By Ramona du Houx

Federal and state lawmakers in the U.S. are proposing bills to encourage companies into picking up the tab for managing empty packaging they use by charging them for the waste they produce. Such rules could help pay for curbside collection and sorting infrastructure, and spur companies to design packaging that is easier to recycle.

“It puts the financial burden of plastic pollution back on the manufacturers who generate it and profit from it,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D., N.M.), who in 2020 introduced a bill that would make companies pay to collect and process waste. Udall left the Senate at the end of 2020.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) reintroduced his Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act on March 25, 2021. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 expands and improves upon an earlier version of the bill utilizing proven solutions to protect impacted communities, reform our broken recycling system, and shift the financial burden of waste management off of municipalities and taxpayers to where it belongs: the producers of plastic waste.

More than 350 million metric tons of plastic are produced each year, of which 91 percent is not recycled. The U.S. generates the most plastic waste per capita of any country and exports 225 shipping containers of plastic waste per day to countries with limited or nonexistent waste management systems, where plastic may be crudely processed in unsafe facilities and incinerated in open areas, creating additional pollution and health problems. 

“Many of us were taught the three R’s—reduce, reuse, and recycle—and figured that as long as we got our plastic items into those blue bins, we could keep our plastic use in check and protect our planet,” said Senator Merkley. “But the reality has become much more like the three B’s—buried, burned, or borne out to sea. The impacts on Americans’ health, particularly in communities of color and low-income communities, are serious. Plastic pollution is a full-blown environmental and health crisis, and it’s time that we pass this legislation to get it under control.”

Plastic causes damage at every step of its lifecycle, disproportionately harming communities of color, low-income communities and Indigenous communities by polluting the air, water, and soil.

“The plastic that we use in our everyday life, and the chemicals that are used to make those items, are being emitted in the air, and we’re breathing that,” said Sharon Lavigne, Founder of RISE St. James. “I want our grandchildren to grow up with clean air, clean water, clean soil.”

Plastic waste disposal by incineration and landfill further harms frontline and fenceline communities where these facilities are sited.

“Detroit’s Incinerator shut down in 2019, yet my community still suffers respiratory and heart problems caused by 33-years of burning trash and plastics near our homes,” said KT Andresky, Campaign Organizer at Breathe Free Detroit. “We need political leaders to stand for justice and clean air, end all incineration, and support robust zero waste practices nationwide.”

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act will address these environmental justice concerns directly by: 

  • Holding corporations accountable for their pollution, and requiring producers of plastic products to design, manage, and finance waste and recycling programs.
  • Pressing pause on new and expanding plastic facilities until critical environment and health protections are put in place.
  • Incentivizing businesses to make reusable products that can actually be recycled.
  • Reducing and banning certain single-use plastic products that are not recyclable.
  • Creating a nationwide beverage container refund program, and establishing minimum recycled content requirements for containers, packaging, and food-service products.
  • Generating massive investments in domestic recycling and composting infrastructure.

“For decades we have treated our land, waterways, and oceans as dumping grounds for our plastic waste. Today, we are reaping what we have sown and now face a global plastic pollution crisis,” said Congressman Lowenthal. “We are on a precipice and we are running out of time to deal with this crisis of our own creation before it reaches a point of no return. As a major exporter of plastics waste, our nation has a responsibility and a duty to act now and act decisively. Our legislation applies one of the core principles of environmental law: ‘the polluter pays.’ It is time for multi-billion-dollar companies to step up and cover the costs of cleaning up the waste from their products. This legislation is a bold first step on the path to implementing lasting solutions.”


On February 1st, state legislators from nine states announced a coordinated effort to hold producers responsible. Those states included California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Current estimates show that the United States only recycles about 50 percent of post-consumer packaging.

Each of these legislators has introduced extended producer responsibility (EPR) bills that hold producers accountable for plastic waste, like Sen. Udall’s national legislation.

These ERP recycling waste bills address environmental injustices from incinerators, packaging contents, and landfills, which have disproportionate impacts on low-income and communities of color resulting in increased air pollution and toxic chemical exposure.

