The EPA’s National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution is Too Little, Too Late

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Senior Director and Principal Analyst

In late April 2023, the U.S. EPA released a draft of its National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution, which aims to improve America’s recycling infrastructure and reduce the amount of plastics entering the ocean. The plan is a follow-up to EPA’s National Recycling Strategy, released in 2021; both of these plans were created as a result of the 2020 Save Our Seas 2.0 Act. This brief breaks down the major elements of the draft, lays out how it differs from the National Recycling Strategy, and explores what the outlook is for plastic waste policy in the U.S. Note that the draft is not yet final; EPA will accept comments on the draft through the middle of June 2023, and the strategy will likely not go into effect until late this year.

Plastic pollution

The National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution has three key objectives: reduce pollution during plastic production, improve post-use materials management, and prevent trash and micro/nanoplastics from entering waterways. EPA breaks out action items according to these goals; I’ve highlighted the most potentially impactful action from each objective below. 

Reduce pollution during plastic production. This goal concerns the production and design of plastic products. In doing so, it represents the most significant expansion of scope compared to the National Recycling Strategy, which did not consider the design of plastic products. The key action item is a review and update of sustainability standards, green labels, and certifications to increase their effectiveness and reduce the impact of plastic products across their lifecycle. In the U.S., consumer product sustainability is regulated through the claims companies make; it’s left to the consumers to buy more sustainable products. In this context, the review and possible tightening of standards, labels, and certifications stands to be one of the more impactful outcomes of the draft. Unless the U.S. deviates from its course of consumer choice-driven regulation, these standards will likely dominate what gets done over the coming years.

Improve post-use materials management. This goal concerns the recycling ecosystem directly and seeks to improve recycling, reuse, composting, and other forms of the circular economy. This section is mostly aligned with the existing National Recycling Strategy and will increase funding for R&D for new technologies in waste management. Relative to other areas, innovation in waste management — including collecting, sorting, and digital tools for transparency — remains relatively underfunded. The draft’s specific call out in support for this type of technology should help create useful progress. Overall, though, the actions called out by EPA in this space are decidedly unambitious. 

Prevent trash and micro/nanoplastics from entering the waterways. This problem is largely separate from the issue of recycling; the main sources of trash and plastics entering waterways are typically industrial processes like plastic production, specific microplastic sources like microbeads in shampoo, apparel washing, and plastics such as fishing nets that are put into the ocean directly. EPA plans to explore the use of the Clean Water Act (and other approaches) to prevent microplastics from entering the water ecosystem. This is probably EPA’s strongest angle to actually regulate microplastics, but the agency is at a very early stage in developing its approach. Most of the action items outlined in the plan focus on developing new analyses of cost and impacts of various policies rather than putting anything into practice. While there’s a lot of potential here, the impact is likely to be years away. 

EPA, though it is charged with the task of preventing pollution, does not have the authority to regulate key elements of the circular economy (notably the design of plastic products or how plastic waste is collected); last year’s Supreme Court decision further limited its ability to be creative. The Federal Trade Commission regulates claims but has no way to change practices or even promote a focus on sustainability. Waste management and recycling are handled at the local and municipal levels with state law being the primary driver of operations. Absent a significant piece of federal legislation, recycling policy in the U.S. will continue to be fractured, and progress will be made on a state-by-state level.

The Lux Policy Compass for Chemicals is our tool for charting a course through upcoming policy decisions; use it to build a responsive strategy in this space. 

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