Energy & Environment

Bill targets single-use plastics in push to make manufacturers responsible

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Two congressional Democrats are planning to roll out legislation that would fight plastic pollution by banning certain types of single-use containers and requiring manufacturers to use more recycled content in their packaging.

The legislation from Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), expected Tuesday, would ban plastic takeout bags, utensils and plastic foam containers that cannot be recycled starting in 2022 and begin a nationwide container deposit system, mirroring programs in the Northeast and other parts of the country that pay consumers 10 cents for every returned beverage container.

But in a fundamental shift to the recycling industry, the onus to collect recycled goods would fall on the manufacturers themselves, a big departure from taxpayer-reliant municipal systems that now collect waste. That effort would be paired with a requirement that producers use more recycled content in their own packaging.

“The public has been told if it says it’s recyclable, it’s recyclable. We now know that is not what is actually happening out there,” said Lowenthal, referencing the plastic goods that have been incinerated or sent to landfills after China announced in 2018 that it would no longer accept many of the world’s shipments of so-called recyclables.

China backing away from its role as the clearinghouse for recycled goods leaves few options for the 335 million tons of plastic produced each year. Just 8 percent of plastic waste in the United States is sorted for recycling.

Under Udall and Lowenthal’s vision, manufacturers ranging from those making food to home goods would band together to form nonprofits that would be responsible for collecting their wide variety of packing. Over time, producers would be expected to increase the amount of post-consumer materials they incorporate into their own packaging. 

“Today’s producers have zero responsibility for their product waste and no incentives to reduce wasteful production,” Udall said, adding that forcing them to contend with their own waste will change that.

The bill also pushes the Environmental Protection Agency to create a uniform system for recycling and composting labels.

The effort follows one in the initial stages by the private sector that is also looking at reinventing recycling by creating a national set of recycling standards.

The Consumer Brands Association, which represents the companies that manufacture packaged goods, hopes one set of standards will help producers make products they know can be recycled.

Updated at 9:54 p.m.

Tags Alan Lowenthal Recycling Tom Udall
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