Demanding Plastics Reform in Washington

I spent a few days in Washington, D.C. last week lobbying lawmakers alongside other members from the Break Free From Plastic Coalition, a coalition of some 200 organizations working on plastics issues. CEE proudly joined Break Free in 2023. 

The pervasive impacts of plastics pollution are just now being fully understood by the public. As a technology, plastics far oustripped any research into its potential impacts to human health and the environment. We now know that virtually every person on the planet has some degree of plastics in their bodies—including brains, placentae and semen. It was recently discovered that the corporate giant 3M, a major producer of plastics and chemicals, knew long ago that so-called “forever chemicals”–collectively known as PFAS–were and would continue to infiltrate the human body.

Armed with this knowledge and a list of bills we were advocating for, I joined 50 other advocates from Break Free to lobby lawmakers and federal agencies to change laws and policies to better protect human health and the environment from the pernicious effects of plastics. Currently, the laws governing plastics production and plastic waste are particularly weak. This is in part due to the success of lobbying firms, such as the American Chemistry Council, and in part because, as stated above, most people were unaware of just how bad plastics are.

The conveniences that plastics provide come with costs that are entirely too high—especially for sacrifice zone communities at the frontlines of plastics production and disposal.

We were focused on pushing the following bills:

  • Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (H.R. 6053, S. 3127)
    This extensive plastics legislation offers robust protections for communities historically affected by plastics production by instituting a moratorium on permits for new plastics facilities. It phases out numerous single-use plastics, promotes a transition to refillable and reusable alternatives, and eliminates toxic chemical additives.
  • Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act (S. 2337, H.7634)

    This bipartisan bill mandates that the Environmental Protection Agency use its existing authority under the Clean Water Act to prohibit facilities and sources involved in the production, usage, packaging or transportation of plastic pellets from discharging these pellets and other pre-production plastics into waterways.

  • Farewell to Foam Act (H.R. 6654, S.3440)
    This bill would prohibit the sale and distribution of expanded polystyrene foam food service ware, expanded polystyrene loose fill (packing peanuts), and expanded polystyrene foam coolers.
  • Reducing Waste in National Parks (H.R. 4561, S. 2728)
    The National Park Service currently has a 10-year plan to phase out single-use plastics in park concessions. This bill would accelerate that timeline by mandating the immediate cessation of the sale of plastic water bottles and other disposable plastic products.

We also sought congressional support for the Global Plastics Treaty (INC) process to help compel the U.S. delegation to take a stronger stance. The U.S. has taken a very milquetoast stance in the negotiations, lobbying for consensus rather than making meaningful demands. The global plastics treaty is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put meaningful and legally binding structure around the entire plastics lifecycle. Our coalition relayed to lawmakers a set of demands for the negotiators in the INC process:

  • Taking a lifecycle approach (scope) that begins with fossil fuel extraction.
  • Dramatically phasing down the production of plastics.
  • Eliminating toxic chemicals and mandating transparency around which chemicals are used;
  • Restricting the use of plastics in single-use products and packaging.
  • Speeding up a fair transition to a low-carbon, toxic-free, zero-waste, reuse-based economy that prioritizes the rights and interests of workers in both formal and informal sectors, Indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities most severely impacted by the production, use and disposal of plastics.

Getting any of the laws listed above or the INC demands integrated into the final treaty text are uphill climbs. There is a staggering amount of money invested into—and being made—from plastics production. Nearly 99% of all plastics come from petrochemicals, so it’s not only chemical companies that have a major investment in the production and proliferation of plastic products. The fossil fuel industry is heavily involved in this fight as well. 

It doesn’t help that plastics are ubiquitous in daily life. The computer I’m writing this on is full of plastic. So is the rest of my home. Plastics are used in medical devices and provide life-saving features in trains, planes and automobiles. It is fair to say that the functioning of modern, industrialized society would not be possible without plastics and, because of this, we need to demand that the industries that produce these products do so safely so that life on Earth isn’t imperiled. It is not too much to require significant cuts in plastics production along with significant increases in plastics reuse so that we do not continue to drown in plastics waste. 

The conveniences that plastics provide come with costs that are entirely too high—especially for sacrifice zone communities at the frontlines of plastics production and disposal. Please join us in this fight by contacting your elected officials and demanding that they take action on plastics. We need to get ahead of this problem now.