Oregon attorney general joins Democratic peers calling for strategy to curb new plastic production

August 21, 2023 – A plan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to curb the nation’s plastic pollution is drawing criticism from Democratic and Republican attorneys general, including Oregon’s Ellen Rosenblum.

Currently in draft form, the National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution sets out steps for ending plastic waste in oceans and U.S. waterways by 2040. Microplastics, about the size of a grain of rice, have been found in drinking water, food, air, marine animal tissue and human blood and lung tissue, and have been shown to cause damage to human and animal cells.

The EPA’s strategy will inform voluntary actions it and states can take, as well as future federal policies and regulations related to plastic production, recycling and waste management.

Democratic attorneys general said the plan doesn’t go far enough to reduce the production of more and more plastic, which has grown 1,800% globally during the last 50 years. Republican attorneys general said it effectively spells the end of plastic production in the U.S.

Rosenblum and 13 other Democratic attorneys general from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania,Vermont and Washington D.C. called the draft plan published in May “inadequate.”

“I am very concerned about the problem of plastics pollution. We’re urging the federal government to lead,” Rosenblum said in an email. “Federal action is needed to protect our waterways and our families from the serious dangers of plastics in our waters.”

In a 43-page letter sent July 31 to EPA’s director of resource conservation and recovery, Carolyn Hoskinson, they called on the federal agency to focus heavily on reducing the amount of new plastic that’s produced in the U.S. each year, not just on recycling and waste management.

Oregon passed two state laws since 2021 targeting plastic pollution. One requires plastic producers to pay fees to the state to help offset the costs of managing nonrecyclable waste, and the other enacts a partial ban on the sale and use of styrofoam in food containers and packaging materials.

A dueling July 31 letter from 16 Republican attorneys general to EPA’s lead administrator, Michael Regan, advised the agency to scrap its plan and start over.

“Put succinctly, Congress did not give EPA free-ranging authority to eliminate plastics,” they wrote.

EPA is currently reviewing the feedback from the 30 state attorneys general, as well as the public, before it issues a final plastics pollution strategy.

Biggest polluters

The federal Save Our Seas 2.0 Act of 2020, aimed at preventing ocean pollution, authorized EPA to develop a strategy to reduce plastic waste in U.S. waterways and oceans.

EPA’s strategy calls for improving plastic recycling, preventing microplastics from entering waterways and removing plastics already in waterways.

No nation on earth produces more plastic waste than the U.S., according to a 2022 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The average person in the U.S. in 1980 produced about 60 pounds of plastic waste per year. Today, each person in the U.S. produces more than 200 pounds of plastic waste each year, according to EPA. Up to 2 million metric tons of that waste escapes into the environment each year, and much of it ends up in waterways and oceans, eventually becoming microplastics.

The nonprofit Environment Oregon tested 30 rivers and lakes around the state in 2021 and found detectable levels of microplastics in all of them.

Despite efforts to improve plastic recycling, no more than 9% of plastic waste generated in the U.S. each year gets recycled, according to EPA.

Curbing production

The Democratic attorneys general told EPA in their letter that the cornerstone of the national plastic pollution strategy should be reducing the production of new plastic.

“For decades, the national plastic waste strategy has been to improve recycling. But this recycling-centric strategy has proven insufficient,” they wrote.

The attorneys general also called for a National Labeling Standard that would clearly denote which plastics can be recycled and which cannot to avoid “wish cycling,” or throwing a product into a recycling bin and hoping, rather than knowing, it can be recycled. Energy Star ratings, essentially a label that EPA issues to products and buildings that have met strict energy-efficiency standards, would be a clear model for a national recycling label standard, the attorneys general wrote.

If not here, there

Republican attorneys general from Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah called on EPA to start over.

They said EPA was directed under the Save Our Seas Act to come up with a plan for reducing plastic waste, not eliminating plastic waste by 2040, a goal they say is beyond EPA’s legal authority.

“The draft appears to be the latest salvo in EPA’s practice of relying on narrow authorities as a pretext to implement predetermined policies,” they wrote.

They also expressed concern that reducing or ending plastic production in the U.S. would simply move it elsewhere.

“Plastic manufacturing would undoubtedly continue,” they wrote, “but it would shift overseas to jurisdictions that do not employ Americans and that have lower environmental protections, thus likely increasing pollution of oceans. All with the upshot of making plastics more expensive for American citizens.”

Oregon leads

In Oregon, the Plastic Pollution and Recycling Modernization Act passed by the state Legislature in 2021 takes aim at plastic waste. It doesn’t target production directly but streamlines recycling and puts the burden of paying for recycling and waste management on plastic producers.

Under the law, producers of plastic and paper products pay fees to the state that are higher depending on whether their product can be recycled. The goal is to incentivize producers to use more sustainable materials. Those payments will help to improve existing recycling services and expand services to people living in rural areas. The law also creates a single list of recyclable products that will be accepted across the state to give clarity to consumers.

A new state law passed by the Oregon legislature in 2023 also targets plastic waste by banning the use of Styrofoam containers in restaurants and prohibits businesses from selling Styrofoam packing peanuts and Styrofoam coolers. Styrofoam is a form of plastic that does fully degrade, cannot be recycled, and contributes to waterway and ocean pollution.

By Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle
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