Senators on Wednesday highlighted holes in recycling infrastructure exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, questioning how Congress can stop a plastic pollution crisis from emerging alongside a public health crisis.
Many municipalities paused recycling pickup programs as part of stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, causing recyclables to either end up in landfills or pile up outside.
And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is encouraging businesses to use disposables, and cities have pulled back on single-use plastic bans, further contributing to pollution, said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) in a Wednesday hearing.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has presented a new set of challenges,” he said. “It’s disrupted curbside recycling in many communities.”
Senators floated possible solutions, asking whether federal infrastructure would be more effective than local systems, and discussed how to provide more incentives for consumer and company recycling.
Making Matters ‘Worse’
Addressing pollution is particularly important now because of air pollution’s correlation to putting people at higher risk of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, senators said.
“No American should have to debate whether they can afford to recycle, especially amid a pandemic that has caused great economic hardship and whose effects are exacerbated by air pollution,” Tom Carper (D-Del.), the committee’s top Democrat, said at the hearing.
“Burning plastic or allowing plastic to melt at a landfill not only contributes to climate change, but also pollutes the air we breathe,” he said.
Carper said he collected interstate litter for his wife’s birthday after local recycling facilities were closed for months.
After the hearing, Carper and Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) announced they had introduced legislation that would allow for waste and recycling collection services to be allowable expenses under the Paycheck Protection Program and eligible for loan forgiveness under the CARES Act.
Carper said he is working on legislation on a possible national composting strategy and data collection for a recycling system.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) pointed to his Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (S.3263), introduced in the Senate in February. The bill would phase out various single-use products and establish consumer recycling tax and refund incentives.
“When people realize the blue recycling bin is largely a lie, they’re angry,” Udall said.
Meghan Stasz, vice president of packaging and sustainability for the Consumer Brands Association, a U.S. trade association for consumer products, stressed the need for a reimagined recycling system, rather than shunning materials like single-use plastic entirely.
“The Covid pandemic has shown that there is a real need for a range of packaging materials, that packaging has this critical job to play,” she said during the hearing. “What it’s also showing is that we need a system that can handle and process those materials.”
Banning certain materials like plastic bags, as some states like Ohio and California have considered, could drive up product costs for middle-class consumers, she said. A better alternative would be establishing a system for recycling or repurposing these products, she said.
States have defended the bans or fees on plastic bags since most aren’t recyclable and are often used only once, but then persist for years in the environment, sticking to trees, clogging rivers, and harming wildlife. Some states like Washington do allow exceptions to their ban for bags that meet minimum requirements for recycled content.
Stasz said improved recycling infrastructure would create jobs but there needs to be more supply for the market to expand. Only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled, according to the United Nations.
Some senators said companies should be held financially responsible for “the cost of the mess” when manufacturing products.
“It strikes me that when there is a whopping failure—and I don’t think there’s any way to describe recycling as anything other than a whopping failure when less than 10% of recyclable product gets recycled—the problem is usually one of incentives,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) held up a plastic coffee lid, utensil, and wrapper from his breakfast, asking the panel witnesses whether each could be recycled. None of the items could be.