Democrats just dropped one of the most ambitious bills ever to tackle the growing threat plastics pose to the planet — and they want the biggest polluters to pick up the tab.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, introduced Tuesday, would ban single-use plastics, like bags and straws, in an effort to cut off pollution at its source rather than promoting recycling after the fact. Democrats also want to ban the construction of any new plastics production facilities, cash cows for the oil and gas industry.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California, also proposes to make polluters fund investment in U.S. recycling and composting infrastructure. The proposal would also create a national bottle recycling program, incentivized with a 10 cent refund paid for by industry; standardize recycling and composting labeling; and require a certain percentage of food and beverage containers to be made from recycled materials.
Although some 35 Democrats have cosponsored the bill, it currently has no Republican backers and faces opposition from industry groups, which have successfully fended off attempts to regulate plastics before. Still, it’s the most ambitious federal legislation on plastics introduced to-date, a response to the plastics piling up in the oceans and in our bodies.
“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,” Lowenthal said, according to The Hill.
About 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year — adding to the more than 150 million tons of plastics already floating in world’s waters. Those particles make their way into food and water supplies. The average person could be consuming about a credit card’s worth of plastic every week. (Udall brought a credit card to his press conference on Tuesday as a prop to make his case.)
All told, only about 9% of plastics get recycled.
Starting in the 1990s, China accepted most of the U.S.’s plastic scrap. Companies would ship goods to West Coast ports, and the U.S. would fill up the empty shipping containers with plastic and send them to China to be recycled. But Chinese recycling facilities were unregulated, and plenty of plastic still ended up in landfills. The country finally started to crack down in 2018 and banned imports of most plastics.
That’s why the U.S. started sending its plastic scrap to other Southeast Asian countries — but they don’t have the infrastructure to recycle it. Much of that waste gets dumped into waterways or incinerated. And some domestic recycling facilities have stopped accepting certain types of plastics altogether: They can’t make enough money by selling their recycled materials to justify the costs of actually recycling many types of plastics.