Europe should steer clear of these heavy handed, and counterproductive initiatives...
At the Federal level in the United States, Congress has declared a war on plastics, specifically with the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act and the CLEAN Future Act. Their goal is to ultimately reduce the amount of plastic waste that the US produces, which would in turn result in lower rates of mismanaged plastic ending up in the environment. On its face, the goals of congress are noble, but their policy prescriptions are incredibly misguided. It would be disastrous for Europeans if the EU followed America’s lead and replicated either of these Acts.
Replicating the CLEAN Future Act or the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would be a disaster for Europe for two main reasons.
The first is that Congress is attempting to enact a moratorium on permits for plastic manufacturing facilities. The purpose of this is to stop the expansion of this industry, which in theory protects the environment from the emissions associated with production. But this fails to recognize that there are legitimate and environmentally conscious reasons to choose plastic over competing products. Take, for example, the shipment of baby food. Baby food in plastic containers, as opposed to glass alternatives, generates 33% fewer emissions because of the energy required in the production of plastic and its lighter weight in transportation. Although this is just one niche example, this same principle could be applied to a near-infinite number of plastics.
Beyond questions on sustainability and competing products, the moratorium reeks of regulatory capture. For those unfamiliar, regulatory capture is when new laws are passed that insulate an existing industry from future competition, allowing them to solidify its market share. The bill’s moratorium on plastic facilities shields the existing industry from competition, and ensures that more environmentally conscious competitors are kept out of the market entirely. This is important for both those who oppose cronyism and corporate welfare, and those who want better environmental policies, especially because there are new almost entirely biodegradable plastic products coming to market. Preventing permits for innovators benefits the existing industry at the expense of consumers and the environment.
On top of a moratorium on plastic manufacturing, the Acts also seek to implement a moratorium on advanced recycling permits and chemical depolymerization. Through chemical depolymerization, all plastic can be either recycled, repurposed, or converted. Chemical depolymerization is the process of breaking down plastics, altering their bonds, and repurposing them into other products. There are countless examples of why this technology is key to dealing with mismanaged plastics, with innovators turning problematic plastic into everything from resin pellets, roadways, tiles for your home, and high strength graphene. If the US wants to tackle plastic waste, the federal government can’t at the same time limit advanced recycling capacity. By capping recycling facilities, these bills prevent the scalability of recycling efforts, which creates a giant hurdle for dealing with plastic waste. The goal of legislation should be to make recycling more affordable, which is only possible through more competition.
To make matters worse, these Acts also create a recycled content mandate. This type of mandate has its pros and cons, but it is disastrous if it is enforced alongside a permit cap on advanced recycling.
Creating a recycled content mandate will drastically increase, by decree, the demand for
recycled plastic. In fact, the BFFPP Act, if followed through with the CLEAN Future Act,
would mandate upwards of 25% recycled content in plastic bottles by 2025, and 80% by 2040.
The issue here is that these mandates will limit the capacity of advanced recyclers to meet that demand. If there is a significant uptick in the demand for recycled plastic, and advanced recycling is not allowed to scale up to meet demand, we could see a situation where demand rapidly outpaces supply, which will only serve to drive prices upwards. Those inflated costs will mostly be shouldered by consumers, who will have those costs passed on to them in the form of higher prices. This trend is exactly what was seen in other countries who passed bio-ethanol mandates, which had the negative effect of significantly increasing prices for the crops used in the creation of ethanol.
Europe should steer clear of these heavy handed, and counterproductive initiatives. Rather than doubling down on restrictions, Europe should embrace innovation and advanced recycling, which both enhances consumer choice and protects the environment.
David Clement is the North American Affairs Manager with the Consumer Choice Center