Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Includes Money for Recycling, But the Debate Over Plastics Rages On

The plastics and petrochemical industries are welcoming the $350 million for recycling and the management of plastic waste that’s included in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law on Nov. 15.

The legislation seeks to promote recycling and improve solid waste management and recycling services.

But there is broad agreement from competing political camps that the spending will not do nearly enough to solve the United States’ contribution to a global crisis of plastics waste. The Congressional action comes as the battle over plastic wastes continues in cities and states across the country, and as Congress struggles to find agreement on more robust plastics legislation.

Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council, an industry lobby group, called the recycling money in the infrastructure bill “a very positive step.” But, he added, “more needs to be done.”

Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, was more dismissive. “It’s a good first step—for 1985,” she said. “What’s missing is a serious commitment to waste reduction.”

Enck said any 7-year-old in the United States can recite the call to “reduce, reuse and recycle,” the step-ladder to effective environmental management of solid wastes. But “we continue to skip the first rungs,” she said.

‘The Gold Standard of Federal Legislation’

Fossil fuel interests and environmental advocates have divergent views on what to do about a global burden of waste that’s choking oceans with disposable bottles and bags and invading human bodies with microplastics. 

The industry has been simultaneously fighting to prevent plastics bans and trying to push solutions that allow plastics production to keep growing, while promoting what it calls “advanced recycling,” or the chemical conversion of plastic waste into feedstocks for other products.

Many environmental advocates are rallying around the Break Free From Plastics Act, the substance of which did not make it into the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Break Free From Plastics, first introduced in 2020, is a wish-list of plastics policies for green groups. Among them:

  • Require producers of packaging, containers and food-service products to design, manage and finance waste and recycling programs.
  • Establish a national bottle bill.
  • Ban certain single-use plastic products that are not recyclable and ban or put fees on plastic carryout bags at stores.
  • Establish minimum recycled content requirements for certain plastic products, like beverage containers and packaging.
  • Pause the permitting of new and expanded plastic production facilities as the EPA studies the localized pollution impacts of plastics manufacturing.

The legislation was reintroduced in March by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.). Beyond Plastics calls it “the gold standard of federal legislation to make meaningful reductions in the amount of plastic pollution the U.S.”

Alex Truelove, the zero waste director for the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group, who tracks plastics and waste issues in Congress, acknowledged that the Break Free From Plastics Act was unlikely to get the support it would need in the current Congress. With the Senate split 50-50, the bill needs 60 votes to pass.

“But it’s a useful way to talk about the solutions,” Truelove said. “It’s a blueprint” for lawmakers who could break off pieces to include in other legislation, he added.

Action also continues at the local and state level on plastics, he said.

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Eight states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont—have banned single-use plastic bags. Many more have preempted local bans, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

This year Oregon followed Maine in adopting laws requiring producers of packaging materials, including plastics, to share in the costs of recycling programs—a common requirement in Europe.

Bipartisan Support for ‘Sustainable’ Plastics? 

The president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, Tony Radoszewski, uses the word “bipartisan” to describe efforts at managing plastics and plastic waste. 

In a written statement, he said that the “inclusion of key recycling infrastructure and waste management provisions demonstrates the bipartisan support from Congress and the Biden Administration to invest in the sustainability of plastic now and well into the future.”

The infrastructure bill incorporated the RECYCLE Act and, as part of the $350 million in funding, allocated $75 million to boost public education about recycling, such as public relations campaigns to remind people how and where to recycle. With the funding, EPA will be able to award grants to improve the effectiveness of residential and community recycling programs through public education and outreach.

Another $275 million would provide the first funding for the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in 2020 but with no budget. Save Our Seas 2.0 seeks to boost research, international cooperation and ocean cleanup capacity and offer new grants for waste management and recycling equipment.

The money for public education and outreach could help, but it would fall far short of solving the plastic waste problem, Truelove said. “In my view, education gets us from our own 20 yard line to like the 25 or 30 yard line,” leaving as much as 75 more yards to score, he said, using a football analogy.

Both Truelove and Enck said they were not sure how the Save Our Seas 2.0 money would be spent because, they said, the language in the infrastructure bill is vague. 

“I don’t think anyone knows,” Enck said. But if the goal is to improve local recycling programs across the country, she added, “we probably need four times” the $275 million.

Baca said he expects the Save Our Seas 2.0 allocation will provide grants to support what he called “issues at the front end” of the problem, such as litter prevention and recycling equipment.

Taken together, he said, the infrastructure bill “lays a solid foundation” and sends the signal that “these are bipartisan issues.”

The Plastics Recycling Rate Is 9 Percent 

In recent years, researchers have documented that tiny particles of plastic are pervasive in the environment, found everywhere from mountaintops to inside human bodies.

In September, for example, researchers reported in the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science & Technology Letters that they had found in a pilot study that infants had higher amounts of certain microplastics in their stool than adults. 

Then in October, a global team of researchers led by Kyushu University in Japan, estimated that there were 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastics, or the equivalent of some 30 billion 500 millimeter plastic water bottles, in the world’s oceans.

Dead whales have washed up on beaches with dozens of pounds of plastic waste in their stomachs. And there is a growing awareness of the role the plastics industry plays in climate change.

The U.S. in 2018 generated nearly 300 million tons of municipal solid waste and recycled or composted less than a third of that, according to the EPA. The plastics recycling rate is just 9 percent.

Last week, EPA made public a new national recycling strategy with five objectives, including improving markets for recycled commodities, increasing collection and materials management infrastructure, and reducing contamination in the recycled materials stream that often results in landfilling. It also welcomes further discussion of chemical recycling, a process in which plastics are broken down on a molecular level to become feedstock for other products. 

“We need a transformative vision for our waste management system—one that is inclusive, more equitable, and reflects the urgency of the climate crisis,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan wrote in a preamble to the strategy document.

The industry increasingly is promoting advanced or chemical recycling as a big part of the solution and is investing billions in the technology, Baca said.

“We are taking materials, sorted and cleaned, and breaking them down into new materials,” he said. “We are focused on ensuring more plastic is used to make new plastic.”

Neither Baca, Enck nor Truelove said they were aware of any specific language in the infrastructure bill that supported chemical recycling. But Truelove said he’s concerned that tax break language in the bill backed by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin could potentially support the development of what has been called the Appalachian Storage Hub, a new regional constellation of petrochemical and plastics manufacturing facilities in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky, as well as new chemical recycling plants.

Many environmentalists remain skeptics of the industry’s push toward advanced recycling.

In theory, if plastic film were broken down to its molecular level and reprocessed back into plastic film and there was no need to tap additional virgin fossil fuels, that could be a good thing, Truelove said.

“In practice, none of the chemical recycling facilities I know actually do that,” he said. “They break down and melt plastic, but then convert it to fuels or feedstocks,” while producing a lot of emissions, he said.

If chemical recycling is effectively making “new fossil fuels, that is the last thing we need,” Enck said.

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