Three hundred million tons of plastics are produced each year worldwide. Less than 10% of plastic waste in the United States is recycled each year. With projections showing that plastics production is expected to triple over the next 40 years, public concern over plastics pollution is coming to a head. For example, in 2020, a coalition of more than 500 community and conservation organizations released a “Presidential Plastics Action Plan” urging the Biden administration to pass federal legislation banning the use of single-use plastics and to limit plastic production.

Two legislative solutions to combat plastic pollution have emerged: (1) encouraging “advanced recycling,” a process that strips plastics down to their chemical form for reuse; and (2) limiting and reducing plastics consumption. While backers of advanced recycling argue that it is the way of the future, environmental groups argue the practice fails to address the true scope of plastic pollution and will contribute to hazardous emissions. To date, neither solution has gained traction at the national level. At the state and local level, however, regulation involving both methods is increasingly taking shape.

Advanced Recycling Legislation

In the last five years, 20 states—primarily red states—have passed laws aimed at encouraging advanced recycling.Many of these laws achieve this goal through similar mechanisms, including the following.

  • Reclassifying advanced recycling facilities as manufacturing plants, rather than as facilities that handle solid waste. This distinction carries regulatory and economic advantages. For instance, government financial incentives for new manufacturing plants can include state and local tax breaks or access to government bonds to support construction.
  • Allowing a plastic-to-fuel recycling process. Legislation enacted in 2019 in Iowa, Ohio, and Texas allows advanced plastics recyclers to produce crude oil, diesel, gasoline, and home heating oil as well as feedstocks to make plastic.
  • Allowing general reuse of plastics. Some states’ laws lack specificity about the recycled product and leave room for interpretation. For example, laws adopted in West Virginia and Mississippi allow products of advanced recycling to be “returned to economic utility.”

More states are expected to consider bills to promote advanced recycling in future legislative sessions.

Reduction of Plastics Consumption

A wave of single-use plastic bans—primarily in blue states—is sweeping the country. These bans most often prohibit plastic bags, straws, stirrers, foam cups, and takeout clamshells. Currently, eight states have banned single-use plastic bags and many others have plastic bag bans in process. Local governments are also enacting bans.

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Authors: Debra Carfora, Julie Silva Palmer, Stephanie R. Feingold, Morgan Lewis
Photo by Elijah Mears on Unsplash