The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act that will be reintroduced in Congress in 2021 is the most important piece of federal legislation since the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was passed in 1976, and enforced starting in 1991. While the RCRA ended open dumping of municipal solid waste and imposed strict regulations for landfills, the Breaking Free bill would impose profound changes in an attempt to rein in the proliferation of plastic waste and its impact on air, land and water resources, as well as on human life.
The Break Free bill’s provisions would:
- Declare a temporary moratorium on new virgin plastic production
- Impose a national container deposit system
- Require minimum recycled content in plastic products
- Restrict exports of plastic
- And ban single use plastic food service items.
It also comes at an opportune time, as recycling levels in the US are reentering the take off stage after two years of turmoil and declining levels caused by China and other Asian nations’ decision to cut off imports of US recycling bales.The legislation also includes funding mechanisms to channel much-needed capital for city and county recycling infrastructure.
Despite all these positives, however, the bill also could contain a poison pill that would undermine the entire recycling enterprise: Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). One form of EPR in the bill would assign complete control over the recycling of all paper, products and packaging to stewardship organizations that are controlled by the same Fortune 500 companies that produce the products and packages that wind up in the waste stream. It means that massive companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi and Nestle would have the authority to establish policies that would have the force of law. These corporate policies would replace state and local regulations and serve to undermine our democratic systems. Participatory democracy is the very engine propelling the development of a vibrant recycling industry that is now larger than the US auto industry, and this action would be, in effect, a hostile takeover of the recycling industry. EPR for all products, paper and packages (PPP) would disenfranchise local decision makers and therefore, threaten our democratic system that has been the basis for decision making in our country. It would impose corporate rule over citizen rule.
The Break Free bill also has a much better alternative funding mechanism, called Product Stewardship. Under this regimen, producer corporations would pay into funds based on the amount and impact their products and packages have on municipal waste and recycling programs. The fund would then reimburse cities and counties for handling the materials generated by the companies. This approach to EPR would retain all the authority, capacity and responsibility of local government to control discarded materials, which has been practiced in the US since before the country was formed.
“Requiring companies to take true responsibility for their excessive waste and pollution is the only way we will tackle our colossal plastic waste problem,” — Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) author of the bill.
But which form of EPR will emerge from this legislating – PPP or PS?
Common Terminology for Discussion of EPR
Positive EPR policies require producers and distributors to take back products and packages that are hard to recycle, or contain toxic elements with no opportunity for adding value. Examples include batteries, medical sharps, mercury switches, artificial turf, and paint. Under these regulations, the polluter pays for the final disposal of its products. These regulations have worked well and helped remove hazardous materials and products from municipal financial and environmental responsibility.
Bad EPR policies require producer take-back of hard to recycle materials and products, but allow for unsustainable end uses such as incineration of mattresses and carpets, or shredding of electronic discards. EPR for electronics, for example, allows original equipment manufacturers to aggregate most of the discards for shredding and prevents social reuse enterprises from gaining access to repairable machines. Electronic discards are valuable commodities in the waste stream. Recovery, repair and resale of machines are critical for both social and economic impacts. Reuse bridges the digital divide and provides skills and good jobs that stabilize families and reduce recidivism.
The most problematic EPR policies call for beverage industry control of the entire recycling system, removing local government from responsibility, capacity and authority. This eliminates the opportunity for residents and small businesses to impact decision-making at the local level. Mary Lou Van Deventer, co-owner of mission-based recycler Urban Ore, calls this “a hostile takeover of a vibrant decentralized industry with tens of thousands of businesses, one million workers earning $365 billion in wages and paying $37 billion in taxes.”
The Need for Federal Support
The Federal government has a long-overdue debt to cities and counties
In the 1960s, federal funds enabled all the metropolitan areas of the country to build tertiary sewage treatment facilities to protect public health. Hundreds of billions of dollars was spent, and continues to be spent, on these facilities. But cities and counties got no help when it came to landfills, most of which were publicly owned. They had to fend for themselves in managing their landfills and in adapting to new environmental requirements. In the absence of federal funding, the capital needed for proper care of landfills lay in the hands of clever private businessmen who formed the first vertically integrated consolidated waste firms, WMI and BFI. Further, federal anti trust laws were not applied despite egregious offenses.
