The Rise in Waste Legislation: Part 1

It seems like I am constantly hearing of new legislation regarding plastic and single use packaging. A lot of the ideas coming out are made with the best of intentions, but I believe we still have some kinks to work out before these are put into law across the country. However, I think it’s important to try to be as objective as possible and look at the pros and cons of both these laws and their potential impact.

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

To start let’s look at some of the major laws being proposed right now and breakdown exactly what they would include. The first that I am seeing a lot of coverage from is the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA). This is one of the most extensive bills I have seen and it has come with both strong support and opposition.

One of the fundamental pillars is Extended Producer Responsibility, also called EPR. This is basically the idea that producers of the materials should be responsible for their disposal. In the case of BFFPPA, this specifically applies to plastic producers. This responsibility extends to being fiscally responsible for the collection and recycling or composting. Personally, I don’t think it’s exactly clear how that would work, but thats the foundation of this entire act.

Some of the other items included in the BFFPPA are requiring nationwide bottle refunds, a tax on carryout bags, and a required amount of recycled content in beverage containers. I would imagine the bottle refunds would be paid by bottle manufacturers utilizing EPR. The BFFPPA also includes having the EPA create a standardized labeling system for recycling and composting that producers are required to use. In addition the act would place a temporary moratorium on plastic production facilities until additional legislature is written to control pollution. Lastly, this act would create limitations on the export of waste. So clearly this would be a far reaching piece of legislature.

A less extensive but valuable piece of legislature that is also being considered is the Recycle Act. The intention behind this act seems to be focused on building upon our existing recycling system. It would require the EPA to issue grants to help recycling efforts through education and outreach to the community. The EPA would also be required to develop a recycling model for states and communities. Lastly, the EPA would be required to review the recycled materials being purchased every 5 years.

Pros of Waste Legislation

Photo by Nareeta Martin on Unsplash

There is no doubt that these legislative moves would drive change. EPR and BFFPPA would force manufacturers to change the products they produce to both be more recyclable and also include more recycled content. Both of these acts would undoubtedly lead to more recyclable and compostable materials as well. This would create a more circular economy by driving the phase out of less recyclable materials that we could go without.

As someone that consistently advocates the value of education, the Recycle Act and BFFPPA could be huge step in the right direction. There is a major lack in knowledge and information among the vast majority of consumers leading to products being incorrectly recycled and composted. Establishing a standard labeling system for both composting and recycling is a critical next step in making things easier for everyone to understand and dispose of their waste appropriately. The required education level for effective disposal likely won’t happen from labeling alone and incorporating education and outreach would be hugely beneficial to these efforts.

Another major benefit would be the drive to change consumer behaviors. By creating both disposable carryout bag fees and bottle refunds, it will drive consumers to change. Specifically it would drive consumers to reduce their consumption wherever possible due to the increased cost of using more bags (however this doesn’t necessarily address the environmental cost of the alternatives, but more on that later). It would also encourage participation in the recycling process with the introduction of nationwide bottle refunds.

I also believe that restricting the waste we are sending overseas labeled as recycling would be hugely important. Until 2017, Americans were sending loads of waste to places like China. We labeled it as recyclables and were able to make money off of it. This was also an efficient way of keeping shipping containers full as they returned to China to bring us more goods. The problem was a lot of this waste was unsorted and not actually recyclable. Since China has historically been the largest contributor of plastic waste being mismanaged and ending up in the ocean, I would speculate that a major contributor was the amount of plastic waste we were sending them.

Photo by Andy Li on Unsplash

By stopping the export of plastic, I think we will drive two main changes. First off, we will assure that our waste doesn’t simply get sent to China and then ultimately end up in the ocean. By keeping our waste internally, we will be able to handle it responsibly. Speaking of handling our waste responsibly, by keeping it here in the US, we will be forced to become more creative and pragmatic with managing our waste. This is far better in my opinion than simply sending it across the ocean and hoping someone else will deal with the issue.

The last thing I believe could have benefits would be the halt of additional plastic producing facilities until they are reviewed for their risk. This would give regulating bodies such as the EPA more time assess the risk factors of certain plastic materials from production to use. Ideally this would stop the use of additional facilities that work with materials deemed too hazardous to outweigh the value they bring. One question I still have is how will existing plastic facilities deemed “too hazardous” by the new research be addressed? This will likely have to evolve over time and through additional legislative pressure.

In the next blog I will explore the other-side of this coin with the cons of these legislation actions. I will also cover my personal opinion on how we should move forward in regard to this legislation and possible future legislative actions.

Do you think I missed some of the pros of these legislative actions? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Author: Miles Quinn

Miles has been in the packaging field for over 5 years after studying packaging science at Clemson University. He moved to Reno, NV after graduating and has fallen in love with the area. He has a passion for environmentalism and is hoping to make an impact both locally and on a large scale

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