Plastic Watch: Senate Passes Save Our Seas Act 2.0

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The Senate unanimously passed the Save Our Seas Act 2.0 Friday, a measure intended to reduce pplastic waste pollution. The first Save Our Seas Act of 2018 became law in 2018 and has made no appreciable difference to the scourge of plastic pollution.

A companion measure was introduced in the House of Representatives in July and action is  now needed before the legislation can become law.

Alas, the limited measure passed by the Senate on Friday falls far short of what’s necessary to tackle seriously the problem of ocean-bound plastic waste. How to do we know this? Well, the bill enjoys bipartisan backing, as well as the support of industry players such as the Grocery Manufactures Association, the American Chemistry Council, and the Plastic Industry Association; suffice to say it fails to gore any oxen.

On this issue as on so many others, the US lags the European Union, which has implemented controls on single use plastics, and countries such as France and Thailand, which have enacted nationwide bans that came into effect at the start of the new year (see EU Plastics Ban: “Doesn’t Go Far Enough”).

Many environmental groups opposed the US bill, which they condemned in a letter of opposition to Senate co-sponsors Sheldon Whitehouse and Dan Sullivan.  From the letter:

We need Congress to pass legislation that reduces the generation of plastic, particularly single-use plastic packaging. This bill does not do that.

The public and a growing number of businesses are focused on the impacts of the entire lifecycle of plastic, from production, including fossil fuel extraction, to manufacturing, use, disposal – especially plastic incineration – and pollution in the environment. These impacts include significant and growing greenhouse gas emissions, toxic health impacts, plastic and microplastic pollution, degradation of water quality, damage to fish and wildlife, and the severe and too often unnoticed environmental justice impacts in communities where petrochemical facilities are sited. That is why hundreds of local governments, many in bi-partisan fashion, have adopted laws that ban or limit a range of plastic packaging such as plastic bags, polystyrene containers, plastic straws, balloons, plastic utensils and other single-use plastics. Beyond bans, we need a national law that reduces plastic generation, not just end-of-pipe approaches to manage plastic waste once it has been produced.

The primary focus of legislation addressing the plastic pollution crisis should focus on reducing the manufacturing and use of plastics – not attempts to clean it up after the fact. Your legislation directs a number of federal agencies to do studies, launches a Genius prize, and establishes a new Foundation housed at NOAA. While these efforts may have some positive impact, the bill ultimately approaches the issue as one of waste management, not overproduction of plastic, and risks further entrenching the systems that produce plastic rather than dislodging them. In particular, sections 305 (Study on repurposing plastic waste in infrastructure) and 306 (study on options to advance technologies for converting plastic waste to chemicals, feedstocks, and other useful products) are likely to expand markets for plastic waste which will then rely on a steady stream of plastic to stay viable. Many of these false solutions, such as incineration, waste-to-fuel, and pyrolysis approaches, are dangerous in their own right, and expanding their footprint on the American economy will only make it harder to phase out single-use and unnecessary plastic. …

These opponents, along with many other commentators, recognise that a key part of the plastics problem is unnecessary production (see  Plastics Problem: Overview, Plus What YOU Can Do to Reduce Your Use of Plastics). Again, over to their letter to the two Senate co-sponsors:

This is particularly concerning when considered alongside the enormous investments being made by the petrochemical industry in new facilities to produce ever more virgin plastic. According to the American Chemistry Council, over $204 billion in capital investment have been announced for 334 new or expanded facilities linked to US shale gas. Most of this investment is in facilities to produce plastic or plastic precursor chemicals. Industry plans to expand plastic production will overwhelm any efforts to strengthen the US recycling system.

This expansion is a climate and environmental justice crisis. The climate crisis cannot be solved without dealing with plastic production. A recent report calculated that, if trends in the plastic industry continue as planned, the plastic lifecycle could account for up to 13% of the global carbon budget just by 2050. Moreover, communities living close to facilities which produce and incinerate plastic, disproportionately low-income communities and communities of color, will be exposed to dangerous levels of air toxins while massive amounts of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere.

