A coalition of plastics and other industry groups wants Washington to play a bigger role in recycling.
As part of that effort, the coalition is pushing $500 million in new federal money to shore up local waste management against challenges like China's ban on scrap imports.
The effort, which includes the Plastics Industry Association and the American Chemistry Council, is broader than plastic, with associations for glass packaging and the waste and recycling industries also signing on.
And it's about more than money. The coalition wants to shift Washington's thinking around recycling — to recognize local waste collection systems as a type of infrastructure that should get financial support just like roads or airports. Members hope to introduce legislation in the next few weeks.
The industry proposal comes as both the Trump administration and Congress, including the new Democratic majority in the House, signal support for a large federal infrastructure program. That's seen as the most likely legislative vehicle for the industry proposal, although it's far from clear a big infrastructure program will pass.
Scott DeFife, vice president of government affairs at the Plastics Industry Association, said the coalition argues that much of the municipal recycling collection infrastructure is several decades old and faces new challenges it wasn't designed to handle.
He said with China and now other Asian nations banning scrap imports and forcing local governments to scale back the plastic materials they accept for recycling — and with the plastics industry facing growing public concern about waste and pollution — it's a good time for an expanded role for Washington.
"We think the country needs a system upgrade on recycling," DeFife said. "It could use a jolt of support. We think of our effort as a stimulus on recycling."
While the plastics association has been talking about this approach since last spring and working with allied groups, the coalition is only now putting specific funding figures behind it and zeroing in on legislative details.
The proposed dollar amount could change based on what the bill's Congressional sponsors want, but DeFife said the group is floating $500 million in federal matching funds over five years.
The idea is that local and state governments or private capital would have to kick in funding as well to get the grants, potentially unlocking $1 billion.
Dollars aside, DeFife said a major goal is to build support in Washington for the idea that recycling's environmental and economic benefits make it a public utility like electricity and drinking water.
"The primary issue is getting the federal government to think about recycling and waste management as a public utility that should deserve support within an infrastructure context, that is the primary thrust of what we're trying to do," DeFife said.
Plastics Industry Association Scott DeFife, vice president of government affairs for the Plastics Industry Association Money for MRFsWhile the potential $500 million funding is the centerpiece, the bill will also likely include provisions designed to upgrade material recovery facilities, which could include better sorting equipment to handle flexible films and other newer packaging.
The plastics industry, for example, is helping to pay for a demonstration project recycling such film in curbside systems in Pennsylvania.
As well, the legislation could call for quicker permitting for recycling facilities, including emerging "conversion" technologies like chemical recycling and pyrolysis. They're designed to break plastics back down into monomers, rather than traditional mechanical recycling. Such technology has been mentioned among innovations in the $1 billion, industry-funded Alliance to End Plastic Waste.
"This is not about easing environmental regulations as much as it is understanding that there's a new generation of conversion technology," DeFife said, adding that communities decide what approaches they want to take.
One thing that will not be part of this legislation that is part of the plastics industry's agenda: waste-to-energy and incineration. There's not enough agreement on that, DeFife said.
The legislative proposal will be a big part of a Washington lobbying fly-in the plastics association is planning for industry executives March 26-27.
NGOs lobby DC on plasticsLike the industry, environmental groups have been doing their own Washington lobbying around plastics issues, and they too are pushing for a bigger federal government role in waste and recycling.
Not surprisingly, though, they take a different approach.
In contrast to the industry proposal and its focus on stronger municipal collection, they put more attention on reducing consumption and solutions beyond recycling, including corporate producer responsibility for packaging.
The San Clemente, Calif.-based Surfrider Foundation and business partners brought more than 100 people to lobby Congress Feb. 28-March 1, with plastics pollution as one of the issues. Surfrider also held a plastic policy briefing for Congressional staff in mid-January.
The group argued that with plastic production expected to grow 40 percent in the next decade, a recycling only approach won't be enough, said Angela Howe, legal director for Surfrider.
"Similar to the [European Union], we see the top actions that our federal government can take to address plastic pollution involving regulatory mechanisms that go beyond mere recycling, including bans, consumption reduction measures (via creation of reusable foodware systems), extended producer responsibility and product redesign," she said in an email.
Surfrider also touted EU mandates for a 90 percent recycling rate for bottles though a deposit system, and 30 percent recycled content mandate for new bottles. The U.S. plastic bottle recycling rate is about 30 percent.
DeFife said the industry proposal does not include recycled content requirements for packaging, although letters the group has sent out discuss using more recycled content in infrastructure projects. Dow Chemical Co., for example, has worked on road building projects in the U.S. and Asia mixing waste plastic into asphalt.
DeFife said the plastics association supports "promoting" recycled content in packaging but is leery of legislative mandates and "moonshots."
"Our policy supports engaging with lawmakers and policymakers who want to do that, but it needs to be done in a way that, if you're going to do it, make it successful, don't make it punitive," he said. "You need to first have the infrastructure that allows for the material to be viable and available and competitive as far as prices go. And ratchet it up in a time frame that makes reasonable sense rather than these moonshot goals that can't be achieved."
The group sees a targeted shot of federal grant money for local recycling as its version of the reasonable option.
With the potential to unlock $1 billion for local recycling programs, DeFife compared it to the industry's January unveiling of the $1 billion plastic waste alliance to build recycling infrastructure in Asia.
"I think of this as the domestic complement to that focus," DeFife said. "Whereas that effort is putting in infrastructure where none exists on a global sense, while we have some here, ours is way behind."
"There are new MRFs coming online in Japan and Europe that are light years ahead of what's going on here," DeFife said. "We think the country could benefit from an infusion of capital on domestic infrastructure."
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