Proposed Legislation Would Deal With the Plastic Pollution Problem

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would make US polluters pay.

plastics recycling depot
A plastics recycling depot in US.

Getty Images/Bill Varie

Did you know that every day the United States sends 225 shipping containers filled with trash to developing countries for "recycling"? Of course, these receiving countries hardly have adequate facilities to process such a great volume of waste and usually end up burning or landfilling much of it.

It is hardly a stretch to suggest it's unethical for the U.S. to offload its recycling waste onto poorer countries with laxer regulations. In fact, it's uncomfortably reminiscent of colonialism, with a larger, more dominant power exporting a product that knowingly causes harm to the recipient but is too inconvenient (or unsightly) to deal with at home.

New legislation hopes to get at the root of this problem. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act was reintroduced in Congress last week as an expanded and improved version of a bill that failed to pass a little over a year ago. But now with the political situation having changed, there's more hope for success. Kate Melges, leader of the Greenpeace Plastic Project, told Treehugger,

"With Democratic control of the White House, the House, and the Senate, tackling the issue of plastic pollution becomes a U.S. priority in a way it hasn’t been before. This legislation would address the crisis in the most comprehensive way possible, holding polluters responsible for their waste, reducing unnecessary throwaway plastics, and prioritizing the health of frontline communities. We remain very hopeful for comprehensive action to tackle plastic pollution this year both through the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act and by securing support from the Administration for a global plastics treaty."

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is sponsored by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) and it strives to put the burden of dealing with plastic waste squarely where it belongs – on the shoulders of the producers of plastic waste, rather than the taxpayers, municipalities, and communities harmed by plastics production and incineration. It proposes the following changes:

  • To hold corporations accountable for their pollution, and require producers of plastic products to design, manage, and finance waste and recycling programs.
  • To press pause on new and expanding plastic facilities until critical environment and health protections are put in place.
  • To incentivize businesses to make reusable products that can actually be recycled.
  • To reduce and ban certain single-use plastic products that are not recyclable.
  • To create a nationwide beverage container refund program, and establish minimum recycled content requirements for beverage containers, packaging, and food-service products.
  • To generate massive investments in domestic recycling and composting infrastructure.

Senator Merkley said in a press release, "Many of us were taught the three R’s — reduce, reuse, and recycle — and figured that as long as we got our plastic items into those blue bins, we could keep our plastic use in check and protect our planet. But the reality has become much more like the three B’s — buried, burned, or borne out to sea. The impacts on Americans’ health, particularly in communities of color and low-income communities, are serious. Plastic pollution is a full-blown environmental and health crisis, and it’s time that we pass this legislation to get it under control."

A mere 9% of plastic gets recycled; the remaining 91% is discarded, left to contaminate air, soil, and water. This is partly due to a lack of ability. Plastic is not a material that's conducive to recycling or reuse in any widely applicable way. It degrades when recycled and must always be turned into a lesser version of itself until eventually it's thrown in landfill.

Companies should not be allowed to continue churning out products that have no comprehensive plan for end-of-life and that are known to cause harm to human and environmental health. If the U.S. is serious about making headway in its climate promises, ceasing to be the world's biggest waste exporter is a logical place to start.

The country (indeed, the whole world) is rebuilding after a devastating year. It's a good time to reform the waste management system to be more equitable and responsible. In fact, a Greenpeace press release states that "zero waste systems create over ​200 times as many jobs​ as landfills and incinerators, yielding both the most environmental benefits and the most jobs of any waste management approach." 

Now is when we should start fresh and demand more, when we should begin as we intend to go on. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act 2021 is the best solution we have available to us at this point and it could create the groundswell of change we so desperately need.

Educate yourself by learning about the Act and watching this short video called "Breathe This Air: A #PlasticJustice Film." Show support by contacting your local representative and signing this letter. And while you're at it, read Lloyd Alter's excellent and informative article, "How Plastics Add Up to the Climate Crisis."

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