“Plastic waste is a global crisis that is threatening our oceans, marine life, the environment, and public health,” said California State Senator Ben Allen. “It’s also hitting regular folks who are being asked to pay more and more through their trash rates to put band-aids on our system. Our cities have a waste management crisis on their hands, and let’s not forget the disproportionate impact on communities living near landfills. California is choosing to act now with SB 54 along with a package of bills to address this urgent financial, health, equity and environmental crisis.”

Plastic pollution takes hundreds of years to break down and creates microplastics. During this process, plastic can leach toxins into the earth and make its way into our food and drinking water supply.

Incinerators are often located in and have disproportionate impacts on frontline communities of color and low income. Packaging products, like those used for food and beverage packaging, often contain hazardous substances that are harmful to human health.

“We know how to solve the problem of plastic waste and the accompanying environmental health problems that production and overuse of single-use plastics has created in our communities,” said Maryland State Delegate Brooke Lierman. “This year we have seen people of color disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and we know that these very same communities are also being negatively impacted by plastic production and plastic waste. We must act with urgency to address these public health emergencies.” 

In addition to jointly introducing legislation, these legislators came together to form an EPR for Packaging Network to exchange policy ideas, strategies, and lessons learned. 

“We cannot keep pushing environmental costs on to states and municipalities while the industries that profit from polluting continue to peddle the myth that local, taxpayer-funded recycling programs are a real solution,” said Hawaii State Representative Nicole Lowen. “In Hawaii, plastics and other packaging waste threaten our marine resources and pollute our beaches, impacting the economy, public health, and our way of life.”

Over the past few years, states have pursued a wide variety of plastic legislation. In 2020 alone, 35 states introduced legislation aimed at reducing plastic pollution.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) For Packaging Legislation and Sponsors

California – Senator Ben Allen and Senator Henry Stern

● Legislation: SB54

● This bill would enact the Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act in order to

achieve a 75 percent source reduction, recycling, and reuse goal in part by making businesses

financially responsible for management and recovery of plastic waste.

Colorado – Representative Alex Valdez

● Legislation: Bill number TBD

● This bill will be a comprehensive plastic pollution reduction bill. The bill will start the

conversation in the state to prepare for an extended producer responsibility model.

Hawaii – Representative Nicole Lowen

● Legislation: H1316

● This bill would make producers of packaging responsible for the management of waste

while ensuring minimal social and environmental impact by requiring annual reports

from producers on their plan to fulfill waste management requirements and a payment to

do so determined by the state Department of Health.

Maryland – Delegate Brooke Lierman

● Legislation: HB0036

● This bill would require producers of certain packaging, containers, and paper products to

submit a “stewardship plan” to the state Department of Environment by October, 2022,

and would prohibit a producer from selling covered products under the bill without an

approved stewardship plan by 2024.

New Hampshire – Senator David Watters

● Legislation: Bill number TBD

● New Hampshire will consider a variety of bills focusing on reducing plastic waste

products and hazardous substances, such as PFAS, within food packaging materials.

New York – Senator Todd Kaminsky

● Legislation: S1185

● This bill would establish an extended producer responsibility act mandating that no

producer shall sell or distribute covered materials within three years of the bill’s passage

without an approved EPR plan. The bill makes exemptions for producers under certain

revenue and waste generation thresholds.

Oregon – Representative Janeen Sollman

● Legislation: HB 2592

● This bill would require producers of covered products to join extended producer

responsibility programs and submit a plan which would include how they intend to

collect waste, make investments in recycling infrastructure, and reduce the sources of

covered products to the greatest extent possible. Included in the bill are certain

exemptions for small producers.

Vermont – Representative Senator Chris Bray

● Legislation: Bill number TBD

● This bill would establish an extended producer responsibility for packaging programs

within the state of Vermont.

Washington – Senator Mona Das

● Legislation: SB 5022

● This bill would support recycling and waste reduction by ensuring that packaging

materials — plastic and otherwise — are 90 percent reused or recycled by 2040. This increased

recycling and reuse rate would be achieved via extended producer responsibility

programs that would ensure minimal environmental impact