The Pros and Cons of The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act

As I write this, The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is debuting in Washington.

On a national level, this is quite possibly the largest attempt to regulate plastic production since it was first mainstreamed into our economy over a century ago. In that respect, this bill is groundbreaking.

This post will break apart each aspect of the bill, as described on the Plastic Pollution Coalition website to try to help explain what the clauses mean and what they mean for you.

1 Require Product Producers to Take Responsibility for Collecting and Recycling Materials

Producers of covered products (packaging, containers, food service products and paper, regardless of recyclability, compostability, and type of material, including plastic, paper, glass and metal) will be required to design, manage, and finance programs to collect and process product waste that would normally burden state and local governments.  The legislation will encourage producers to cooperate with those who produce similar products through Producer Responsibility Organizations (PRO) to take responsibility for their waste and implement cleanup programs with Environmental Protection Agency approval.

Producers will invest in U.S. domestic recycling and composting infrastructure, cover the costs of waste management and clean-up, and promote awareness raising measures for covered products.  (Source)

Breakdown: Any manufacturer of a product that comes in any form of packaging will be responsible for both collecting and recycling/composting that packaging material from the consumer. This will force the producer to fund recycling projects and improve the recycling industry in our country.


2. Require Nationwide Beverage Container Refunds

The legislation will institute a 10-cent national refund requirement for all beverage containers, regardless of material, to be refunded to customers when they return containers. Any unclaimed refunds will go to beverage producers to supplement investments in nationwide collection and recycling infrastructure. This legislation encourages states that have already implemented similar initiatives to continue their current systems if they match the federal requirements. (Source)

Breakdown: On paper this sounds like a good idea: charge consumers 10-cents extra for beverage containers that they can then return to recycling centers and and be refunded. Of course, this won’t work. At least not on the level necessary to make this useful. Requiring the consumer to collect and return their soda cans for a 10-cent deposit is not enough of an incentive for most people to do anything.

When I first read this, I was reminded that this policy doesn’t exist in every state. What I mean is, I grew up in the few states abbreviated on the side of a soda can… the states that charged you a deposit fee but allowed you to collect it back when you recycled the can.  So when you see things in the majority of places you’ve lived, sometimes you forget those policies aren’t national.

In fact, where I grew up in Massachusetts, our Girl Scout group would collect soda cans in the neighborhood, deposit them, and collect the money for a Washington D.C. trip.

But it was gross. We collected the sticky, stinky soda cans in a black trash bag and hauled it to the recycling center next to the Stop n’ Shop once a week. I still remember the odor. Gag.

Here in California we also have the deposit tax. Each week, I drive by the recycling truck that parks in the Lucky’s Supermarket parking lot on Woodside. Is it Jeff Bezos and Zuckerberg waiting in line to deposit their cans? No. It is our homeless citizens who had pulled them out of other people’s recycling bins and were trying to make a few bucks off them.

So here’s why this tax is not going to work: It never has. In the 20+ years other states have already been doing it, it has proven to be pretty much useless. For most people, $2 or $3 in cash isn’t worth driving a trash bag full of sticky cans to a recycling center so you can individually push each can through a machine. For most people, they’d rather toss the cans in the recycling bin outside their home and forget about them.

Who does this tax hurt? The ones who are living paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford to have 10-cents added on to every beverage container they buy for their family. Imagine the single parent working two jobs to support her family. Now they just added a deposit tax on the drinks she buys for her kids. And to make that money back, she has to collect the cans and bring them to a center and deposit them? Do you think she has time for that?

What the deposit tax does is give more money to the beverage producers when the bottles don’t get returned, and really hurt the one’s already struggling to make end’s meet.

10-cents extra per bottle won’t hurt, bother, or really negative affect the upper class. But it could really hurt the working classes. The upper-class won’t have the incentive to deposit the cans back, whereas the working classes will now feel obligated too. They need that money back. This isn’t fair.

This clause needs to be amended.

3. Source Reduction and Phase-Out Certain Polluting Products

Beginning in January 2022, some of the most common single-use plastic products that pollute our environment, cannot be recycled, and have readily available alternatives will be source reduced and phased out from sale and distribution. The prohibitions will apply to lightweight plastic carryout bags, food and drinkware from expanded polystyrene, plastic stirrers and plastic utensils.  Straws will only be available upon request. (Source)

Breakdown: In 2020, we have many sustainable alternatives to many forms of toxic plastics, such as polystyrene (Styrofoam). Let’s use these sustainable materials instead.

Desired Addendum: Can we add something about how we need to fund more research into renewable material alternatives? This seems clause just seems to favor “safer” plastics, which I think is a farce because no plastic is truly safe. So just because one type might be “safer,” wouldn’t it be ideal to just find a better material all together? Like some farm-raisable seaweed we can manipulate into a plastic container? I don’t think this is unrealistic.

