Technological watch

Plastics industry ponders what Biden administration will mean for legislation

With media outlets across the political spectrum declaring Joe Biden the winner of the presidential race Nov. 7, the political impact for the plastics industry got a little clearer.

But the lack of certainty over who would control the Senate remained a big, and important, unknown.

For plastics industry lobbyists, divided government may be something they favor, as it casts doubt on prospects for major environmental legislation.

Before the election, they said the scenario that concerned them the most was Democratic control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, because it would have boosted legislation the plastics industry opposes, the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, or other significant restrictions.

One analysis from the research firm BloombergNEF suggested a Biden presidency would be sympathetic to the Break Free legislation, and argued there would be significant differences between a Biden administration and a second term for President Donald Trump on plastics recycling and waste policy.

If enacted, BloombergNEF estimated Break Free, with its mandated recycled content goals and extended producer responsibility system for all types of packaging, would push the plastics recycling rate from under 10 percent currently to 41 percent by 2050.

It contrasted that with a second term for President Trump, predicting it would largely maintain the status quo when it came to federal government policies. As a result the plastics recycling rate would only rise to 25 percent by 2050.

"We expect a Biden administration would sympathize with the objectives of the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which would accelerate plastic recycling in the near term," BloombergNEF said. "We assume a second Trump term would mean business as usual with plastic recycling efforts spearheaded by states and corporations."

BloombergNEF said the Trump administration "has shown no willingness to engage with Congress on circular economy legislation," leading to a scenario where growth in plastics recycling "does not accelerate until 2040 when chemical recycling technologies become widespread."

The Break Free bill attracted interest from influential Democrats in the Senate. Vice President-elect and California Senator Kamala Harris was a cosponsor, for example.

And the Senate author of Break Free, New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall, is also being considered for a cabinet position in a Biden administration, with media outlets speculating that he could be tapped for head of the Interior Department.

Over at the Environmental Protection Agency, Politico floated both Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, and Heather McTeer Toney, a former director of the EPA's Southeast Region, as potential heads for that agency.

Still, it's hard to make firm predictions on what the election would mean for plastics recycling policy. In areas like climate policy, some analysts expected partisan differences.

But there's been a lot of bipartisan interest in the topic with legislation such as the Save Our Seas Act, and lawmakers from both parties have raised concerns with plastics in the environment. Many state legislatures have been actively considering measures similar to parts of the Break Free bill.

As well, plastics industry groups and business associations representing consumer brand companies have recently endorsed things like packaging fees to fund recycling, adding a new dimension to the politics of the issue.

Publication date: 08/11/2020

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Last update: 2022-01-31