Washington State debates divergent approaches to managing plastic packaging waste

Arrows decisionmaking

China’s decision to restrict imports of plastic packaging waste for recycling—the National Sword policy—has created a conundrum for U.S. recyclers. While it has strengthened demand for recycling services, there doesn’t appear to be capacity to handle the increased demand. Moreover, there does not appear to be market demand for recycled plastics to make new products.

Washington State’s legislature is considering two dramatically different approaches to this problem.

HB 1204 may be the most comprehensive proposal to date that addresses plastic packaging pollution and recycling, said the Northwest Product Stewardship Council (NPSC), a coalition of government organizations in Washington and Oregon. The bill requires producers of plastic packaging to participate in a “stewardship organization” that would finance and oversee all aspects of end-of-life management including:

  • Collection, sorting, recycling or disposal, where recycling is not feasible;
  • clean-up of marine and other plastic packaging litter;
  • clean-up of plastic packaging contamination at local compost facilities;
  • improvements to recycling infrastructure, such as processing equipment at recycling facilities.

Producers would be charged a fee to participate in the stewardship organization based on the design and type of plastic used. Packaging that is more recyclable, uses post-consumer resins and is non-toxic would be assessed a lower fee. This creates financial incentives to design packaging that is more recyclable and reduces plastic packaging litter.

To increase demand for recycled plastic resin, the bill contains requirements for producers to use post-consumer recycled plastic in film bags, shipping envelopes and air bags; rigid packaging containers (i.e., bottles and tubs); and recycling collection bins. Producers that exceed the minimum requirements can “sell recycled content credits to companies that don’t or can’t meet the minimum requirements,” said the NPSC.

A second bill being considered is HB 1795, which would eliminate the state’s longstanding 50% recycling goal and ban materials from being recycled in residential programs. Starting Jan. 1, 2020, local governments and curbside collection providers are banned from collecting any plastics other than PET and HDPE bottles for four years. Glass, aseptic cartons, some paper packaging and metals (aside from cans) are also banned.

HB 1795 takes away local government control over the materials that can be collected for recycling. All existing recycling programs, services and contracts would need to remove the banned materials from recycling programs, noted the NPSC in its information. If any of the existing recycling materials cost more to collect, sort and process than sending them to a landfill, a waiver could be obtained from the state to dispose of the materials instead. Recyclable materials that are collected separately from other materials in separate containers cannot have more than 5% contamination. If the materials exceed that threshold, they are considered solid waste and can be sent for disposal.

The NPSC said that the differences between the two legislative proposals “could not be more pronounced.” The approach in HB 1204 strengthens markets by requiring the use of recycled materials and identifying a sustainable funding source, coupled with the support and requirements for infrastructure and service expansion. It also reduces the market risks for recycling service providers.

The approach taken by HB 1795 restricts recycling markets by narrowing the allowable materials to those with demonstrably strong market value in the currently limited markets. This would stifle recycling innovation, infrastructure and service expansion, and make it impossible for local governments and the recycling industry to be responsive to any new packaging materials that enter the marketplace. Resources that could have been recycled instead will be land-filled or incinerated.

A hearing of the House Environment & Energy Committee on HB 1204 held on Feb. 7 drew much commentary from various organizations, including plastics recycling groups.

Rep. Strom Peterson of the 21st Legislative District of Washington State began the hearing on the bill by commenting on how important it is that “we start having this conversion. The onus for recycling and taking care of the recycling problem is on the end user—sorting it and getting it in the right container. This bill would move it upstream to the manufacturer of these plastics and [those] who ship stuff to our homes in plastic packaging.”

Peterson acknowledged that “not all plastics are bad” and that plastic has had “a positive effect on us as consumers,” but something has to be done with plastics that most often end up in the environment.

Heather Trim, Executive Director of Zero Waste Washington, pointed out that plastics production is a growing problem. She cited a program in British Columbia, where end-of-life issues are being paid for by manufacturers. “BC is sorting by plastic type, and manufacturers are responsible for recycling,” Trim said.

Vicki Christophersen, lobbyist with the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association (WRRA), noted in her comments that British Columbia’s program isn’t all that it’s made out to be. “There’s no transparency and BC diverts only 40% of its plastic waste to recycling; Washington diverts 47% of its plastic waste.”

She went on to say that BC’s system has the same problems that Washington State has—no markets for certain recycled plastics, “and this bill won’t help solve that problem,” she stated. “This bill distracts from the real issues.”

Brad Lovaas, WRRA Executive Director, said that HB 1204 “does nothing to create demand” for recycled plastics. “We don’t need help collecting and processing,” Lovaas stated. “We need markets. Over the long term we need to create market demand for products that use recycled plastics. End users create demand, not government. We are collecting plastics that don’t have viable markets.”

One of the big problems with recycling certain plastics is contamination. Tim Shestek, Senior Director, State Affairs, for the American Chemistry Council, spoke in the hearing about the need not just to identify problems but to “take steps to reduce contamination and increase markets for recycled plastics.”

One idea that legislators have kicked around is regulating the percentage of recycled plastic that products must have, and 25% was a number offered as a solution. However, Shestek noted that the ACC has “concerns about regulatory issues” that the bill creates. “Our companies are looking for ways to take more difficult recyclable materials back to their original structures,” he said.

Government mandating the percentage of recycled plastic material used in a product might not be an option for products such as food containers and medical devices, which are required by the FDA to be 100% virgin resin to prevent possible contamination. However, there are many other plastic products in which high percentages of recycled plastic materials could be used.

Image courtesy beeboys/Adobe Stock.

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