Senate Hearing Asks: “Can Plastic Recycling Be More Like Paper?”

In the recent Senate hearing on recycling and the circular economy, lawmakers made some very unfavorable comparisons between recycling rates for plastics and other packaging materials.

For example, Senator Shelley Moore Capito, RW.Va., at the Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing on Sept. 22, wondered what the paper industry and its recycling rate could teach about 65 percent of the plastic packaging industry and its 13 percent recycling rating.

“We have heard a lot about plastics and the low numbers,” said Capito, asking a paper industry witness what “lessons” from that industry “could be related to more efficient and successful plastics recycling.”

Similarly, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Noted the paper recycling rate was greater than 60 percent and said, “I wish we had the same for plastics and other materials.”

In a hearing that covered a lot, other lawmakers focused on bottle deposit and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs, including a joint plan by the American Beverage Association and the World Wildlife Fund.

ABA and WWF released a plan in June providing for federal EPR programs with some degree of state or local flexibility, and they noted that this could include “tip surcharges, deposit return systems and new infrastructure funding programs.”

At the hearing, Roberta Elias, Director of Politics and Government Affairs for WWF, said the beverage industry wanted higher recycling rates in order to provide enough high quality material to meet the recycled content goals.

Referring to the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, sponsored by EPW committee member Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore, she said ABA and her group supported both concepts in that law, which are a national EPR system and a national container deposit system required.

EPR plans generally require the industry to fund or manage recycling programs rather than being primarily a government funded company.

“WWF, ABA and many others support break free concepts,” said Elias. “We hope that the stand-alone EPR will ultimately be passed.

“We also hope this chamber will make the most of vehicle relocation, including securing public-private investments in infrastructure, a national deposit return system, and a fee for new plastic like those in Sen. [Sheldon] Whitehouse’s Reduce Act, “she said in her opening speech.

Whitehouse, DR.I. introduced a 20 cents-per-pound tax on virgin resin used in single-use plastic packaging in August and is reportedly being part of the $ 3.5 trillion social spending and tax plan Senate Democrats considered.

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

The senior Republican on the panel, Capito, said that while she shared concerns about recycling challenges, she questioned some unspecified plans by colleagues.

“While some of my colleagues in Congress have proposed various guidelines, regulations and mandates do not create effective, long-term markets,” she said. “Nor does it help to falsely inflate the market for recycled goods with federal dollars. It simply prolongs the unprofitable sector, which could end up where we are today if funding is removed.”

However, Capito found that the city’s recycling programs were financially strained when China stopped importing lower-value scrap in 2018. These problems were underscored by the lack of US demand for recycled material.

She pointed to a Senate workshop she and EPW Chairman Senator Tom Carper, D-Del., Hosted in early September to look at technological advances in the recycling industry.

“For example, one company has successfully recycled over 2 million pounds of polystyrene through chemical recycling after use at its Oregon facility,” said Capito in an obvious reference to the Regenyx PS recycling facility in Tigard, Ore. The facility is a joint venture of the chemical recycling company Agilyx Corp. and PS manufacturer Americas Styrenics LLC.

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

However, some of their Democratic counterparts made clear the challenges of plastic pollution and called for stronger government action.

According to Whitehouse, at least 98 percent of plastic products are made from virgin resin today.

“Basically, it’s about completely new plastic; there is essentially no meaningful recycled post, ”he said. “There is a lot of noise and people are talking about recycling. The industry loves to talk about recycling, I think to give the general impression that plastic is being recycled.

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

Merkley pointed to very different recycling rates for PET bottles in different states, depending on whether they have container deposits.

He noted a recent study that said five states have a PET bottle recycling rate of over 50 percent – Maine, Oregon, California, New York, and Vermont – while the rate in most states is less than 20 percent. He asked a North Carolina state witness who said the recycling rate of PET bottles is only 8 percent.

“No state has managed to have a significant amount of bottles recycled without a deposit system,” said Merkley.

There were no plastics industry witnesses at the hearing, but the American Chemistry Council said it made formal comments and issued a press release outlining its five-point plan for federal legislation, including EPR and regulations May 30 Prescribe percent recycled content in plastic packaging, determined 2030.

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