Plastic is creating massive problems. Its production and disposal both release hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change and wreak havoc on public health, especially for the communities of color near which plastic production plants, incinerators, and landfills are often constructed. Plastic is also threatening the health of the world’s waterways: Every minute, the equivalent of one dump-truck load of plastic gets into the ocean, where it kills wildlife, carries diseases, and releases carcinogenic pollutants.
Despite all this, the oil industry is ramping up plastic production. Right now, U.S. production of the most common plastic, polyethylene, is on track to increase more than 40 percent by 2028, according to the research firm S&P Global Platts. Conservative predictions show that plastic production and incineration in the U.S. will produce 300 coal plants’ worth of greenhouse emissions by 2030, and by 2050, that pollution output could double.
Solutions to these crises are often framed in terms of consumer choice. Ads encourage us to buy reusable straws, water bottles, and shopping bags. Nonprofit organizations hold volunteer beach-cleanup days. Coca-Cola blames consumers’ preferences for its decision not to use less plastic.
On Tuesday, two Democratic Congresspeople introduced an ambitious bill to shift the responsibility to address the plastics crisis to the plastics producers.
“This bill is the single most effective bill to reduce plastic pollution in the history of U.S. Congress,” Judith Enck, former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and founder of Beyond Plastics, told reporters at a Tuesday press conference on Capitol Hill.
The Break Free From Plastic Act, proposed by Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-California), calls for a pause of up to three years on permitting new plastic production facilities. It would also require big corporations to design, manage, and pay for recycling programs, like a national “bottle bill” that would call for consumers to return used plastic bottles in exchange for a 10 cent refund for each one.
“Plastics are a part of the fossil fuel industry,” said Representative Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) at the press conference. “And they put less than 1 percent of what they put into their expansion of their industry into recycling programs.”
Right now, recycling systems are managed by municipal systems and funded by tax dollars. Under that system, U.S. recycling rates are currently falling—less than 5 percent of plastics were recycled in 2018. And since China stopped accepting much of the world’s recyclable material two years ago, recycling costs have skyrocketed, so the national rate could fall even lower. Some U.S. cities have stopped recycling plastic altogether. Funds from plastic-producing corporations could go a long way to boosting recycling rates.
Starting in 2022, the bill would also ban certain plastic disposables that have particularly low recyclability rates and high potential for pollution; it would also require manufacturers to use more recycled materials in their packaging.
The bill’s passage is a long shot. So far, it has no Republican co-sponsors, and it’s already drawn criticism from wealthy industry trade groups. But even still, it shows that the conversation about the plastics crisis—and who should be held responsible—is changing.
“Our plastic pollution process has reached a tipping point, and the American people are fed up,” said Udall at the press conference. “The time has come to break free from this failed system.”