House Democrats seek crackdown on microplastics

Legislation unveiled yesterday would stop small pellets called

May 20, 2022

House Democrats want to crack down on small plastic pellets that have grown notorious for their links to environmental contamination.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) unveiled legislation yesterday targeting the discharge of the pellets, often called "nurdles," into the environment. The "Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act" would direct EPA to draft regulations prohibiting the discharge of that material into vulnerable water systems.

"For too long, the plastics industry has been allowed to police itself when it comes to ensuring their pellets don’t end up in the environment," Lowenthal, chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, said in a statement.

"The industry has failed abysmally, and with that failure created an environmental problem of crisis levels. It is time for the plastics industry to step up and cover the costs of ensuring their products remain in their facilities and do not end up in our environment."

The bill is co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Lloyd Doggett of Texas, Jared Huffman of California, Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington and Mike Quigley of Illinois. A Senate version of the bill, S. 1507, has previously been introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

No federal laws are currently in place that truly regulate plastic pellets, which serve as "building blocks" for larger products but also break down into microplastics in the environment. Due to their small nature, those plastics have migrated around the globe, posing a particular problem in bodies of water.

Under the legislation, EPA would be prompted to bar the discharge of plastic pellets into waterways, storm drains or sewers from any point source "that makes, uses, packages, or transports those plastic pellets and other pre-production plastic materials."

That scope is intended to cover many of the typical avenues through which small plastics travel into the environment, something that often occurs during the manufacturing or transport stage of production.

Nurdles can be deeply dangerous if consumed, making them an outsize threat to animals and people. They have become major contaminants in bodies of water like the Great Lakes, generating significant concern from residents and lawmakers. States like South Carolina and Texas have eyed legislation cracking down on nurdle contamination, but those bills have struggled to progress.

Still, public pressure on lawmakers to address microplastics is mounting, fueled by research showing that material can migrate into human blood and lungs (Greenwire, April 8). Pursuing accountability over plastics pollution has also ramped up in the wake of California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) announcing a major investigation into the role of oil and chemical giants in creating and exacerbating the crisis (Greenwire, April 29).

Major companies like DuPont have meanwhile faced pressure from shareholders to report their nurdle pollution, something shareholder advocacy groups have called for (E&E Daily, May 7, 2021).

Lowenthal, one of the driving forces behind the contentious "Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act" — S. 984 and H.R. 2238 — has long advocated for stricter oversight of plastics.

That legislation, ambitious in scope, would impose a number of bans and restrictions on plastics, seeking to cut off an ever-growing flow of the material into the market, at a time when recycling infrastructure and technology are not equipped to deal with it.

In unveiling yesterday's bill, the congressman cited studies highlighting the health implications of microplastics exposure. Noting that plastics are now "in the soil, in the rainwater, in the food chain and even inside our own bodies," he pushed for action.

"This has to stop," Lowenthal said. "We are killing ourselves and our planet."

Source: E&E News