Biden Faces Pressure to Lead on Combating Plastics Pollution

Bloomberg Government

The Biden administration has come up short in advocating meaningful steps in international talks toward curbing harmful plastic pollution, a leading Senate Democrat says.

The government, led by the State Department in talks with other countries to develop a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution before the end of 2024, “has placed on itself a series of limitations that will result in the United States failing to be a productive part of the conversation,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.), chairman of the Interior-Environment spending subcommittee, said.

Merkley led the congressional delegation that traveled to Ottawa last week for the UN’s fourth global conference on ending plastic pollution. He spoke to Bloomberg Government shortly after the conference wrapped up early Tuesday.

Negotiators agreed to work between now and the next conference in November on how to pay for putting a framework in place, to study chemicals of concern in products, and to focus on design and reusability. The most contentious topic—capping plastic production—likely won’t be a focus of the working groups.

The Plastics Industry Association, which sent representatives to the Ottawa meeting, looks forward to the coming months’ work “so that dialogue can continue among countries,” said Matt Seaholm, chief executive officer of the group. “An international agreement is critical in coordinating the global effort to create equity for all in access to waste collection and recycling, and to eliminate plastic waste in the environment which has always been the goal of these negotiations.”

Merkley and other congressional progressives like Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), have urged President Joe Biden to press for limits on plastic production—which the industry opposes—and ramp up scrutiny of the petrochemical industry’s lobbying at global environmental conferences.

“Simply having voluntary agreements with no accountability and no specified goals, is basically the equivalent of ‘wish-cycling,’ when you place a piece of plastic in that blue bin and you hope it’s going to be recycled,” Merkley said.

The administration, however, faces a balancing act among the plastics industry, environmental advocates, and progressive Democrats, on how to reduce plastic waste while recognizing the economy and consumers depend on plastic.

“Essentially having the Paris model that the State Department is advocating for, will not take us forward,” Merkley said. US commitment to that international climate change agreement seesawed: adopted by 196 countries during the Obama administration in 2015, the US left it during the Trump administration, and rejoined it in 2021, the first year of Biden’s presidency.

A State Department spokesperson called the Ottawa meeting productive, and noted the US government’s efforts to drive down global demand for new plastic.

Center of Negotiations

The US has put itself at the center of negotiations amid more and less ambitious member states since the four International Negotiating Committee sessions began in 2022.

The fifth and final INC is scheduled for November—after the US elections—in South Korea, and negotiators are seeking an agreement on addressing plastic pollution that they can take home by the end of this year. The State Department has said that any accord can’t go beyond existing law in the US.

Merkley and others say an ambitious framework can be crucial to persuade the Senate to act.

A “common roadmap” endorsed by the US, even without the imprimatur of law, can have a big influence on shaping global policy debates, Merkley said, citing negotiations on nuclear weapons with the Soviet Union during the Cold War that eventually helped decrease the threat of nuclear war.

“The administration, by saying we can only do what’s in existing law and we can only do something that is voluntary, is basically saying the United States is not going to help lead the world in taking on the challenge of plastics,” Merkley said.

Merkley, sponsor of legislation (S. 3127) to reduce plastic production and increase recycling and composting, said he’ll continue to hold hearings and work with his Democratic and Republican colleagues “to try and forge bipartisan partnerships to take on individual pieces” of plastic pollution.

Merkley wouldn’t predict how the Biden administration approaches the fifth international conference, or even its overall renewable energy policy, should the president win a new term. “There’s no whispers in the background saying we’ll be more aggressive when we get through November.”