UPDATE: Dec. 18, 2020: President Trump signed the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act into law on Friday. A White House announcement highlighted the bill's creation of a Marine Debris Foundation, "genius prize," increased cooperation "to raise international awareness of plastic waste and combat marine debris" and infrastructure grants to be administered by the U.S. EPA.
- Both chambers of Congress recently passed the final version of the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act (S.1982) and it now awaits President Trump's signature. Multiple sources anticipate Trump will sign it. The bill aims to reduce, remove and prevent plastic waste in the environment, especially waterways, through clean-up efforts and investments in plastic recycling infrastructure.
- The bill would provide $55 million in funding each year through 2025 for improving "local post-consumer materials management," including municipal recycling programs. Funding would also be available for local waste management authorities.
- An additional $10 million per year (through 2025) would be available to local governments and nonprofits via grants for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, and "trash-free waters" programs such as anti-litter initiatives and ordinance enforcement. A "genius prize" would be established for innovations that tackle marine debris.
SOS 2.0 appears likely to be the only notable recycling policy passed during this session of Congress and proponents have touted its bipartisan support in both chambers. The bill builds on the first Save Our Seas Act, which became law in 2018. It has undergone numerous revisions and additions over the past year in efforts to appease legislators and members of the public who argued it didn't adequately address the problem of ocean plastic.
Many recycling-related discussions recently — from marine debris to reducing inbound contamination — end up at the same place: the need for better infrastructure. Cost is seen as one of the leading barriers to improving recycling infrastructure.
"Collecting and processing material is not free and it requires collaboration between local and state governments, the federal government, industry [and] nonprofits," said Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council (ACC).
Municipalities and private recycling businesses alike can struggle to secure the funding necessary for infrastructure upgrades. Proponents view SOS 2.0 as a federal shot in the arm needed to upgrade recycling programs and equipment across the country.
Groups including ACC and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) lauded the bill's final passage in the Senate last week. SWANA noted the measure's timeliness in relation to other actions that soon will impact the recycling industry.
"With China set to ban imported recyclables and scrap completely in less than a month, and an amendment to the Basel Convention taking effect in 2021 that will limit export options for discarded plastics, Congress’ action was both timely and necessary," said SWANA CEO and Executive Director David Biderman in a statement.
But some environmental groups remain opposed to the bill. They would prefer to see plastic use reduced or banned instead of bolstering existing plastic recycling systems and encouraging more products to be manufactured. Beyond Plastics is among the opponents who say the legislation doesn't go far enough.
"Over 11 million metric tons of plastics pollute our oceans every year. Instead of tackling the problem at the source, the Save Our Seas bill does virtually nothing to seriously address the problem. It includes a few studies, a genius prize and the creation of a new public-private organization that can accept unlimited money from companies that produce plastics and others," said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics. "A much more serious approach is embodied in the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. Passage of that bill into law would actually help solve the problem."
Baca suggests opponents might not be considering the whole picture, saying "they're on the wrong side of the issue" and reiterating ACC's common stance that "we don't have a plastic problem, we have a plastic waste problem."
He noted that better infrastructure could promote cleaner waterways. Plus, collecting more material can funnel resources back through the recycling system and generate more recycled content for making new products more sustainably. In turn, better recycled content availability may encourage brands to set and follow through on sustainability commitments.
At the same time, he recognized SOS 2.0 is not a silver bullet for eliminating marine plastics and perfecting recycling systems.
"This is not the end of the road for this issue. ... There's clearly more that can be done. This is not going to solve everything, but it's a solid step... in making sure we have well-funded infrastructure programs for collecting plastic waste," Baca said.
Stakeholders from all sides of the issue widely expect the uptick in federal discussion around recycling to continue in the next session of Congress, with plastics remaining a major focal point.