Comprehensive Federal Legislation Addresses the Plastic Pollution Crisis

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 builds upon state and local laws across the country with proven plastic reduction strategies. 

WASHINGTON—Tomorrow, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) will reintroduce the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, the most comprehensive bill to address the plastic pollution crisis ever introduced in Congress. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 expands and improves upon an earlier version of the bill utilizing proven solutions to protect impacted communities, reform our broken recycling system, and shift the financial burden of waste management off of municipalities and taxpayers to where it belongs: the producers of plastic waste.

There are over 350 million tons of plastic produced each year, of which 91 percent is not recycled. The U.S. generates the most plastic waste per capita of any country and exports 225 shipping containers of plastic waste per day to countries with limited or nonexistent waste management systems, where plastic may be crudely processed in unsafe facilities and incinerated in open areas, creating additional pollution and health problems. 

“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 Senator Merkley. “But the reality has become much more like the three B’s—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.”

Plastic causes damage at every step of its lifecycle, disproportionately harming communities of color, low-income communities and Indigenous communities by polluting the air, water, and soil. “The plastic that we use in our everyday life, and the chemicals that are used to make those items, are being emitted in the air, and we’re breathing that,” said Sharon Lavigne, Founder of RISE St. James. “I want our grandchildren to grow up with clean air, clean water, clean soil.”

Plastic waste disposal by incineration and landfill further harms frontline and fenceline communities where these facilities are sited. “Detroit’s Incinerator shut down in 2019, yet my community still suffers respiratory and heart problems caused by 33-years of burning trash and plastics near our homes,” said KT Andresky, Campaign Organizer at Breathe Free Detroit. “We need political leaders to stand for justice and clean air, end all incineration, and support robust zero waste practices nationwide.”

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act will address these environmental justice concerns directly by: 

  • Holding corporations accountable for their pollution, and requiring producers of plastic products to design, manage, and finance waste and recycling programs.
  • Pressing pause on new and expanding plastic facilities until critical environment and health protections are put in place.
  • Incentivizing businesses to make reusable products that can actually be recycled.
  • Reducing and banning certain single-use plastic products that are not recyclable.
  • Creating a nationwide beverage container refund program, and establishing minimum recycled content requirements for containers, packaging, and food-service products.
  • Generating massive investments in domestic recycling and composting infrastructure.

“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 Congressman Lowenthal. “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.”

As the United States builds back from our ongoing health and economic crisis, we can do so better with systemic reforms that provide equitable protection against the environmental and health damage caused by plastics, while also creating new jobs. In fact, zero waste systems create over ​200 times as many jobs​ as landfills and incinerators, yielding both the most environmental benefits and the most jobs of any waste management approach.

“The 250,000 businesses the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) represents understand how plastic waste and toxins unnecessarily burden our economy and our lives,” said David Levine, ASBC President.  “Solutions exist and can be expanded with research and development of new, safer, reusable and recyclable materials and innovative processes which will cut business costs and create economic opportunities and new jobs.”

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act will reduce plastic production before it ever has a chance to pollute by phasing out unnecessary single-use plastic products, pausing new plastic facilities, holding companies accountable for their waste, and expanding reuse and refill programs. “Too often, consumers face an impossible choice between buying products wrapped in single-use plastics or going without everyday, basic necessities,” said Kelsey Lamp, Protect Our Oceans Campaign Director for Environment America. “All this plastic makes its way into our waterways where it harms wildlife. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would put wildlife over waste by making producers responsible for their wasteful single-use plastic packaging.”

“It is easy to visualize the plastic crisis our planet faces as it manifests in the accumulation of physical pollution throughout our oceans, waterways, and land,” said Logan Welde, Staff Attorney, Director of Legislative Affairs, Clean Air Council. “However, less visible are the devastating effects on our health and air quality from the production, transportation, use, and disposal of these products. These effects are often disproportionately evidenced in low-income communities and communities of color near production sites.”

Halting plastic production would immediately relieve these impacts and allow for the needed evaluation of hazardous industrial processes. “If environmental justice groups are not at the table at the beginning, or even convening that table, then we aren’t going to make relevant policy with shared benefit to all, especially those communities most harmed by the plastic crisis,” said Stiv Wilson, Peak Plastic Foundation Co-Director. “Our new film, Breathe This Air, is the first in the #PlasticJustice film series that centers environmental justice perspectives and the profound harm experienced by communities living in the shadow of plastic production and disposal.” 

Recognizing that the plastic pollution crisis is one of the most pressing challenges facing the world today, youth advocates are leading the way forward to a healthier, more sustainable, and more just future. “Young leaders understand their future is threatened by our fossil fuel economy, from fracked plastic production to ingestion of toxic microplastics that now permeate our biosphere,” said Debby Lee Cohen, Executive Director, Cafeteria Culture. “Passing the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act will bring us one giant step closer to protecting our children and vulnerable communities from the dangers of plastic pollution. Young leaders are and will continue to be key to solving the connected crises of plastic pollution, environmental justice, and climate change.”

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Convening Organizations: Algalita, American Sustainable Business Council, Beyond Plastics, Buckeye Environmental Network, Breathe Free Detroit, Cafeteria Culture, Center for International Environmental Law, Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Air Council, Environment America, Fenceline Watch, GreenLatinos, Greenpeace, Lost Art of Love Letters, Oceana, Peak Plastic Foundation, Plastic Pollution Coalition, Ohio Poor’s People Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, Surfrider Foundation, Texas Campaign for the Environment, The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education, UPSTREAM, U.S. PIRG, Zero Waste Washington, 5 Gyres.

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