Every year, people in Massachusetts generate a mountain of plastic waste — 3.4 billion plastic bottles, 2 billion plastic bags, countless takeout containers, shampoo bottles, coffee cup lids, and on and on. Add everything up, it’s bad for our health, clogging our waterways, and contributing planet-warming gases that fuel climate change.
Despite being a national leader on many environmental issues, the state, advocates said, has fallen woefully behind others that have imposed bans or updated their bottle bills to increase their recycling rate.
An executive order issued by Governor Maura Healey this fall banned state offices from buying single-use plastic bottles — a step hailed by many as a victory, but that applies to only 0.003 percent of the plastic bottles used in Massachusetts, according to the Container Recycling Institute, a California group that monitors the industry and promotes recycling.
Now, lawmakers and advocates are pushing to go much further — an outright ban on single-use plastics.
“We are effectively smothering our planet and ourselves with plastic, and we have to address it,” said state Senator Rebecca Rausch, who chairs the Legislature’s joint committee on environment and natural resources.
Legislators pushing for plastics regulation said that as much as they appreciated Healey’s executive order, they want her to do more. “For her to get behind more robust action on plastics would, I think, have an impact on the Legislature,” said Senator James Eldridge, who has been working to regulate plastics for over a decade and has a bill that would ban single-use plastic bags.
Bills being considered in the Legislature propose tackling the plastics problem in a variety of ways — from bans on single-use plastic water bottles, straws, and bags, to an expansion of the bottle bill that would increase the deposit and allow more types of bottles to qualify for redemption.
So far, Healey has yet to come out in support of any of the proposed bills. Karissa Hand, spokesperson for the governor, said Healey will review any legislation that reaches her desk but did not say whether the governor supports any of the bills being considered.
Regulating plastic has long been an uphill battle. Single-use bottle bans at the municipal level, like in Concord, home of the nation’s first such ban 10 years ago, have spawned major backlash, including regressive laws in at least 19 states that put a prohibition on bans. And past efforts to regulate plastics at the state level have been unsuccessful, including a failed 2014 ballot initiative to expand the bottle bill that legislators say set back the state effort by a decade.
The plastics industry, of course, has a stake in maintaining the status quo. But there’s also the looming question: What replaces plastic?
Switching to aluminum bottles, for instance, would drive up costs because the raw materials are more expensive, said Stephen Boksanski of the Massachusetts Beverage Association, a trade group representing bottlers and distributors of nonalcoholic drinks. And because it weighs more, he said, “more aluminum means more weight, means more trucks, means more emissions.”
The point is not simply to replace one kind of container with another, said Janet Domenitz, executive director of Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, an environmental advocacy group. “The mantra goes ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ for a reason — because the first and most important thing we need to do is reduce.”
That’s particularly important because in the United States, most plastics do not actually get recycled — recent studies put the rate as low as 5 percent, according to the group Beyond Plastics, although the plastic industry has put the figure of recycled bottles considerably higher, closer to 30 percent. Still, the reality of the recycling culture is stark: Many single-use plastics end up in landfills or oceans.
In Massachusetts, many plastics are incinerated, which can cause climate-warming emissions that are worse than if the plastic was sent to a landfill, according to the advocacy group Oceana. “These incinerators, almost all of them are in environmental justice communities, just spewing toxins into the air and the soil and the water,” said Senator Jason Lewis. “It’s really unconscionable.”
The answer, instead, according to advocates, is to move people over to reusable containers and create more spaces for refilling, while making alternative containers available when needed as well. Boston University, for example, has bottle-filling stations across its campus and a program that allows its community to check out reusable containers much like library books.
And even though the state has been slow to regulate single-use plastics, cities and towns have moved ahead. Of the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts, nearly 160 have some form of a plastic bag ban and 60 have banned white foam containers commonly used for cups or takeout. A handful of municipalities have also followed in Concord’s footsteps and passed bottle bans of some sort.
In the Legislature, Rausch’s “Act to reduce plastics” would enact statewide bans of still water bottles that are less than 1 liter, plastic bags, and mini plastic bottles of alcohol, and would limit plastic food serviceware, like plates, containers, and utensils. It would also create a permanent statewide car seat recycling program and provide support for small businesses and environmental justice communities to transition to eco-friendly alternatives.
Lewis, who has a similar bill, said the top priority of the Legislature’s so-called Zero Waste Caucus, a group of 38 House members and 16 senators, is to pass a bill that puts major limits on single-use plastics. The second priority, Lewis said, is to expand the bottle bill, which hasn’t been updated since it was implemented in 1983.
The bottle bill applies to less than half of the beverages sold in the state, and excludes spring water, sports drinks, teas, juices, liquor, ciders, and wine. And where other states offer 10 cents for returns, Massachusetts residents get just a nickel for bringing a bottle back. It can also be hard to find places to redeem bottles, because there’s little financial incentive for businesses to offer the service.
This all contributes to Massachusetts having the lowest redemption rate of all 10 states with bottle bills — just 38 percent compared with the nation-leading 86 percent in Oregon, where the vast majority of beverages are covered by a 10 cent deposit, according to an analysis by the Container Recycling Institute.
Massachusetts had the chance to update its rules in 2014 with a ballot measure that would have expanded the drinks that qualified for redemption. But advocates say that despite early indicators of broad public support, a well-funded campaign by industry opponents convinced voters that, the effort was a “money grab” by the state — one that would increase deposits but not result in people redeeming more bottles, meaning the state would benefit, but not the planet.
“That was a very tough, tough lesson,” said Eldridge, who was among those pushing for the expanded bottle bill at the time.
Boksanski, of the Massachusetts Beverage Association, said he agrees that the redemption system is flawed. He recently returned from a trip to Oregon to observe the process there, which is run by a privately owned co-op in partnership with retailers. Boksanski said he opposes efforts to expand the bottle bill that are being considered in the Legislature because they expand on the current redemption model rather than rethinking how it is done, and said he would prefer a privately operated model.
There is no effort underway to create such a model, he said, though “we’d love to talk about that.”
Though both the bottle bill and the single-use plastics bills appear to have momentum in the Legislature — and with extra fuel thanks to Healey’s executive order banning single-use plastics at state offices — it’s not clear whether any will become law.
“Plastics, and waste-reduction in general, has been an orphan,” said Senator Michael Barrett, who was central to the state’s landmark climate laws. “We just haven’t managed to acknowledge that reducing waste and reducing plastic is critical to reducing emissions.”