The Washington state Legislature has the right goals in mind when it comes to its latest plastic bill, but a few tenets of the legislation were not properly considered.
The bill, which passed in the House and Senate but still needs to be reconciled between the two chambers, is based on a sound framework: reduce the use of nonrecyclable plastic products while promoting the use of recycled plastic. That general framework is what the United States needs to do to manage its waste properly for all materials, from plastic to aluminum.
But the timing of the legislation is illogical. As the bill is written, plastic bottles, jugs and trash bags manufactured or sold in the state must be made from at least 50% post-consumer recycled content within the next decade. Lawmakers believe this will increase the demand for recycled plastic and, in turn, make recycled content more valuable.
While lawmakers are correct that the new policy will increase the demand for recycled plastic, they could be inadvertently creating a shortage. In other words, manufacturers may not have enough recycled plastic from which they can make their new materials to supply this demand. This will drive up costs for essential consumer products.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 8% of plastic is recycled in the United States. Some individual resins are recycled at higher rates. PET, the resin used to make clear bottles, is recycled at a rate of 29% . Recycled PET, known in the industry as rPET, is already in high demand.
Recycled PET is used to create everything from new bottles to playground equipment. As consumers demand more sustainable products, the demand for rPET has skyrocketed. But at the same time, recycling rates have remained stagnant. On top of that, many companies have pledged to make their future products from recycled materials. One estimate revealed there is a six-ton gap between the amount of recycled plastic needed to meet the announced goals of those corporations and the amount of plastic actually recycled and available.
Lawmakers have put the cart in front of the horse with the recycled content mandates Everything from laundry detergent to milk may become more expensive as packaging costs rise. Rising costs of household products always hit lower-income families the hardest. It could also discourage families from making purchases to protect their families. FEMA recommends each family keep one gallon of bottled water, per family, per day with enough for a two-week supply. If prices for bottled water increase because of the recycled content mandate, families may shortchange their emergency supply.
Lawmakers have not addressed these issues in the current legislation.
The right path forward for Washington would be to encourage the public to recycle more by educating them about what can and cannot be recycled. This will increase the supply of materials that can be turned into rPET or other recycled materials. Consumers are already demanding green products and the market will follow if there is enough recycled plastic to meet demand. But producers should not be forced to battle over the small supply of rPET just to sell products in the state.
The rest of the legislation, however, is headed in the right direction. Lawmakers have chosen to phase out products like polystyrene take-out containers and packing peanuts. These foam products cannot be recycled in curbside programs and many alternatives can be used. The bill focuses on reducing these nonessential items while protecting essential plastic products like medical supplies, bottled water and food wrap.
Lawmakers in Olympia have the right mindset but the wrong execution. Expanding recycling while reducing nonessential, nonrecyclable products is the right way forward. But this framework only functions if everything happens in the right order.
Will Coggin is the managing director of the Essential Plastics Coalition.
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