Beyond Plastics establishes policy center to combat social injustice from toxic pollution scourge
06 Jan 2023 --- Beyond Plastics is launching a resource center to aid US policymakers and advocates in designing and enforcing effective governmental action against plastic waste. The center will seek to drive unified legislation on extended producer responsibility, deposit return schemes and single-use plastic bans throughout the US.
Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, tells PackagingInsights that the policy changes will primarily target issues related to social justice, such as inequalities inflicted on ethnic minority communities by plastic production and pollution.
“Environmental justice is front and center of our work at Beyond Plastics. Single-use plastic packaging is primarily manufactured in low-income communities of color,” she says. Then, when the vast majority of it cannot be reused or recycled, if it is not littered, it is sent to incinerators and landfills.”
These sites are also often located in marginalized communities. The prime example is Louisiana’s so-called “Cancer Alley,” an 86-mile stretch of the Mississippi river hosting 25% of the nation’s petrochemical production.
Most local residents are Black, and cancer rates caused by toxic industrial fumes are far higher than the national average, with some towns reporting premature deaths in every household.
“Reducing the manufacture, use and disposal of plastics is a major environmental issue and is a priority for this work,” continues Enck.
Reducing material, reducing toxicity
The new center, funded by the Australian Minderoo Foundation, will put pressure on regional and national authorities to unify and expand lacking EPR schemes, DRS models and single-use plastic bans.
While certain states are already implementing various versions of these policies and infrastructures, packaging waste management throughout the US remains disparate and underfunded, causing consumer confusion and a lack of material progress.
To date, four US states have adopted EPR laws for packaging: California, Colorado, Maine and Oregon. Under these laws, packaging producers pay into a fund that reimburses municipalities for the cost of operating recycling programs. Still, none require the reduction of plastics at the scale commensurate with the problem, says Jenny Gitlitz, director of solutions to plastic pollution at Beyond Plastics.
Through these developments, companies will pay more for hard-to-recycle materials (such as polystyrene or multi-material packaging) and are incentivized to design packaging to be more readily recycled, but they must go further in requiring a reduction in the amount of packaging produced, as well a reduction in the toxicity of the packaging.
Beyond Plastics has created a model called the “Packaging Reduction and Recycling Act,” which requires companies to achieve high recycling rates for all packaging materials (70% within 12 years) and implement waste reduction measures such as refillable bottles or reusable dishware and washing equipment.
The model policy sets a goal of 50% waste reduction by weight within ten years and has strong enforcement provisions. It also prohibits the sale of packaging made from polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride or polycarbonate and packaging containing any of 14 highly toxic compounds. The bill requires additional toxic compounds to be added to the list every three years.
Enck says the main challenges the center faces will be “covering all the ground that needs to be covered.”
“There are many proposals around the country to reduce packaging. Some are strong, and some are not. Reviewing a large number of proposals will be a challenge,” she points out.
While the center is not set up to advise individual companies within the packaging industry, Enck asserts that each company has unique packaging requirements and should work hard to reduce packaging.
“Packaging reduction laws are coming. Smart companies will do some planning and get ahead of the curve. The public wants to see much less plastic packaging. We will focus on the details of the various proposals to help ensure they are effective and just window dressing,” she concludes.
By Louis Gore-Langton
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