Centralized control over landfills and hauling were highly profitable. Monopolies were able to squeeze the public and private sector, gathering monopoly profits that could amount to 33% of the total solid waste management cost for the US, which is estimated at between $80-$100 billion annually. When recycling posed a threat to this profit structure, the industry reacted by gobbling up processing or Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF capacity to close the escape valve from their landfill and hauling monopolies). The two largest waste management firms own 80% of the country’s MRF capacity, positioning themselves to assert monopoly pricing on the cost of processing materials and completing the enclosure of the entire waste and recycling management systems in the US.
The recycling system is further being enclosed by Fortune 500 recycling investment funds (Closed Loop Fund, The Recycling Partnership. US Chamber of Commerce). These funds are going almost exclusively to shore up single stream collection and processing systems in America’s urban areas, which is taking cities in the wrong direction. Large US cities are now the major drag on recycling in the US. Whereas the national recycling average is 32%, most major cities outside of the West Coast are at 20%.
The federal government needs to step in now and provide the capital for cities and towns to grow their recycling and composting and reuse to maximum proportions. A national movement based on local authority, local value added and regional end use manufacturing can yield the pot of gold at the end of the garbage rainbow; turning ‘wasted’ materials into a supply chain of clean secondary materials.
Recycling From the Ground Up
Local governments, brimming with new energy, have responded with a plethora of actions to address the new realities of international markets for secondary materials. State and local governments are developing the necessary infrastructure in the following ways:
- Taking back control over MRFs to avoid long distance transportation to over-centralized MRFs (sometimes located up to 50 miles from city centers).
- Implementing distributed composting policies, programs and enterprises
- Reverting to dual stream recycling to reduce processing costs and gain access to markets with clean, uncontaminated materials.
- Passing bans on single use plastic, bans and/or fees on grocery bags, and Styrofoam food packaging.
- Requiring minimum content in plastic and other products.
- Awarding service fees for diverting materials from landfills.
- Forming Buy Recycle Champion drives by government and business coalitions.
- Developing Resource Recovery Parks (industrial parks reserved for recycling, composting and reuse firms)
- And passing Right to Repair legislation, which has already led to thousands of job trainings for repair specialists
Local and state actions have been met with massive investment in US paper and plastic recycling capacity. With fiber prices back to normal after decades of artificially high prices due to China’s purchasing, US paper mills can afford the material and have poured capital into no less than 20 new mills in the US. And 20 new companies are building plastic recycling for production from low-grade plastics; some are specializing in polypropylene, others are working with mixed resins.
There is a scramble for clean US materials, with China becoming one of the largest investors. China rejected our mixed recyclables but is looking for clean materials to send back to homeland factories.
Thus, just as recycling in the US is recovering from the single stream-China debacle, the Break Free From Plastic bill could surrender the entire diversified recycling sector to producers and away from citizens. This will lead to further stagnation of US recycling rates and increased incineration of residuals as occurs in British Columbia, Canada and Europe, whereas in the US incineration is being phased out as a disposal option.
An EPR PPP system for the entire country would in effect be a national preemption from further new rules that are essential for sustainability and circularity. A much better alternative would be for the federal government to establish a national Product Stewardship standard that raises funds for cities to carry out and expand recycling, moving toward Zero Waste.
Citizen voting power has led to the local new rules that expand recycling and avoid incineration. At the same time, citizen purchasing power is driving voluntary changes by producers to meet the demand for green products and packages. All major brands have pledged to be at zero waste packaging by 2030. Cities and counties are needed to provide the raw materials for producing these new products: ‘reverse channels of distribution’.
The Break Free From Plastic bill can be the vehicle for this historical transformation and help to grow US recycling to 60% – 70% recycling levels and beyond, something that has already been accomplished by dozens of US cities and towns. The American Chemical Society, among other business groups, announced its approval of fees and surcharges to address the plastic crisis. These two measures have been promoted by leading Zero Waste advocates Dan Knapp and Gary Liss.
By dropping the EPR PPP requirements and focusing on Product Stewardship, or a municipal reimbursement approach, necessary investment funds would flow directly to cities and counties as they manage the materials put into the marketplace by producers.
California’s recent experience with a progressive recycling bill is informative. Progressive groups and legislators favored the bill. Surprisingly the bill failed, many say because they feared the impact of EPR PPP on the private and public sectors. EPR PPP proved to be a poison pill that kept a good law from being passed. If not addressed, this same poison pill – EPR PPP – could sink the Break Free From Plastic Bill.
