The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act: A Federal Proposal to Address Plastic Waste

Alan Lowenthal

Following a year that saw a significant increase in plastic use, in particular by small businesses adapting to pandemic operations, what are the opportunities to truly becoming less dependent on petroleum-based plastics and implement circular solutions to plastic waste challenges? This week Congressman Alan Lowenthal (CA-47) joined with Congresswoman Katherine Clark (MA-05) and Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley re-introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act—a federal legislative approach that aims to reduce emissions from plastic waste by changing the incentives of the industry and shifting the burden of plastic pollution cleanup to product manufacturers.

Congressman Alan Lowenthal (CA-47) joined with Congresswoman Katherine Clark (MA-05) and Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley today to introduce the bicameral Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act—the most comprehensive plan ever introduced in Congress to address the plastic pollution crisis that is poisoning our air, water, and land, and disproportionately impacting communities of color and low-income Americans.

The legislation would reduce plastic production, increase recycling, and protect frontline and fenceline communities from the burden of toxic emissions from plastic waste by changing the incentives of the industry.  The bill would shift the burden of cleanup to the corporations that produced the plastics so they have financial motivation to end the burning and dumping; strengthening environmental justice protections; eliminating waste export loopholes; and extending across the nation existing laws that have been proven to work on the state and local level, among other steps.

Lowenthal, Clark and Merkley emphasized the urgent need to pass the legislation at a telepresser yesterday and will be holding a virtual rally later today to highlight the widespread public support for the legislation.

“For decades we have treated our land, waterways, and oceans as dumping grounds for our plastic waste. Today, we are reaping what we have sown and now face a global plastic pollution crisis,” said Lowenthal, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee's subcommittee on energy and mineral resources“We are on a precipice and we are running out of time to deal with this crisis of our own creation before it reaches a point of no return. As a major exporter of plastics waste, our nation has a responsibility and a duty to act now and act decisively. Our legislation applies one of the core principles of environmental law: ‘the polluter pays.’ It is time for multi-billion-dollar companies to step up and cover the costs of cleaning up the waste from their products. This legislation is a bold first step on the path to implementing lasting solutions.”

“The Break Free From Plastics Act will help us turn the tide on waste production and ultimately, on the climate crisis itself. This bill will rein in waste, improve recycling, decrease harmful emissions, and ensure plastics don’t continue to wind up in our water, soil, air, and even our bodies," said Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark. "Like so many challenges we face, low-income Americans and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by plastic pollution. With this bill, we stand up for frontline and fenceline communities and we protect the future of our planet.” 

“Many of us were taught the three R’s—reduce, reuse, and recycle—and figured that as long as we got our plastic items into those blue bins, we could keep our plastic use in check and protect our planet,” said Merkley, who serves as the Chair of the Environment and Public Works subcommittee overseeing environmental justice and chemical safety, which has jurisdiction over the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act. “But the reality has become much more like the three B’s—plastic is buried, burned, or borne out to sea. The impacts on Americans’ health, particularly in communities of color and low-income communities, are serious. Plastic pollution is a full blown environmental and health crisis, and it’s time that we pass this legislation to get it under control.”

Many steps to tackle the plastic pollution crisis are already widely popular with the American people. Recent polling shows that two-thirds of Americans believe that businesses that produce or use plastics in their products should pay for collecting, sorting, and recycling plastics; 86% of Americans support requiring new plastic to contain at least some recycled material; and 80% of Americans support phasing out certain non-recyclable plastics altogether.

In recognition of Americans’ growing concerns about plastic consumption and waste management, the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act would:

  • Require big corporations to take responsibility for their pollution by requiring producers of plastic products to design, manage, and finance waste and recycling programs;
  • Spur innovation, incentivizing big corporations to make reusable products and items that can actually be recycled;
  • Create a nationwide beverage container refund program, modeled after the successful program pioneered in Oregon;
  • Reduce and ban certain single-use plastic products that are not recyclable;
  • Eliminate waste export loopholes by banning exports to countries who themselves re-export waste outside of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD);
  • Require the National Academy of Science to study and assess the direct and cumulative health, environmental, and economic impacts of plastic waste incinerators and other similar technology;
  • Establish minimum recycled content requirements for beverage containers, packaging, and food-service products, while standardizing recycling and composting labeling; and
  • Generate massive investments in U.S. domestic recycling and composting infrastructure, while pressing pause on new plastic facilities until critical environment and health protections are put in place.
     

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is endorsed by over 500 groups, including League of Conservation Voters, Center for International Environmental Law, Ocean Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Surfrider, Oceana, GreenLatinos, Society of Native Nations, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Environment America, 5 Gyres, Algulita, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, American Sustainable Business Council, Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Senate legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

"We are on a precipice and we are running out of time to deal with this crisis of our own creation before it reaches a point of no return. As a major exporter of plastics waste, our nation has a responsibility and a duty to act now and act decisively."—Alan Lowenthal

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