Merkley: States will aid push for U.S. plastics recycling

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley says he is counting on state efforts, like those in Oregon and Maine, to build the case for his federal legislation to compel plastics manufacturers to contribute to the cost of reducing, reusing or recycling materials.

The Oregon Democrat was flanked by state legislators and environmental advocates – and two displays of single-use plastic water bottles, which the Oregon Zoo banned three years ago – during a presentation at the zoo in Portland last Friday.

Senate Bill 582, which cleared the Oregon Legislature on June 25, awaits the signature of Gov. Kate Brown. Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed a similar bill into law on July 13. Though they differ on some details, both bills will require manufacturers to pay part of the cost of recycling consumer packaging — or find ways to reduce or reuse that material.

“Once again, Oregon and Maine are leading the way,” Merkley said at a July 23 event at the zoo. “Now those producers are going to double down and try and stop other states.

“But if other states follow Oregon’s lead, which is going to take a lot of citizen action, then they will start to say we would rather have a national bill, rather than a patchwork across this country because of the complexity and expense of dealing with multiple states. We probably need another six to eight states to join them before national producers will say give us something else.”

In addition to littering roads, beaches and oceans, Merkley said plastics are consumed not only by animals but by humans, who according to a 2019 study ingest about 5 grams every week — the equivalent of a credit card.

“It would not be good for my health,” Merkley said as he held up a card. “Yet we are all doing this as a result of plastics permeating our environment.”

Also, Merkley said, oil and gas producers are turning more to plastics manufacturing as their use as fuel is under challenge because they contribute to greenhouse gases and global warming. “Making plastics is accelerating climate chaos,” he said.

Merkley leads a subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that will give him a forum to advance his federal bill (S 984). California Rep. Alan Lowenthal has introduced an identical bill (HR 2238) in the U.S. House.

Although new to the United States, similar programs are in place in several Canadian provinces, the European Union, Japan and South Korea.

It is a next-generation version of Oregon’s requirement for refundable deposits on beverage bottles and cans, known popularly as the “bottle bill,” which observed its 50th anniversary this year. Oregon’s law underwent a major expansion in 2011, and after the deposit fee was increased from 5 to 10 cents in 2017, the recycling rate for the broadened containers shot up from 64% in 2016 to 90% in 2018.

National bottle bill

A total of 10 states have such legislation — most of them on the West Coast or in the Northeast — and Merkley says he’s also proposed a federal version. But it’s not the first time for it.

Merkley was an intern for U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, whose seat Merkley now holds, back in 1976 when Hatfield and U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood introduced the first federal version. But it has never advanced in Congress, largely because of opposition by the beverage industry, particularly to a local effort within Washington, D.C., itself.

“They did not want this model to be observed by members of Congress from across the country. They fought it everywhere they could,” Merkley said. “But now that the producers are starting to see citizen action in state after state … it started to make them be aware of a huge public relations problem and maybe they’d better start talking with Congress.”

Merkley concedes that neither bill is likely to pass soon in Congress, which has a two-vote Democratic majority in the House, and a Democratic majority in the Senate only because Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaker in a chamber split 50-50.

“But I think we have an opening that we have not had ever before to build the political momentum that will lead to a bill, not this year but in the next couple of years,” he said.

State Rep. Janeen Sollman, a Democrat from Hillsboro, was a sponsor of SB 582, which originally called for a study of what Oregon should do next after China blocked overseas shipments of recyclable materials in 2017.

“We did not get everything we wanted in this bill,” Sollman, the bill’s floor manager in the House, said. “But it is a step in the right direction to move the dial on the cost of pollution.

“As we buy more, we produce more waste — and the problem gets bigger. It’s only fair that producers have a financial responsibility for their products and their packaging costs. Consumers and local governments have shouldered that responsibility for too long.”

Sollman said afterward she expects the new legislation to unfold in much the same way as Oregon’s ban on single-use plastic bags finally became law in 2019. Sollman was a chief sponsor of that bill, which passed once a slew of cities and counties passed their own local bans — and prompted grocers and other retailers to seek a statewide standard.

“They saw how many different rules there were and that is was important to have one base rule,” she said. “I think that is when you will see movement nationally.”

State Rep. David Gomberg of Otis, a Democrat from a central coast district, said he heard firsthand about the bottle bill from Tom McCall, who — immediately after he left the governorship in 1975 — taught one term at Oregon State University. Gomberg was then a senior in political science, and he said McCall’s explanations of the bottle bill and the beach bill did much to influence him on the environment.

“But while we are doing good things, we are not doing enough,” he said. “We still have work to do.”

Plastics everywhere

Beyond the displays of the single-use water bottles at the zoo event was a sculpture of a condor fashioned entirely from plastic marine debris. Also standing next to Merkley was Bree Boothe, an Oregon Zoo employee who held Pinecone, a Western screech owl who came to the zoo as a rescue animal.

“He has observed a blissfully plastic-free life, but many birds of prey are not so lucky,” Amy Cutting, director of animal care for the zoo, said. “The problem is so widespread that it threatens wildlife in ways we do not think about.”

As youth coordinator at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Grace Doleshel spends much of her time helping increase awareness of what plastics do to birds and other animals.

“The reality is that marine animals continued to be impacted every single day,” she said. “This story will continue to repeat itself if this is not addressed.”

Merkley’s proposals and Oregon’s new legislation got a boost from the Surfrider Foundation, Environment Oregon and Oceana.

Charlie Plybon, Oregon policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation, said plastics account for nearly 90% of the trash collected in beach cleanups that the group is involved in with others.

“It’s plastic pollution and it is ubiquitous,” he said. “We have found it everywhere in Oregon — in our seafood, our shellfish and even in our drinking water.”

Celeste Meiffren-Swango, state director for Environment Oregon, said one topic arises from many conversations since plastics recycling was curtailed.

“What we hear time and time again from Oregonians in all walks of life is just how fed up they are with how much single-use plastic they have to deal with in their daily lives,” she said. “Even if they do everything right, it’s nearly impossible to avoid. The real responsibility for the plastics crisis lies with the companies that manufacture these products in the first place.”

Sara Holzknecht, field representative for Oceana, said 33 billion tons of plastics are going into the oceans every year, equal to two garbage trucks’ worth being dumped every minute. Of 1,800 U.S. cases of animals reported entangled in plastic between 2009 and 2020, she said, virtually all (88%) were threatened or endangered species — and the volume of manufactured plastics is projected to quadruple by 2050.

“The plastics pollution crisis could not be more dire,” she said. “Recycling alone won’t fix the problem of plastics pollution. We must stem the flow of plastic at its source.”