The option to choose EPR PPP would be a mistake of Trumpian proportions if, for example, we want to increase container deposits, which are a highly effective way to reduce the waste stream and recover clean materials. It will allow producers to begin an endless lobbying campaign to undermine container deposits, as is occurring in British Columbia.
In Europe, container deposits are the basis for EPR. The EU requires quotas on refillable containers that must be available in the marketplace and provides incentives for companies to expand refillables. In the US and Canada, however, EPR PPP forces oppose and undermine bottle bills. And while the British Columbia EPR PPP model is not the goal of the Break Free Bill, it is the position of leading US EPR PPP advocate organizations.
The choice is between an open recycling economy versus the kind of authoritarian recycling structure that relies on incineration that is operating in British Columbia.
Recently proposed legislation in Oregon and Maine includes the Product Stewardship form of EPR. A product stewardship approach would guarantee that cities and counties have the resources to follow the lead of citizen activists and entrepreneurs — as they did when the recycling movement was started in 1969. Mary Lou Van Deventer, principal of Urban Ore and board member of the British Columbia Bottle Recycling and Depot Association rebutted recent headlines, saying,
“Recycling has not failed. Rather the corporate structure that has been imposed on recycling with its sloppy processing and unstable markets, has failed. An infusion of capital made available to cities and counties will show that local recycling is far more efficient.”
In fact the seeds of the new recycling/Zero Waste era have already been planted in US soil. Cities and towns across the US have thriving recycling networks without need of a China market or Big Waste recycling infrastructure. In addition to the national and regional networks indicated in the graphic, smaller regional and municipal networks are also at play. Urban Ore provides the inventory for scores of other reuse outlets within the entire San Francisco Bay Area, supporting hundreds of jobs and serving thousands of customers. Loop Closed, a non-profit community based operation, is thriving with ever increasing new sites. Managers and workers from the immediate neighborhood manage each site with ties to the community, schools and businesses.
View map as full-sized .jpg here.
Preliminary Case Study Chart
Waste to Wealth Initiative, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, DC August 2020
|Range in Miles
|Jobs on Site
|Jobs in Region*
|Steamboat Springs, CO
|Glass, metal, paper, plastic
|Glass, metal, paper, plastic
|Wood, plastic, aggregate, metal
|Twin Cities, MN
|Collection & Processing
|Glass, metal, paper, plastic
|Manufactured Glass Products
|Bottles/jars, auto & window
|* Estimates based on national average for manufacturing plants using secondary materials from the case study facility. End use companies have supply chains that include the five surveyed companies plus other suppliers. Companies were not asked to identify the actual end use market they ship materials to in order to protect proprietary information.
With dedicated funds coming from producers to clean up their litter and waste, the solution to our ‘Waste Knot’ is at hand. Decentralized local recycling, processing and regional end use manufacturing would reflect Thomas Jefferson’s vision of small farmers and small manufacturers as protectors of a stable democratic republic.
Several years ago, before China’s import restriction, a leading recycling pundit peremptorily announced that the future of US recycling is a five-letter word C-H-I-N-A. Brenda Platt of ILSR thought that was wrong. Instead, she presciently said the five-letter word depicting the future for US recycling was L-O-C-A-L.
The Big Waste structure for recycling collapsed under the weight of China’s rapid economic growth. There is new momentum for change at the local level. In the US, Big Waste is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars to build vast machines that will separate out materials. Mixed low value materials will be sent long distances from city centers. Ironically, people, who touch all items that wind up as waste or recycling depending on where discards are placed, are willing to source separate making the investment in supersized MRFs completely unnecessary. Real source separation is the key to recycling and Zero Waste.
The Break Free From Plastic Bill holds out the promise of this vision. It also contains the pitfalls that could condemn US recycling to mediocrity and fail to serve the public good. There is a groundswell for real recycling in the US. EPR for PPP embedded in the Break Free legislation confuses and obfuscates the reality of recycling in the US in order to replace corporate interests with the public good. The bill also has the key to a much better future through Product Stewardship, that is polluter funds for local recycling and Zero Waste. Product Stewardship can build the capacity for local government to maximize the benefits of recycling to complement their authority and responsibility for managing their own resources.