As 2023 begins, federal legislators will be putting the final touches on reorganizing the House and Senate committees and subcommittees of the 118th Congress based on the results of the November election. But even before the election, advocates for the packaging and flexible packaging industries were preparing for what they know will be a busy year on Capitol Hill.
Pressure has been growing for federal officials to coordinate and lead with various issues. State actions on labeling, extended producer responsibility (EPR), and post-consumer recycled (PCR) content, for example, often take different paths, leading to confusing and contradictory requirements for the industry to follow. Federal standards across a myriad of matters would help guide stakeholders as they plot their paths toward sustainability, observers say.
Dan Felton, executive director at AMERIPEN—the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment, says federal officials continue to propose legislation and regulations that will have a profound impact on the packaging industry, some of which make attempts at coordinating a national strategy for handling waste. AMERIPEN’s members include packaging companies across the spectrum of materials, as well as trade associations, including the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA).
“They’re not gaining traction right now, but the point is that a lot is happening at the federal level,” Felton says about packaging and recycling legislation during a presentation at PACK EXPO International in Chicago in late October. “But anybody who follows policy on recycling and packaging and plastics will know that over the last three years, we’ve seen a significant uptick in conversation about this in Congress.”
As an example, Felton points to federal legislators who have been working on the Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s Future Act that sets a goal of cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in half by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. Introduced in 2021, the measure aims to achieve net zero GHG pollution no later than 2050, according to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
FPA’s lobbyists have been following the various ini-tiatives, with some of the highlights of what is happen-ing in statehouses and on Capitol Hill outlined in this edition of FlexPack VOICE®. (See National Advocacy Corner on page 12 and State Advocacy Corner on page 13). Capitoline Consulting LLC, which is FPA’s lobbyist on Capitol Hill, notes in its column that FPA members should monitor several pieces of legislation that have become law and that the Biden administration will start to implement in 2023, including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act.
The various federal issues that FPA has been monitoring also include trade concerns. Aluminum tariffs again grabbed the attention of industry observers in 2022, when the U.S. Department of Commerce said it may expand current aluminum tariffs on China to South Korea and Thailand. Opponents worked with regulators to curb any expansion of the tariffs.
However, many flexible packaging companies are not taking chances. Packaging companies increasingly will seek alternatives to aluminum, ProAmpac CEO Greg Tucker said during a meeting with reporters at PACK EXPO in October.
Education and Lobbying
Alison Keane, FPA president and CEO, says the aluminum shortage and trade issues increasingly take up a large part of her time. But she points out that sustainability remains a top concern for FPA members. One challenge is to continually educate policymakers on the importance of flexible packaging and its sustainability benefits, Keane says.
That process is never-ending. Dozens of new members of Congress will take office this month alone, and long-serving members need constant reminders about the importance of flexible packaging.
“When we talk to policymakers, first and foremost, we remind them of all the benefits of flexible pack-aging,” Keane says during her own presentation at PACK EXPO in October. “There is a reason why we are second to cardboard in the United States and first globally as a packaging sector.”
FPA also emphasizes the sustainability advantages of flexible packaging. “It’s not all about recyclability. It’s not all about reuse. First and foremost, you have to look at the entire manufacturing process,” she tells policymakers. “And when you do that, particularly when you’re talking about carbon and climate goals, we win, right? Flexible packaging wins. We have to remind them of that.”
Direct attacks on plastics and plastic packaging paused during the pandemic as people learned to value the importance of packaging sterility and food safety, Keane says.
“But the headwinds still persist,” she adds. “We had a year and a half where the policymakers had something else to focus on, and now they’re back with a vengeance.”
In 2021, federal legislators introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which would attempt to reform the recycling system and shift responsibility for waste management to the producers of plastic waste. And there is a provision in the bill that would ban new plastic production in the U.S.
Keane notes that Canada started to ban the use of some single-use plastics, such as utensils. But policy-makers must think through their proposals, she says. If bans go into effect in the U.S., production simply will move to other countries, such as China.
“It’s going to be produced, but some policymakers think it is a good idea not to have it produced in the U.S.,” she says. “Bans do not work. Banning is not a solution.”
Harmonizing on Multiple Fronts
The key is to invest in end-of-life systems. But the investment in recycling infrastructure—whether mechanical or advanced recycling systems—needs to be massive to push the country into the future, Keane says, adding that harmonization of recycling efforts is only one part of the equation.
“What if we get this all harmonized and everybody’s happy?” she says. “We still need to fix and modernize the U.S. recycling system.”
While private-equity companies and entrepreneurs continue to invest in expensive ventures, much more must be done, Keane says.
“We’re a little bit further along in the mechanical recycling space, but it’s extremely expensive. And the end markets are very, very narrow,” she says. “We are not as far along on chemical recycling, but if we can scale that up, the end markets are never-ending.”
Federal EPR standards might help states that haven’t adopted EPR to implement and fund end-of-life solutions, several observers point out. And the federal government continues to develop other initiatives, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Recycling Strategy, that try to coordinate with various stakeholders to develop a national system supporting a circular economy, Felton says.
Anything that moves away from a state-by-state approach would be welcomed, observers say. “We have a hugely disparate system here in the United States around how recycling works,” Felton says. “It’s confusing, and that’s an issue. I think policymakers and industry can come together and try to solve that problem.”
Keane couldn’t agree more. She notes that EPR and labeling requirements—such as the use of the chasing arrow symbols that denote plastic resins for recyclability—need national standardization, as well.
“We have to go to the Hill and say, ‘We need harmonization. We cannot label differently for California than we do for Oregon, than we do for Maine,’” she says.
“This is a commerce issue, and they need to step in. Are we going to get 50 approaches to this?”
A coalition of association leaders has been working on a standalone bill with proposals to solve some of these problems. It was ready in the summer, but they decided to hold off until the new year and after the 118th Congress is seated, Keane adds.
FTC and Greenwashing
Felton also notes that people should pay attention to how other federal regulators are handling issues important to the packaging industry.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been involved in efforts to curb greenwashing and will continue to look at labeling claims, he points out. The agency indicated in 2022 that it will likely start the process of updating its Green Guides that help marketers determine what they can and cannot claim. The FTC last reviewed the guides in 2012.
“A lot has happened in the last 10 years,” Felton says. “As we think about states relying on the FTC for marketing claims—what’s recyclable, what’s not, what’s compostable or reusable–—the FTC is a stakeholder in this while states are having conversations about it at the exact same time.”
Industry representatives should see all the talks as an opportunity to provide comments and to have a say in how policies are set, Felton says. “This is going to be a very lively discussion about what’s happening and how this is going to impact the entire value chain—now and in the future,” he says.
Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor at FlexPack VOICE®.