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Plastics 101

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act reintroduced with onerous regulation and job-killing provisions

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The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, first introduced in the 116th  congress and reintroduced again on Thursday, March 25, 2021, continues to offer the wrong solutions to plastic waste. The bill’s sponsors U.S. Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), have actively supported calls by anti-plastics activists to limit plastics production. The result is a bill that would hinder efforts to manage waste and cripple plastics production and manufacturing investment. Ahead of the reintroduction, well-funded activists released the Presidential Plastics Action Plan, and hosted a press conference in December 2020 featuring Sen. Merkley.

In its current form, Break Free places a three-year moratorium on new permits for plastics production. It’s a move that would succeed in breaking free many of the one million men and women in plastics production from high-paying jobs. Supply chain shocks and personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages should have been a wake-up call that domestic plastics production is a national asset. Further curtailment will leave us worse off than before by harming an American manufacturing sector which provides numerous applications in food security, construction and infrastructure, aerospace, transportation and sustainability.

In addition to the moratorium on new plastics manufacturing, the bill also lays out a complex regulatory scheme called extended producer responsibility (EPR). When they are designed in partnership between industry and government, EPR programs can be positive for waste management, but Break Free’s EPR program takes an extreme approach that won’t effectively manage waste. This program would require plastic producers to manage the recycling and recovery of plastics once they’re discarded. Though potentially effective at the state level, EPR programs managed at a federal level are more likely to ignore crucial differences between plastics and the need to grow end markets for recycled content.

The Break Free EPR program also creates a timeline that wouldn’t put the appropriate infrastructure in place fast enough. In order to effectively manage plastic waste, we need more investments in recycling infrastructure, not just programs that emphasize waste collection. Consumers will also likely pay the burden of EPR programs, as products and goods become more expensive to pay for compliance costs. Finally, Break Free fails to recognize the many solutions that already exist—which we can continue to fund if companies aren’t diverting resources towards EPR. Billions of dollars are already invested in technologies to reduce plastic waste and implement sustainable, market-driven solutions to change consumer behavior and enable a circular plastics economy driven by post-consumer and recycled plastics.

Break Free, and its provision to pause plastics production permits would reduce the availability of the most sustainable material option—plastics. When life cycle emissions are factored in, plastics are the most sustainable material compared to existing alternatives. Yet by penalizing plastics, Break Free creates incentives to use less environmentally friendly alternatives like glass, tin, aluminum, and paper, which produce more emissions compared to plastics. The flexibility and durability of plastics also give them an edge over existing alternatives, and it is no coincidence that they play a leading role in food safety and public health.

Just like the CLEAN Future Act introduced earlier this month, Break Free would take the wrong actions to address plastic waste by punishing plastic producers rather than collaborating on solutions. Expanding the federal bureaucracy and imposing additional costs on consumers and onerous compliance regimes on businesses struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic diverts time and human capital away from solutions that produce results. Our country needs to look towards investments in the future, like advanced recycling and growing end-markets for post-consumer recycled plastics. Harming plastics production and harming our economy is not a plan forward.

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