Long Beach congressman co-authors bill putting burden of recycling on plastic industry

A bill aimed at taking steps toward making the plastics industry responsible for the nation’s plastic pollution was introduced Tuesday by a host of Democratic members of congress.

Long Beach Congressman Alan Lowenthal co-authored the bill, titled the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, with New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark. California Senators Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris and Long Beach area Congresswoman Nanette Barragan also signed on as supporters.

The bulk of the bill is aimed at how plastics are recycled and who pays for it.

In its current form, the bill would require corporations to design, manage and finance waste and recycling programs.

The bill would create a national beverage container refund program that would set the price of returns at no less than 10 cents per bottle and would reduce or ban certain single-use plastics that are not recyclable.

It would also set minimum requirements for beverage containers, packaging and food-service products for the amount of recycled material they contain and standardize recycle labeling. In addition, it would pause the opening of new plastic facilities until environmental and health protections are put in place.

“Recent scientific studies show that plastic waste particles are now found everywhere we look—in the soil, in the rainwater, in the food chain, and even inside our own bodies,” Lowenthal said in a statement Tuesday. “Our legislation applies one of the core principles of environmental law: ‘the polluter pays.’ It is time for multi-billion-dollar companies to step up and cover the costs of cleaning up the waste from their products.”

Lowenthal also pointed to the U.S.’s role as a major exporter of plastic waste. He said the nation has a responsibility to deal with the issue before it grows worse for future generations.

While some consumers of plastics like soft drink companies have been open to the legislation presented Tuesday  other lobbying groups pushed back hard against the idea that producers should pay the cost for recycling plastics.

“But suggestions, such as a moratorium on new plastic facilities, would limit domestic manufacturing growth, jobs, tax revenues for local communities, and other benefits” a statement from the American Chemistry Council, a group that dedicates its efforts to the plastics and chemical industries. “Society needs plastics to live more sustainably. Plastics make our cars lighter and more fuel efficient and our homes more energy efficient while significantly lowering our carbon footprint.”

The group pushed back on the legislation while noting that plastics companies look forward to working with Congress but stating that plastics are a necessary part of delivering clean water and other services to Americans.

While many plastic items are currently listed as recyclable, not all of them end up getting recycled. Often the cost of that is passed onto consumers. California estimated it previously sent about 60% of its recyclables to China, but that has changed as China has stopped accepting a large swath of items in an attempt to clean up its own environment.

Plastics like milk jugs, soda bottles and detergent bottles were still being accepted by China as of last year. However, other plastics like bubble wrap, takeout clam shells, yogurt cups and plastic bags were not. Lowenthal’s bill would likely take aim at phasing out some of these one-time-use plastics.

Because of China’s ban on accepting these items and others, the price residents in Long Beach pay for recycling has gone up.

In December 2018, a city memo revealed that residential refuse rates would be increasing, in part because of equipment purchases but also because of China’s refusal to take certain items. Rates increased by nearly $5 per month.

Long Beach, like other municipalities, has taken the issue into its own hands by banning foam products and recently expanding the law to cover straws and other specific packaging materials. The bill introduced Thursday would apply nationally if it were to pass.

A source familiar with the bill’s progress said that while it was introduced in both bodies of Congress it will likely be taken up by the House of Representatives first. However, it is “not very likely” that the bill will advance past the Senate because of the pushback expected from the oil industry.

Before heading to D.C., Lowenthal had long been a proponent of legislation aimed at cleaning up the environment. He championed the first iteration of the Clean Air Action Plan now instituted at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and also helped craft a bill that offered incentives for ships to travel at slower speeds to reduce emissions.

In Congress he’s pushed bills to block drilling on federal lands, mandate emission reports and protect animals from policies implemented by the Trump administration. However, the bill could serve as a starting point for future legislation as it’s not likely to be adopted by the current administration.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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