Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Greg Heilers headshot

As Recycling Languishes, Business Leaders Endorse U.S. Plastic Waste Legislation

By Greg Heilers
Plastic Waste

Each of us is consuming a credit card’s worth of plastic waste each week, according to the office of U.S. Senator Tom Udall.

To anyone in the know, the situation is dire. The average American consumer believes that their home recycling efforts are resulting in a cleaner world.

But, the majority of our plastic goes to landfills or incinerators or even worse, is shipped to other countries where the end result is similar. As a result, we have plastic everywhere in our world, from mountain springs to farm fields, resulting in our consistent, direct consumption of plastics.

In an effort to curb this unhealthy plastic diet, U.S. Senator Tom Udall and U.S. Representative Alan Lowenthal introduced the “Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020” on Tuesday. “The bill,” Udall’s office states, “calls on all of us, from companies to communities, to address this crisis head-on so that we can create a plastic pollution free world.”

The bill’s 9 steps to eradicating plastic waste

With skyrocketing costs after China shutting the doors on further plastic imports, many cities now reject plastic recycling. To these address these issues, The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would accomplish the following:

  1. Extends producer responsibility: Producers are encouraged to leverage Producer Responsibility Organizations (PRO) to manage their waste and deploy Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved cleanup programs.
  2. Requires producers to invest: Producers must support U.S. domestic recycling and composting infrastructure. Furthermore, they must both cover waste management costs, and raise the public’s awareness of waste reduction best practices.
  3. Incentivizes consumer recycling: All beverage containers will be eligible for a 10-cent refund upon return. The act further states that unclaimed refunds will support beverage producers’ investments in collection and recycling infrastructure.
  4. Phases out plastics nationwide: A prohibition on plastic utensils, plastic carryout bags, and expanded polystyrene-based food and drinkware will begin in January 2022. The act also suggests that straws only be made available upon request at venues like restaurants.
  5. Requires minimum recycled content: Both the bill and the EPA will require “plastic beverage containers to include an increasing percentage of recycled content in their products.”
  6. Mandates standardized labels: The EPA will be required to standardize recycling and composting labels. This will assist the public with proper identification and sorting of items for recycling.
  7. Protects local authority: Local and state governments will retain the right to issue tighter standards or ban additional products.
  8. Protects developing countries: Any country that is not part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) may no longer import plastic waste from the United States. many of whom have been a major source of ocean plastic pollution due to their inability to manage the waste. A country must expressly consent to receiving our waste before the United States may export to them.
  9. Pauses plastic production: To give environmental agencies a fighting chance, the act requires them to complete current investigations before permitting new permits that would increase plastic production.

The bill’s chances of success

David Biderman, the executive director and CEO for the Solid Waste Association of North America, commented that the bill’s odds are not high, given that other pro-recycling bills “have bipartisan support.”

The track record for similar “Bottle Bills” is not good. Large beverage manufacturers such as Coca-Cola claim to take the lead in supporting container deposit laws, but then fail when the measures add handling costs to their operations.

Support from businesses and environmentalists

Upon Senator Udall’s announcement, World Wildlife Fund immediately endorsed the legislation, stating, “The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act will provide the capital and incentives we need to reduce unnecessary waste and work toward a truly circular economy.”

While Democrats may be alone in supporting the bill, as no Republicans have yet to sign on, environmentalists are enjoying support from “across the aisle” among business leaders concerned with a triple bottom line.

The American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), which counts among its membership companies such as Lego, Clif Bar, Ben & Jerry’s, Eileen Fisher and Seventh Generation, also released a statement of support on Tuesday. ASBC Senior Vice President Thomas Oppel explained that “the crisis is a real risk to our economy.” At the same time, he viewed taking action as an opportunity that would “stimulate research and development leading to thousands of new entrepreneurial opportunities.”

Image credit: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash

Greg Heilers headshot

Greg Heilers writes on green business and sustainability for private clients and top publications. After graduating from university, he had the privilege to learn from opportunities in France, Palestine, Scotland, Guatemala and the USA. Today, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and enjoys any chance he gets to garden or hike.

Read more stories by Greg Heilers