Companies that make, use, dispose, and recycle plastics must participate in international efforts to restrict plastic waste and chemicals used to make plastic, because the policies will affect how they do business, industry officials say.
Recent and predicted global restrictions on plastic were among the topics discussed this week at the Global Chemical Regulations Conference. The annual meeting was attended by companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp., Occidental Chemical Corp., Royal Dutch Shell plc, as well as law, consulting, and chemical testing firms, U.S. and international government agencies.
Industry engagement in plastic policy initiatives is essential, said speakers including Anastasia Swearingen, director of global affairs at the American Chemistry Council, which organized the conference.
Among the initiatives is a United Nations Environment Assembly meeting next February to consider a legally binding agreement to tackle plastic pollution, said Chever X. Voltmer, the Ocean Conservancy’s director for plastics initiatives. The assembly, which consists of 193 member states, is the U.N.’s highest international decision-making body for environmental matters.
The agreement’s goals include stopping the leakage from landfills and other sources of 11 metric tons of plastic a year into the ocean, where it harms marine life and damages habitats, she said.
Supporting extended producer responsibility and creating a waste management system that offers recycling incentives are among the policies that industries should be seen supporting, she said.
“What industry does between now and then may have significant impact on what countries say should be in the treaty,” said Voltmer, who previously oversaw marine debris issues at the State Department.
In Congress, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) last month introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (H.R. 2238, S. 984), which would require producers of packaging, containers, and food-service products to design, manage, and finance waste and recycling programs.
The chemistry council has criticized the bill, saying it would “impede America’s manufacturing resilience and our ability to bounce back economically after crises” as well as cause shortages of essential materials and block advanced recycling technologies.
$5 Billion Investment
Yet industry is taking steps to solve the problem of plastic pollution, investing more than $5 billion toward initiatives over the past three years, said Chris Jahn, the chemistry council’s president and CEO.
“We’re using those contributions to modernize the U.S. recycling infrastructure and expand the types and volumes of plastics that can be reused or incorporated into a circular economy,” Jahn said.
Examples include Brightmark LLC’s, $260 million plastics renewal facility which is being built to convert 100,000 tons of plastic waste into fuel and other materials; Eastman Chemical Co.’s $250 million polyester renewal facility, to turn 100,000 metric tons of plastic waste into specialty plastics; and PureCycle Technologies LLC’s securing of $250 million in bond financing to build a plant to transform waste into 105 million pounds annually of what it calls “ultra-pure recycled polypropylene.”
Plastic is too valuable a feedstock to waste, said Michael Witt, corporate sustainability director for Dow Inc.
Other initiatives discussed at the conference include an effort to globally restrict use of a plastic additive; Canada’s proposal to ban or restrict certain single-use plastics; a European Commission proposal to tighten regulations of polymers, which are used to make plastic and other materials; and a Basel Convention amendment that, effective Jan. 1, began to control trade in plastic waste.
The proposed justification to regulate some of the chemicals under debate—including a widely used plastic additive, UV-328—could have serious ripple effects for other chemicals, speakers said.
A committee advising the Stockholm convention decided in January, that UV-328, made by BASF SE, met the convention’s criteria for possible restriction, said Martin Kayser, the company’s senior vice president of product safety.
The treaty targets chemicals that remain in the environment for years, build up in the food chain, are toxic, and circulate globally. UV-328 meets many of those criteria, but it doesn’t meet the convention’s definition of long-range, global transport, Kayser said.
Under the convention, a chemical might meet the long-range transport criteria if it moves through the air, water, or migrant species, said Karissa Kovner, a senior EPA policy adviser for international affairs. But the committee decided UV-328 is transported via marine debris, a means not discussed in the treaty and a rationale the agency has concerns about, she said.
Using a chemical’s presence in marine debris as a way to meet the treaty’s transport criteria would set a “dangerous precedent for many more chemicals,” Kayser said. And the science on UV-328 doesn’t support that conclusion, he said.
The next step is for the same committee to review the economic and societal implications of restricting UV-328.