How the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act can help get toxic chemicals out of our products and communities
April 02, 2021
Last Thursday’s introduction of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA) by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) represents an ambitious attempt to address our plastic pollution crisis. Since so many toxic chemicals are plastic additives, reducing plastics can also reduce toxic chemical use and exposure.
This bill would help get toxic chemicals out of many everyday products and address the disproportionate impact that plastic manufacturing and disposal is having on frontline and fenceline communities across the country. Notably, the act would cover a lot more than plastic pollution—it covers packaging, containers, paper, and food-service products made of all kinds of materials including plastic, paper, glass, and metal.
The Act underscores important policy principles that Safer States has been emphasizing for years, including:
1. A class-based approach to addressing toxic chemicals is key.
The BFFPPA aims to help solve our toxic chemical problem by phasing out whole classes of chemicals including PFAS, halogenated and nanoscale flame retardants, bisphenols, and ortho-phthalates in certain products. This approach is one that the states are utilizing to avoid regrettable substitutions and is important to harmonize with at the federal level.
2. We shouldn’t have toxic chemicals in recycled or composted materials.
What comes around goes around. We will be recycling (and increasing) our toxic chemical exposures if we continue to allow toxic chemicals in materials that are recyclable and compostable. Thankfully, the BFFPPA would not allow certain chemicals and chemical classes in materials that are considered recyclable or compostable, and also requires high rates of recycling for these materials. This would be a big win.
3. Source reduction and reuse is key to plastics reduction.
We are not able to recycle our way out of our plastic problem. We need to address the issue at the source by reducing the production of unnecessary plastic and moving towards greater reuse. The BFFPPA embraces these principles and includes a plastic bag ban, a ban on single-use toiletries provided by hotels, requires plastic utensils and straws to be provided only on request, and directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish a reuse and refill pilot program.
4. Fenceline and frontline communities need greater protections.
Plastic production has serious health and environmental impacts throughout its lifecycle, and low-income and communities of color experience a disproportionate share of those impacts. The BFFPPA addresses these environmental injustices by placing a moratorium on permits for new plastic manufacturing plants, and requiring the EPA to update regulations on these facilities to better protect frontline communities.
5. Reusables need to be non-toxic.
As we move to end our dependence on single-use plastics we need to make sure that the solutions we are moving to are truly better and safer. We don’t want to solve one problem only to create a different one. The BFFPPA reflects this principle, requiring that non-plastic alternatives for plastic utensils and plastic straws may be used only if they don’t contain certain toxic substances.
6. Polystyrene containers and packaging should be banned.
Some materials such as polystyrene are just too toxic and problematic to continue to be used. Expanded polystyrene is not only impacting wildlife and can persist in the environment for centuries, it contains the carcinogens styrene, benzene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which can leach into food and hurt workers and communities during production and disposal. The BFFPPA would ban expanded polystyrene for use in food service products, disposable consumer coolers, and shipping packaging.
7. Incineration (and so-called “chemical recycling”) is not recycling.
The chemical industry has been trying to claim that they can solve the plastic problem through new technologies that they are calling “advanced recycling” or “chemical recycling.” But many of these new technologies often boil down to incineration, and others are unproven and, most likely, very toxic. All of them are also highly energy-intensive. The BFFPPA makes clear that recycling does not include any form of incineration or “chemical recycling.”
However, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act has room for improvement. While it takes several steps forward there is an opportunity to ensure it addresses harmful chemicals that impact wildlife, more toxic chemicals found in plastic, and emerging chemicals of concern. Nevertheless, the bill would be a solid step forward towards a less toxic future.