U.S. Plastic Pollution Policy Solutions: Your Questions Answered

Last month, we were delighted to host many engaged participants who asked excellent questions during our September webinar, Policy Matters: Solutions for a Plastic Pollution Free U.S. During the webinar, we discussed what the Biden-Harris Administration is doing to address plastic pollution in the U.S., and what they could be doing better. 

We are grateful to our September panelists Jonathan Black, Joan Mooney, and Jane Patton, and moderator Christy Leavitt, who answered many of our participants’ questions during the webinar. However, we received so many questions that we ran out of time to get to them all. To shed more light, we are now taking the opportunity to address the top five unanswered questions that we received. Please note these are answers we at Plastic Pollution Coalition pulled together based on publicly available information, as our panelists were not able to provide written responses.

1. How is the United States Government (USG) addressing the need to address and disengage from greenwashed false solutions like mechanical plastics recycling and “advanced recycling” of plastics?

Many activities, organizations, and products associated with the plastics and petrochemical industries bear a green sheen without any substance behind it, or oversell their positive environmental impacts—this is “greenwashing.” Unfortunately, the USG has historically relied upon and supported industries’ greenwashed solutions, namely, mechanical recycling of plastics which has proven to be ineffective at stopping plastic pollution. Plastics were never designed to be recycled; in fact, they are created to be disposed of so that they can be purchased again and again—driving up plastic production, and as a result, profits. 

With the failure of mechanical recycling of plastic now more widely recognized than ever before, in an effort to continue profiting from plastics, the fossil fuel and plastics industries are promoting “advanced recycling” or “chemical recycling” to the USG. “Advanced recycling,” which involves chemically or physically burning plastic into more basic petrochemicals, is even worse for human health and the environment than making new plastic. “Advanced recycling” is associated with various types of serious pollution, environmental injustices, is energy intensive, and creates toxic wastes. Being a downstream treatment for plastics, it is certainly not a solution for preventing plastic pollution. 

Disengaging the USG from these and other greenwashed false solutions remains a major challenge. However, it is a critical time to push policymakers to address plastic pollution at the source. This means calling for an end to production of single-use plastics, which are easily replaced by less wasteful reusable and refillable materials, along with cutting the country’s reliance on fossil fuels in favor of healthier and more regenerative sources of energy.

2. Do the USG, institutions, corporations, and other entities recognize the need to sever their connections with the fossil fuel and plastics industries in order to end plastic pollution and the climate crisis?

Plastics are made of fossil fuels. And it’s clear we must stop using fossil fuels in order to end plastic pollution and the climate crisis. Historically, the USG has supported these industries by subsidizing and otherwise supporting and investing in their ongoing existence. This has caused serious harm to communities and the environment. The USG could support the systems we need by incentivizing strategies and systems that reduce wastefulness through reusing, refilling, repairing, sharing, regeneration, and refusing single-use.

As part of the United Nations (UN) Plastic Treaty negotiations, a High Ambition Coalition of countries chaired by Rwanda and Norway, have called for reduced plastic production along with reduced or eliminated subsidies for fossil fuels. Across the world, institutions—including governments and pension funds—are divesting from fossil fuel income to renewable, regenerative sources of energy and materials. These actions should be greatly expanded, especially in the U.S., where, by some estimates, American taxpayers collectively pay about $20 billion dollars per year to the fossil fuel industry.

3. How are U.S. State and Federal policymakers and agencies working to address their own plastic pollution?

As the representative models of our nation, U.S. State and Federal policymakers and agencies should demonstrate the solutions we need to embrace to end plastic pollution. People model the behaviors they see, as we know from our work with people working in entertainment to Flip the Script on Plastics. Seeing our representatives continue to drink from single-use plastic bottles or using plastic straws or utensils is not encouraging when we know both the harm caused by plastic and that there are better alternatives.

What is encouraging are the recent moves by U.S. State and Federal policymakers to model real solutions. In September 2023, Massachusetts became the first state to ban the purchase of single-use plastic bottles under 21 fluid ounces by state agencies. Last year, the Department of Interior committed to reducing and eventually phasing out the sale of single-use plastic products of all kinds in national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands, a commitment doubled down upon this year with the introduction of the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act.

4. How can corporations and industries be held accountable for their plastic pollution and its widespread harmful impacts on human health, the environment, social injustice, the climate, and wildlife?

Plastic production is the cause of plastic pollution. And the industries that extract fossil fuels and produce and sell plastic—as well as the corporations, investments, and other avenues of support these industries receive—should ultimately be held accountable for their actions. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) has been implemented in some U.S. states, such as Maine and Oregon, making plastic producers legally and financially responsible for taking action to limit the environmental and social impacts of their products. EPR policies are more widespread in other parts of the world, including in Canada and the European Union.

To date, much industry and corporate accountability for plastic pollution has had to be elicited in courtrooms. There has been some progress, with California’s government investigating the role of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries in a “decades-long campaign of deception” about the harmful impacts of plastic pollution and in driving the plastic crisis. In Montana, a court has ruled in favor of youth plaintiffs who argued that the state of Montana has violated its constitution by aggressively pursuing fossil fuel development without regard to impacts to the climate. 

5. What is the USG doing to end the environmental injustices and social costs of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts, and support just, equitable solutions for those communities worst impacted? 

In the U.S., and around the world, poor, rural, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) have been, and continue to be, unfairly targeted to carry the burden of plastic pollution and other industrial hazards. People living in communities on the frontlines of plastic and other pollution have long called for action and accountability from corporations and governments driving pollution and injustice.

Some progress has finally been made as the USG has recently committed to addressing environmental injustices, establishing an advisory council, and offering grants to underserved communities, among other efforts. However, some of these opportunities for frontline communities have proven highly cumbersome to navigate, minimizing their benefits. Additionally, new USG efforts are falling short of changing in ways that work to significantly oust systemic racism from policies and practices that have long worked to exacerbate injustices. As a result, frontline communities have had to fight for their lives, bringing attention to disproportionate risks faced. Many have succeeded in calling out and starting to rectify injustice—but there is much work to do.

Despite a few significant steps forward, still, disappointingly, the policy landscape in the U.S. has historically favored industry interests over human health and environmental justice. For example, in June 2023, less than six months after the U.S. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency filed a major federal complaint launching an investigation into a plastic factory’s violations of the Clean Air Act and environmental injustices in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, the investigation was abruptly closed. To date, the complaint and investigation have not been resolved—leaving the people on the frontlines who are worst impacted to continue shouldering a disproportionate pollution burden. 

Take Action

Last month, the UN released a Zero Draft, the earliest iteration of its Plastic Treaty, which it has set out to finalize by 2025. During our October 26 webinar, we will discuss the latest developments in the UN Plastics Treaty negotiations. Learn what Plastic Pollution Coalition members and allies are doing to shape the treaty and what you can do to take action to help. 

We need legislative and regulatory solutions that address the plastic pollution crisis at the source, reduce plastic production and use, center environmental justice, extend producer responsibility by holding corporations accountable, and create policies that support a regenerative circular society free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts. Such policies are especially needed in the U.S., which is the world’s biggest plastic polluter as a country. With the UN Plastics Treaty now being negotiated, it’s critical that the USG takes a stronger stance on plastic pollution and engage in real solutions.

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