This Is Plastics: New “Nurdle” Legislation Ignores Existing Policy, Distracts from Real Solutions to Address Plastic Waste


New “Nurdle” Legislation Ignores Existing Policy, Distracts from Real Solutions to Address Plastic Waste

A new bill designed to reduce plastic waste could actually ignore existing regulation and do more harm than good.


Recently, legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, a companion to a 2021 Senate bill aimed at reducing plastic waterway pollution by regulating plastic pellets, or “nurdles,” a form of microplastics. Nurdles, which can evade intended storage containers and receptables due to their small size, are melted down and molded to produce many of the critical products made from plastics, including automobile parts, recyclable plastic bags and countless others.

While these bills aim to solve a very important problem—plastic pollution in waterways—they are unnecessarily duplicative as there are already regulations in place that appropriately regulate nurdles. Rather than introducing legislation that may do more harm than good by creating a more complex but not more effective regulatory environment, policymakers should collaborate with the plastics industry to create legislation that builds off current proven strategies to effectively and efficiently keep plastics out of the environment and inside the economy where they belong.

The Clean Water Act already regulates plastic waterway pollution

The Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act would prompt the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement measures to block plastic pellet waterway pollution, an action that ignores an existing regulatory framework that already governs waterway pollution: the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act, amended in 1972 as the Clean Water Act (CWA). The bill was the first major law passed to address water pollution in the United States, and 1972 amendments include direct standards for plastics manufacturers.

The CWA already serves as a sufficient framework to address plastic waterway pollution, as it allows regulators to issue permits for factories and other pollution sources to govern what can and can’t enter waterways. Certainly, there’s room to improve CWA enforcement to address waterway pollution. Specific to plastics, a 2021 audit from EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that on both federal and state levels, governments “have not widely applied all the tools established by the Clean Water Act to reduce the trash, including plastic, in U.S. waterways.” The report recommends evaluating existing obstacles to full CWA implementation, developing strategies to increase waterway pollution prevention efforts and providing support through the CWA’s existing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program—providing a clear path forward to improve nurdle management within the existing regulatory framework.

When lawmakers introduce legislation that overlays similar rules on top of existing frameworks, it creates complexities that can actually increase the financial burden and hinder the goals of the regulation, in this case reducing plastic pollution in waterways. A 2019 report from the Business Roundtable, which includes CEOs of leading U.S. companies responsible for over 15 million jobs and more than $7.5 trillion in revenue, notes that regulatory overlap produces unnecessary costs for businesses, stifling job creation, innovation and investment while also dampening economic activity across the wider economy.

Plastics are the backbone of many economic sectors. As currently written, the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act could increase costs for many producers and users of plastics across the supply chain. Further, while its intent is noble, the legislation also disregards the significant investment the plastics industry has already made to successfully improve nurdle management.

Plastics industry already leads the charge on addressing microplastics

While some have said that the plastics industry has not done enough to responsibly manage nurdles, this assertion overlooks significant plastics industry investments in microplastics research and pollution reduction. The International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA)—a global association of chemical industry actors, including plastics companies—launched the Microplastics Advanced Research and Innovation Initiative (MARII) in 2022, a global roundtable that convenes industry, academia and others to discuss research into microplastics and develop innovative solutions.

Separately, the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division and Plastics Industry Association’s (PLASTICS) global campaign, Operation Clean Sweep (OCS), has worked to eliminate all forms of plastic pellets in the environment—including nurdles—for over 25 years with a proven track record. Along with conducting site-specific audits and enforcement, the campaign helps facilitate members’ implementation of specific techniques to minimize plastic resin pollution, including placing containers in loading areas to catch stray nurdles, increasing nurdle packaging sturdiness, conducting in-transit checks and implementing storm drain screens—among a variety of other tactics. OCS’ commonsense yet comprehensive set of guidelines for participating companies proves that industry has the power to tackle this problem—and is already taking the necessary steps.

Commonsense, collaborative solutions can strengthen existing regulations

The regulatory process is valuable and important to establishing safe, sustainable business practices—but it must be intentional in how it goes about creating new regulatory frameworks that work in tandem with and not against or in contrast to current legislation. The OCS framework can and should inform a federal standard for plastic pellet discharge prevention to ensure uniformity and effectiveness in applicable facilities across the country.

Specifically, OCS identifies storm drain screens capable of filtering stray nurdles out of storm water as the “last line of defense” against accidental contamination. Amending the CWA to require all facilities to have a written stormwater pollution prevention plan that includes site-specific best management practices could help strengthen—but not complicate—existing regulations.

As government works to address nurdle management, it should build solutions that bring stakeholders together in the name of collaboration to make a simple yet effective regulatory framework, all while building a more sustainable future.

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