A Senate hearing asks the question: “Can plastic recycling be more like paper?”


The latest U.S. Senate hearing on recycling and the circular economy saw lawmakers make some very unfavorable comparisons between recycling rates for plastics and other packaging materials.

Senator Shelley Moore Capito, RW.Va., for example, questioned before the Environment and Public Works Committee on September 22 audience what the paper industry and its recycling rate of around 65% could teach the plastic packaging industry and its recycling rate of 13%.

“We’ve heard a lot about plastics and low numbers,” Capito said, asking a witness from the paper industry what “lessons learned” from this industry “might correlate to more efficient and successful plastics recycling. “.

Likewise, Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Noted the paper recycling rate of over 60% and said, “I wish we had the same in plastics and other materials.

In a hearing that covered many topics, other lawmakers focused on bottle deposits and extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs, including a joint plan of the American Beverage Association and the World Wildlife Fund.

ABA and WWF published a plan in June which calls for federal EPR programs, with some degree of flexibility at the state or local level, and they noted that this could include “tipping fee surcharges, bond return systems and new infrastructure financing programs “.

Roberta Elias, director of policy and government affairs for WWF, told the audience that the beverage industry wants higher recycling rates to provide enough high-quality materials to meet recycled content targets.

She referred to the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, sponsored by EPW committee member Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., And said the ABA and her group both supported the concepts of this. bill, which called for a national EPR system and a national container repository. system.

EPR plans typically require industry to financially support or manage recycling programs, rather than primarily making it a government-funded business.

“WWF, ABA and many others support Break Free concepts,” Elias said. “We hope that the autonomous EPR will eventually pass.

“We also hope that this chamber will make the most of moving vehicles, especially to secure public-private investment in infrastructure, a national deposit system and a levy on virgin plastic such as the one articulated in Sen. [Sheldon] Reduce Whitehouse’s Law, ”she said in her opening speech.

Whitehouse, DR.I., introduced a 20-cent per pound tax on virgin resin used in single-use plastic packaging in August, and that would be considered part of the Senate Democrats’ tax and social spending plan $ 3.5 trillion.

Senators did not directly debate Whitehouse or Merkley’s legislation, but there were clear signs of disagreement over the role of government among lawmakers.

The top-ranked Republican on the panel, Capito, said that while she shared her concerns about the challenges of recycling, she was challenging some unspecified plans offered by colleagues.

“Although some of my congressional colleagues have proposed various policies, regulations and mandates do not create effective markets in the long run,” she said. “Falsely inflating the recycled products market with federal dollars doesn’t help either. It just prolongs the unsustainability of the sector, which could end up where we are today when the funding is gone. “

Still, Capito noted the financial burdens on cities’ recycling programs when China stopped importing less valuable waste in 2018. These problems were underscored by a lack of US demand for recycling.

She pointed to a Senate workshop that she and EPW President Senator Tom Carper, D-Del., Hosted earlier in September, where they looked at technological advancements in the recycling industry.

“For example, one company successfully recycled more than 2 million pounds of post-use polystyrene at its Oregon plant through chemical recycling,” Capito said, apparently referring to the PS recycling facility at Agilyx in Tigard, in the Ore.

“The best way to meet the declining demand for recycled materials is to develop new markets and innovative technologies,” she said.

But some of his fellow Democrats made pointed references to the challenges of plastic pollution in the environment and called for stronger government action.

Whitehouse said at least 98% of plastic products today are made with virgin resin.

“It’s basically entirely new plastic coming in, there is essentially no significant recycled contribution,” he said. “There is a lot of noise and talk about recycling. The industry loves to talk about recycling, I think to help create the overall appearance that plastic is recycled.”

“It’s kind of a performance art, to defend a relatively false narrative that recycling is real,” Whitehouse said.

Merkley pointed to very different PET bottle recycling rates in different states, depending on whether or not they have container depots.

He noted a recent study that found five states have PET bottle recycling rates over 50% – Maine, Oregon, California, New York and Vermont – while in most states the rate is less than 20%. He interviewed a witness for the state government of North Carolina, where he said the recycling rate for PET bottles was only 8%.

“No state has succeeded in recycling a significant amount of bottles without a deposit system,” Merkley said.

The hearing had no witnesses from the plastics industry, but the American Chemistry Council said it submitted official comments and issued a press release noting its five-point plan for federal legislation, including the REP and for regulations requiring 30% recycled content in plastic packaging by 2030..

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