The climate crisis harbors opportunities and risks for plastics, as Biden’s EV plan and state EPR debates show
Adapting the economy to the climate crisis poses both opportunities and risks for the plastics industry, as illustrated by two recent decisions by President Joe Biden on electric cars and Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown on packaging.
First is the opportunity: On August 5, Biden announced a goal that by 2030 50 percent of new cars sold in the US would be electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell models. That goal was immediately lauded by the American Chemistry Council’s plastics division, which pointed to the role of plastics in making cars lighter, building better batteries, and increasing the range of electric vehicles.
Biden portrayed it as helping the US to lead the way in technology and support domestic jobs. He also announced the development of new fuel economy and emissions standards, which ACC saw as another benefit for lightweight plastics in automobiles.
But the next day, too, the risks became visible across the country.
Brown signed a bill on Aug. 6 that makes Oregon only the second state, after Maine, to pass an Extended Producer Responsibility Act that requires companies to pay more to shoulder the burden of packaging recycling.
Plastic packaging recycling rates are dire, and China’s 2018 import ban on substandard plastics and paper waste highlighted the serious shortcomings in recycling in the United States.
EPR systems are complex and much is still unknown how they affect the choice of packaging material. But as EPR systems take shape and charge fees, the usage and disposal model is certainly not good for most plastic packaging.
In both Oregon and Maine, governments have to write many detailed rules to determine company fees and how to prepare for things like recycled content, recycling rates, and the overall environmental impact of packaging.
But it’s clear that governments in both states are fed up with taxpayers paying most of the bill for packaging recycling. So far, the EPR laws have not worked as the packaging industry would prefer.
In every state, the Ameripen industrial corporation has knocked out the new laws.
Ameripen, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, which includes plastics companies Berry Global, Charter Nex Films, Dart Containers and Dow Inc., said both Oregon and Maine do not give industry a big enough role.
In Maine in particular, Ameripen found it backed a different EPR bill than the one that ultimately passed, which leaves companies “out of the process” and is forced to pay the bill for a system that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection the sole decision maker. “
In Oregon it was said that they were “disappointed” that the new law “does not give producers a greater role in the development of the program.”
Ameripen made it clear that it believes companies have some financial responsibility for collecting and recycling and wants to work with states.
But it seems that so far states are saying that they want to be the driving force behind the development of EPR systems because they bear the financial burden of non-recyclable packaging.
The federal government is also paying much more attention, as recent news shows that a key U.S. Senator on plastics policy wants a 20 cents a pound tax on virgin resin to aid recycling, clean up marine litter, and improve equity and pollution the plastic production.
That brings us back to Washington and EV policy.
ACC welcomed the Biden government’s ambitious goal for electric vehicles and their pursuit of new fuel efficiency standards as they “expand the possibilities for lightweight, durable plastics” and technologies that reduce emissions.
ACC found that plastics make up 50 percent of the volume of a car but only 10 percent of its weight.
“We are pleased that President Biden’s Executive Order calls for ‘expanding the entire domestic manufacturing supply chain,’ which includes the companies that make advanced plastics that will play a vital role in making electric vehicles possible,” said Joshua Baca , Vice President of ACC Plastics President.
Other federal laws also recognize the role of plastics.
ACC pointed out that plans for in-house transportation and energy spending for the next year include money to work on lower-carbon vehicles, including reclaiming plastic vehicles.
For example, a House subcommittee noted, in household language, that “lightweight plastics and polymer composites play an important role” in vehicle safety, innovation, fuel efficiency and the creation of skilled manufacturing jobs.
“Light plastics help automakers build safer, more fuel-efficient cars and are essential for creating our country’s low-carbon infrastructure,” said Baca, commenting on the house’s plans.
This is the landscape for the plastics industry in Washington and state capitals today.
There are ways to prove that plastics play an important role in meeting climate and environmental goals in durable goods like automobiles. But there is also growing pressure to do more – and make a bigger financial contribution – on plastic packaging waste and pollution from plastic production.
Behind this is the need to continue working on the long-term goal of decoupling plastic production from fossil fuels so that we can produce most of the plastic we need from renewable sources such as recycling existing materials or using bio-based raw materials.
Steve Toloken is Assistant Managing Editor at Plastics News. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.