Another government “solution” to the plastic waste problem has surfaced. The introduction of the Rewarding Efforts to Decrease Unrecycled Contaminants in Ecosystems (REDUCE) act by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) provides for an excise duty of 20 cents per pound on new plastics in single-use products. The taxes levied under the REDUCE law would then go to a fund to reduce plastic waste.
When it comes to government solutions, it’s simple: if you don’t like it, tax it to death. Except that strategy rarely works. As for this “fund” that promises to use the money raised by the government, who will monitor that the money gets where it was promised and actually helps? The government has never been good at being accountable and transparent so I don’t expect them to start with the REDUCE law.
In a statement from the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), Alex Truelove, Zero Waste Director commented: “The premise of this legislation makes sense: a fee for virgin plastic in single-use products would encourage manufacturers to use more recycled material. That’s a good thing, because making new plastic is harmful and resource-intensive. ”However, the PIRG also stated that the bill would reduce the production of new plastic, but it would not necessarily reduce pollution.
Companies that are required to pay an excise duty on the materials or products they manufacture typically simply pass the price increase on to their customers, who then pass it on to consumers. The plastic cup that contains the drink ordered at the fast food restaurant costs the restaurant owner a cent or two more, so the owner adds one nickel to the price of the drink.
American Chemistry Council’s Vice President of Plastics, Joshua Baca, noted that the REDUCE Act “takes a piece-wise approach by adding an excise tax on certain plastics sold, as well as a series of confusing discounts that seem to select winners and losers among consumer product manufacturers . with some paying the tax and others receiving a discount. Such a system would essentially penalize manufacturers of valuable American products without promoting a circular economy for plastics. “
For example, companies that manufacture disposables for medical applications would be exempt from excise duty and could even be eligible for a refund of taxes paid.
The PIRG is not overly enthusiastic about this bill. “Even if a plastic container is made from recycled products, it is still polluting when it ends up in the ocean. The only way to counteract this pollution is to produce and use [fewer] Single-use plastics, ”says Truelove. “We need to take a broader legislative approach to plastic waste.”
The excise duty on single-use plastics could provide an incentive for brand owners to switch to alternative materials like paper and metal, but the problem is that both use significantly more resources – water and energy – than plastic.
ACC’s Baca noted that in July the organization called on Congress to “take five steps to accelerate a circular economy, including requiring all plastic packaging to contain at least 30% recycled plastic by a national standard for recycled plastics by 2030”.
Obviously, any mandate to include 30% recycled materials in single-use plastics would require a large amount of recycled resin available. As we saw earlier, when the demand for recycled resin increases, availability decreases. The costs then rise, making recycled material often more expensive than new resin.
A higher proportion of recycled resin in single-use products would mean that we would have to collect and recycle larger amounts of plastic waste. “We can only recycle what we actually collect and redirect to landfills and incinerators,” Truelove noted.
Achieving a higher percentage of recycled material in single-use products would require better collection, sorting and cleaning to get the amount of recycled material needed.
The ACC’s five-measure proposal is to “put in place a US-developed packaging manufacturer responsibility system to raise funds to improve recycling access, collection and reach for all materials, including plastics,” said Baca . “The five actions represent a comprehensive, national strategy to meet the challenges of plastic waste directly.”