- Lawmakers on Capitol Hill continued their heightened scrutiny of recycling policies and potential solutions yesterday with a hearing focused on "addressing America's plastic waste crisis." The House Energy and Commerce Committee's climate change subcommittee hosted the hearing, which featured testimony from a range of industry, government, advocacy and academic speakers.
- While speakers and lawmakers alike appeared in agreement on the need to address systemic recycling issues, Republicans balked at any legislation that might limit certain plastic products, like straws or bags. Some took aim at proposed legislation such as the newly-introduced Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, including Ranking Member John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who indicated opposition to "getting the federal government involved" in how municipalities manage their recycling operations.
- Several speakers also shared competing viewpoints on how to address ongoing market turbulence. Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets with the American Chemistry Council (ACC), voiced opposition to any product bans. Lynn Hoffman, co-president of Minnesota-based Eureka Recycling, argued legislation requiring "all stakeholders to pay their fair share" coupled with "bans and fees" could be an essential fix.
Federal bills addressing recycling are gaining attention, leading to more hearings on the subject. Another House subcommittee hosted its own hearing just a month ago. The Wednesday session notably emphasized the climate crisis along with marine debris and other plastics-linked issues.
"Our recycling system is simply not working," said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee and is a member of the Congressional Recycling Caucus.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) expressed some overlapping sentiments, but joined Shimkus (another caucus member) in expressing concern about a potential "federal takeover" of waste and recycling responsibilities. "We need to hear from the [U.S.] EPA, we need to hear from states," he said.
Divisions between lawmakers on how best to tackle the problems facing recycling appeared to form along partisan lines during the hearing, as Republicans showed more openness to some of the industry-backed bills.
Legislation supported by those players includes the education-focused RECYCLE Act — initially introduced in the Senate and now also in the House of Representatives — along with the infrastructure-centric RECOVER Act in the House. Another popular bill is Save Our Seas 2.0, legislation responding to marine debris controversy with support from the plastics industry and some environmental groups, which unanimously passed the Senate.
Democrats, by contrast, appeared more interested in conversations around extended producer responsibility (EPR) and bans on certain types of plastics, elements found in the Break Free legislation. Lawmakers also repeatedly probed the role of the federal government in a system that, up until now, has largely been left up to state and local officials – especially when it comes to recycling.
"[Our] patchwork of recycling programs creates confusion for consumers," said Pallone.
Hoffman, of Eureka, seemed to agree. She offered support for federal investments in recycling infrastructure, but also pushed for EPR and post-consumer recycled content standards. Moreover, she backed reduction and redesign of hard-to-recycle plastics, such as PVC #3 and polystyrene #6, as a concession to growing environmental issues. "We cannot recycle our way out of our consumption and climate crisis," said Hoffman, alluding to oil refineries, the source of many plastics.
Enrique Zaldivar, general manager for the Los Angeles Sanitation and Environment Bureau, similarly urged federal lawmakers to act. He also highlighted the value of international market development partnerships, including his agency's ongoing dialogue with Mexico. Arguing that local governments are being "crushed under the weight of the problem," Zaldivar expressed support for many of the solutions under consideration in Congress, including the RECOVER Act and Break Free legislation.
Still, industry is likely to continue resisting any approach that introduces considerable federal government oversight. While Billy Johnson, chief lobbyist for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, recognized there is "no one singular solution" to recycling turbulence, he emphasized strengthening education and outreach rather than turning significant control over to the federal government.
Christman of ACC also repeatedly offered that alternatives to plastics could prove more harmful to the environment. Compostables, he said as an example, also present challenges due to a lack of infrastructure outside of certain cities.
Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, declined to speak to whether plastics or alternatives might be worse for climate change specifically, as the science can be nuanced. Instead, she suggested that individuals consider looking beyond one-for-one replacements as they grapple with problems in the waste stream, including an overall reduction in consumption.
"The best thing we can do environmentally is not produce waste in the first place," Jambeck said.