4. Carryout Bag Fee

The legislation would impose a fee on the distribution of carryout bags.  The fee can be retained by retailers who implement a reusable bag credit program at their place of business.  For fees collected by those who do not participate in a reusable bag credit program, the fee will be used to fund access to reusable bags as well as litter clean up and recycling infrastructure.  (Source)

Breakdown: Again, who are we actually taxing? The rich or the poor? We have a bag ban in California and businesses still get around it. We still have stores that use plastic bags. Only now instead of giving away a flimsy plastic grocery bag, they charge customers 25-cents for a thicker plastic bag. How? Because they say the thicker plastic makes it reusable.

But no one reuses them.

I mean, some people do, but most people do not.

On the other hand, some stores only offer paper bags and charge customers 0.20 or 0.25-cents to use them. Or you can buy a reusable bag from 0.99-cents to $20.00 depending on the quality. The cheaper ones don’t last and just become landfill trash anyway. But if a customer can’t afford the higher quality one, but still wants to use reusable bags to be more eco-conscious, it’s not fair they are not able to afford something that will last and be truly reusable.

Imagine the plastic bag manufacturer being told that distributing free plastic bags was going to be banned in California. But before he panics, they let them know that instead, they’ll be selling plastic bags and he’ll actually be making even more money.

Solid plan for the environment. Not really.

In summation, it’s not working in California. Can we expect it to work nationally?

Desired Addendum: If customers can’t afford high-quality reusable bags, allow them to be borrowed. A library system of reusable materials that are easily cleaned for to keep hygiene standards high.

Or subsidize reusable materials.

5. Minimum Recycled Content Requirement:

Plastic beverage containers will be required to include an increasing percentage of recycled content in their manufacture before entering the market.  Additionally, the EPA will be required to implement post-consumer minimum recycled content for other covered products after a review with the National Institute of Standards and Technology is completed to determine technical feasibility.  (Source)

This clause states that companies must increase the amount of recycled material into their packaging. How much of an increase? To be determined.

Sure this is a good idea on some levels. Yes, let’s recycle metals endlessly, they’re good for that. But plastic cannot be recycled forever. It will eventually break down. So instead of melting down second-hand plastic and making it into another single-use item, why not make it into something more sustainable that hopefully won’t need to be recycled for a while. Like what? Seriously, your imagination is the limit. Plastic is called plastic because its malleable. It’s, well, plastic… in the truest sense of the original definition. Plastic can be made into houses, vehicles, and countless other things.

Desired Addendum: Why do we keep using post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic for single-use items when we know their recyclability has an end point? Let’s think more long term.


6. Recycling and Composting

The EPA will develop standardized recycling and composting labels for products and receptacles to encourage proper sorting and disposal of items that can be recycled or composted.(Source)

Breakdown: Great. What are your labels going to be made out of though? Hopefully not plastic stickers.


7. Plastic Tobacco Filters, Electronic Cigarettes and Derelict Fishing Gear

Following studies on the environmental impacts of plastic tobacco filters, electronic cigarette parts and derelict fishing gear, the relevant agencies will propose measures to reduce those environmental impacts.(Source)

Breakdown: Wow that’s unspecific.

So, basically, things are bad for the environment and we should do things to make them less bad. Profound.

I’m absolutely not trying to poo-poo on this Act. It’s a wonderful step in the right direction. But if I can poke holes in in the plan, our opponent’s will be able to as well.


8. Prevent Plastic Waste from Being Shipped to Developing Countries that Cannot Manage It

The bill prevents the export of plastic waste, scrap and pairings to non-OECD countries, many of whom have been a major source of ocean plastic pollution due to their inability to manage the waste.(Source)

Breakdown: This is one of the strongest clauses. We know we are shipping trash and “recyclables” to countries who simply cannot handle or process it. In short, we are insidiously dumping our problems onto poorer nations. That’s absolutely vile.

This clause would aim to prohibit shipping trash abroad and improve our waste industry to better process and ideally recycle those materials instead.

9. Protect Existing State Action

The bill protects state and local governments to enact more stringent standards, requirements, and additional product bans. (Source)

Breakdown: This might sound insignificant but this short statement is very important. It is designed to protect a state’s individual decisions to ban plastic and protect the environment.

One problem I see arising is the fact that some states are clearly more accepting of anti-plastic policies than others. So if state’s don’t have a ban to protect, we’re not making a lot of progress.


10. Temporary Pause on New Plastic Facilities

The legislation gives environmental agencies the valuable time needed to investigate the cumulative impacts of new and expanded plastic-producing facilities on the air, water, climate, and communities before issuing new permits to increase plastic production. The legislation would also update EPA regulations to eliminate factory-produced plastic pollution in waterways and direct the EPA to update existing Clean Air and Clean Water Act emission and discharge standards to ensure that plastic-producing facilities integrate the latest technology to prevent further pollution. (Source)

Breakdown: YES.

Talk about saving the best for last. Let’s stop the construction of ALL new petrochemical factories (see our Petition to stop the construction of The Sunshine Project) until we can come up with a sustainable alternative.

And “eliminate factory-produced plastic pollution in waterways” is something we should have started a century ago. But better late than never.

Desired Addendum: Let’s step it up and regulate all pollution from factories into waterways as well as any emissions into the air.




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