Is Momentum Building To Change the Way We Manage Plastic?

There has been a reasonable amount of recent activity related to management (or lack thereof) of plastic waste.  Two more developments this month have me wondering whether we might be near the proverbial tipping point in our approach to managing plastics.

First, California enacted a fairly sweeping statute, S.B. 54, that will impose extended producer responsibility requirements on producers of plastics.  The statute has at least three significant pieces:  (1) a requirement to increase the percentage of single-use packaging that is recycled, reused, or composted to 65% by 2032; (2) imposition of significant taxes, $5 billion over the next ten years, to fund efforts to address plastic pollution; and (3) the creation of “producer responsibility organizations”, which will establish “producer responsibility plans … for the source reduction, collection, processing, and recycling of covered material.”  Producers will not be permitted to sell covered materials unless the PRO has approved the producer to participate in the PRP.

The federal government is nowhere near implementing anything so ambitious, which is why the General Services Administration just issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking in order to take comment on a range of issues that go to the feasibility of reducing single-use plastics in government procurements.  The ANPR not only doesn’t propose anything, it doesn’t even suggest possibilities.  It is purely an information-gathering tool.  Comments will be due on September 5, 2022.

So, are these two developments a harbinger of things to come?  I do think that pressure is going to continue to build for action to reduce plastic pollution.  No one likes to see pictures of marine mammals tangled in plastic fishing gear or read stories that microplastics and nanoplastics are detectable in human blood and lungs.

That being said, before these individual efforts can add up to a comprehensive plan, policy makers are going to have to wrestle with the fact that plastics are pervasive for a reason – they’re damn convenient.  We’re going to need some technological breakthroughs that find ways to deliver the convenience that plastics provide without the costs that waste plastics impose.

I hope that all of the smart materials scientists at MIT are hard at work.  If I believed it was possible to beat the market, I’d be investing in startups with smart ideas for replacing plastics with alternatives that don’t come with the same level of negative externalities.

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