To repeat the point, environmentalists recognise that the misplaced emphasis on recycling is no solution. Instead, it functions as a policy sleight of hand, making us think that action has been taken, and misdirecting our attention away from necessary. action stop As Waste Dive reports in Senate passes ‘Save Our Seas 2.0’ bill focused on plastic waste:

“This is not a serious proposal that deals with the scope of the plastic pollution problems,” Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics and a former regional administrator for the U.S. EPA, told Waste Dive. “We’ve all learned about ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ and plastic recycling has been a monumental failure. So why keep doing the same thing and not focus on reduction?”

In particular, these opponents decry reliance on the technofix fairy to conjure up a miraculous solution to stop us drowning in our own waste (see Plastic Watch: Debunking the Technofix Fairy, Biodegradable Bags Don’t Degrade):

A particularly contentious portion removed from S.2260 would have required the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study to advance the chemical recycling of plastics. This was backed by plastics industry groups – who view chemical recycling as an important part of their materials’ future – but opposed by environmental groups concerned about the possible promotion of incineration, pyrolysis and gasification projects.

“We didn’t view that as an objective study if it was to ‘advance’ the technologies,” said Enck, who also remains skeptical of new replacement language calling for a report to examine innovative uses for plastic waste other than in infrastructure. “It’s fairly obvious that what they plan is the same thing as in the previous bill, they just don’t name the technologies.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I examine this deeply defective, inadequate legislation. I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything better from our money-corrupted Congress. After all, if the legislation passes muster with the American Chemistry Council and the Plastic Industry Association, who am I to object?

But , seriously, I think inaction would have been better than what the Senate has produced.

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  1. Jokerstein

    I believe sooner or later bacteria will evolve to feed on plastics directly: on thermodynamic considerations, breaking the polymeric carbon-carbon bonds is not going to be an easy chemical reaction to catalyze, relative to more natural types of bonds (typically carbon-oxygen).

    However, when LIFE gets around to solving this problem (probably with a nice metal atom or two in the protein catalyst), it will completely bone the human race. If plastics fall victim to bacterial degradation, with a good lot of energy to be liberated, pretty much all unprotected, the human footprint on the planet will – quickly, and literally – begin to fall apart.

    1. FFA

      There is at least one such enzyme out there in the wild (for PET), but it isn’t very efficient:
      Recycling hope for plastic-hungry enzyme
      It seems to me that more and better enzymes for the degradation of artificial plastics would only – could only – put plastics on a level with wood. That wouldn’t be so terrible for the human race.

    2. JBird4049

      IIRC when trees first arose it took a long for anything to find a way to eat it, which is why there is so much coal. Millions of years before some fungus figured out how to breakdown lignin(?). So we might have a few tens of millions of years before all the plastic becomes readily biodegradable.

  2. Jokerstein

    As Paul J points out, though, life is patient. TBH, it’s objectively more important to me – personally – that thermodynamics has periods of ongoing, repeatable, unpredictable temporary entropy deficits, than that our particular ecology should survive…

    Suffering and want is built in, but it seems more exciting to me to contemplate all the potential life organizations there are…

  3. Hank Linderman

    I am running for Congress in Ky’s 2nd District again, no primary this time so I am the Democratic nominee. I just posted this article on my campaign and personal FB pages and was surprised to see “Boost Unavailable”. “Boost” is almost always available. Who’s cereal did NK drop fertilizer into? Or am I seeing this incorrectly?

    It’s early in the cycle so I’m not doing any boosting at this point but I will do so in the future.

    “If your business depends on a platform…”

  4. Rod

    Bait and Switch is working so well, reliant on our populations ignorance of science, to constrain what we can sense and observe needs to be done.

    Everyday observations and interactions leading to:
    In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, or participates in an action that goes against one of these three, and experiences psychological stress because of that.

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