Plastic pollution is a problem at every stage of its lifecycle: from extracting the fossil fuels needed to create it and processing them into plastic, to their ultimate destination whether that is a landfill, an incinerator, or litter in our environment. And as recycling markets change with fewer products becoming realistically recyclable, and as plastic companies exploit the coronavirus crisis to promote their products, the global plastics crisis is just getting worse.
Right now, Montgomery County is considering two bills to eliminate some unrecyclable plastics and set the county on the path to reducing plastic consumption overall!
Council Bill 32-20 would create a mandate for an ongoing waste reduction program to put the county's existing waste reduction hierarchy and policies into actual practice. It would also prohibit food service businesses from providing plastic straws to customers, except on request when needed, as an initial start. Ongoing waste reduction planning is important - recycling markets change regularly and we learn more and more each year about how many problems our plastic waste causes. Setting up this program will help Montgomery County adapt with sensible policies in the future.
Council Bill 33-20 would build on Montgomery County's existing expanded polystyrene (foam) food container ban to include all #6 polystyrene food-ware. #6 plastics are not recyclable at the county's Materials Recycling Facility, even though the products are stamped with the recycling symbol. When people just see the recycling symbol and toss them into a blue bin, it contaminates that recycling load. County staff has to manually remove these materials, and they are then sent to the incinerator in Dickerson. Eliminating unrecyclable plastics from the waste stream so that actually recyclable or reusable materials can be used is a common-sense solution that will reduce plastic waste and save the county money.
On September 15, the County Council held a public hearing on these two bills. You can listen to the hearing for yourself here.
At it, Department of Environmental Protection Director Adam Ortiz laid out the need to pass these bills very clearly: to clarify the County's existing law that unrecyclable plastics should not be sold. #6 plastics cannot be recycled in Montgomery County's facility, and plastic straws' small size means that they slip through the cracks at the facility and don't carry labels to say what kind of plastic they're made of. Well-meaning residents and businesses use and recycle #6 plastics, but once in the recycling stream either county employees have to spend time separating it out again, or it remains and contaminates the recycling stream, reducing or even negating its value.
The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, at the hearing, urged the Council to not move forward with this bill but to create an education campaign first: more outreach to inform county residents like you that #6 plastics can't be recycled. But that doesn't solve the core problem of these unrecyclable plastics. If enough County residents know to carefully inspect their plastic waste and put #6 plastics in the trash, it will save money and time taking them out at the recycling facility, but it will just mean that those plastics go to the Dickerson trash incinerator: being burned as a fossil fuel, adding to local air and water pollution and climate change. The American Chemistry Council testified in opposition to the bills, claiming that they could help the county set up a recycling facility for #6 plastics. But even to the extent that is technologically possible, it would be an enormous waste of resources for the county to do so, and the facility would be a polluter itself. Much better to move away from these unrecyclable materials entirely toward reusable, compostable, or actually recyclable materials instead. Read our testimony refuting these industry talking points here.
LATEST UPDATE: On October 12th, the Transportation and Environment Committee held a worksession to discuss and iron out details for bills 32-20 and 33-20. While several changes were made, both bills passed recommendations to enact unanimously. At the meeting, Dan Simmons, co-owner of Founding Farmers and partner with Our Last Straw, urged the council that now is the time to pass legislation and stressed that restaurants are not united in opposition of the bills.
On 32-20, council members raised concerns with allowing the executive regulatory authority over banning future materials. While they stated that they would most likely support future material bans, they expressed reservations with less public and council input if the executive is granted this power. The Department of Environmental Protection responded by saying that the regulatory power would allow for a more streamlined process that would still provide for public and council comments and testimony. The committee decided to table the discussion and to move one with the rest of the bill. In addition to the removal of the executive regulatory power, the council also removed the exemption on PLA straws, mandated a education campaign prior to the ban taking effect, specified exemptions for self self serve, drive thru, and carry out policies and people with disabilities and allowed the executive to waive straw requirements if there are no viable alternatives such as bubble tea straws.
On 33-20, DEP addressed suggestions to modify the recycling centers to accommodate #6 plastics rather than banning them. Adam Ortiz, the director, stated that #6 plastics are essentially worthless in the recycling market and require separate equipment and facilities which require more funds and investment. Without objection, the committee members agreed that banning #6 plastics was the appropriate course of action and recommended to enact the bill with few technical adjustments.
The full Montgomery County Council holds its final vote on Tuesday, October 20 at 2PM - don't miss your chance to send them a message to move toward zero waste!