United States laws that make plastic manufacturers bear some responsibility for recycling their ocean-clogging products are actually inhibiting progress, say experts, and bear the fingerprints of plastic lobbying groups that are determined to prevent effective restrictions.
“Putting the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in charge of packing programs is like putting the fossil fuel industry in charge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Judith Enck, president of the non-profit Beyond Plastics. She said many of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bills gaining traction in the U.S. as a way to curb plastic pollution are being written with input from the ACC, a plastics lobbying group that Bloomberg reports is “trying to head off meaningful restrictions at the pass.”
The bills are actually worse than no legislation at all, said Enck, “as they give the impression of action while achieving nothing.” She said the fees imposed by many bills are far too small to make a difference to producers, who just pass the cost along, and are too removed from the end stage ofthe life cycle to be an incentive to recycle.
Still, faced with soaring costs of collecting, recycling, and landfilling plastic waste ever since China closed its doors to the West’s trash in 2018, Maine and Oregon have passed laws that force plastic producers to bear some costs of waste management, and Massachusetts and Colorado may be next, Bloomberg reports.
Those laws are “repurposing” measures that have already been tried for electronics, mattresses, and paint, but plastics experts remain skeptical. Julia Attwood, head of sustainable materials at BloombergNEF, cited the example of European countries that have had EPR schemes in place for “many years” and have yet to see any substantive reduction in the amount of packaging used or recycled. She panned the idea that such schemes are in any way about saving national and global waterways from plastic pollution, adding that they’re entirely about budgetary bottom lines.
EPR laws are “just an attempt to recoup some money from packaging producers for the municipalities that badly need it to pay [materials recovery facilities] and recyclers,” she said.
Indeed, politicians are pitching EPR as a way to save on collection and recycling, writes Bloomberg, but they also advertise it as a tool to reduce plastic creation in the first place. New York Governor Kathy Hochul introduced such a proposal in her 2023 budget, pitching it as an incentive for producers “to reduce waste… make products that are easier to recycle, and support a circular economy.”
But illustrative of the fox-in-the-henhouse scenario Enck described, Hochul’s proposal—which did not make it into her final budget—”set no requirements to reduce packaging waste but called for an advisory council, including members of the plastic industry, that would have recommended minimum rates for recovery, recycling, and the amount of recycled content in new products,” reports Bloomberg.
Advocates would instead like to see laws that mandate reductions in packaging production and increases in the share of recycled and recyclable content in new goods.
“We’ve talked to people in Europe and their biggest regret is not requiring a reduction in packaging,” Enck told Bloomberg.