outcomes.
This creates too much uncertainty for the public. If you’ve ever stood over both a recycling bin and a trash bin wondering which one all that plastic packaging from your kid’s new toy belongs in, you’re not alone. The result of the troubling trifecta we have today — consumer confusion, a system not designed to handle the enormous volume of plastic packing produced and misaligned financial incentives — is an inefficient system, fundamentally incapable of meeting public and industry needs. In the United States, only 13 percent of plastic packaging is recycled and only 2 percent achieves circularity.
My organization, WWF, works with some of the biggest companies in the world to help them transition toward a more sustainable approach to plastic use. The No. 1 thing we have heard in conversations with these companies is that they want clear and consistent rules of the road, as well as reliable access to high-quality, recycled content to move away from virgin plastics.
These companies are frustrated by a patchwork of local recycling systems and regulations that make it nearly impossible to meet reduction goals and build out a circular system across all of the communities where people work and live. And they’re frustrated because their consumers are demanding more sustainable products, while current policies reward just the opposite. In fact, thanks to decades of subsidies for fossil fuel production (what nearly all virgin plastics are derived from), it remains vastly cheaper to produce new plastic material from scratch than to recycle and reuse existing plastic.
Now, Congress has an opportunity to turn things around. The REDUCE Act, recently introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), would realign federal policy to respond to what consumers and companies both want. By establishing a fee on virgin plastic production, it would introduce a sense of accountability for the creation of new products, level the playing field for recycled plastic and provide a new source of funding to pay for improvements to America’s recycling and waste management infrastructure. The fee would apply only to a handful of the largest petrochemical companies at the top of the supply chain, leaving the public the funds they need to meet household demands. It would also provide an exception for the use of virgin plastic in certain products for which recycled plastics are unusable, such as critical medical products including surgical masks.
Moreover, by slowing the unchecked flow of virgin plastic into ecosystems and American communities, it would reduce negative health impacts from exposure to dangerous pollutants — a problem that disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color.
Because the REDUCE Act’s incentives are structured as a fee, it makes sense for legislators to consider incorporating it into the broader budget reconciliation package currently under negotiation. Doing so would achieve a rare triple-win: limiting the production of wasteful virgin plastic, reducing associated emissions and providing a critical revenue source. WWF urges all members of Congress to strongly consider supporting the REDUCE Act’s inclusion in the budget package. Let’s seize this moment and secure progress for America’s communities and the environment.
Roberta Elias is the director of policy and government affairs for World Wildlife Fund.
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