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U.S. State and Local Governments Collaborate to Reduce Plastic Pollution, Strengthen Local Economies, and Minimize the Local Burden of Recycling Plastics

States in the U.S. are taking innovative and bold action intent on curbing plastic pollution. These actions include circular economy development centers, extended producer responsibility programs, support for improved waste management systems, and legislative action to remove barriers to reducing plastic pollution. Successful outcomes as a result of these actions are reliant on how well these programs and policies take into consideration local economies across the state, local government capacity to implement and enforce policies, and diverse community dynamics. Buy-in from and support for local governments to successfully implement programs and policies are necessary precursors to any state-led efforts to curb plastic waste.

Strengthening Local Economies – Colorado’s Circular Economy Center 

Recently adopted legislation in Colorado establishes a Circular Economy Development Center in the state. The purpose of this center is to “…grow existing markets, create new markets and provide necessary infrastructure, systems, logistics, and marketing to create a sustainable circular economy for recycled commodities and compost in Colorado” (HB 22-1159). The development of such a center will allow for comprehensive end-to-end solutions for waste streams unique to different regions in the state, while simultaneously boosting economies and improving waste diversion at the local level. Representatives from the public and private sectors engaged in waste diversion or economic activities across the state will provide input on the work plan for the center, accounting for unique regional needs for markets and potential for economic growth opportunities. While the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has not yet announced the third-party administrator to operate the center, this unified approach to building a more circular economy across Colorado benefits all local governments in their efforts to curb plastic pollution. 

View of downtown Denver, Colorado

Minimizing the Local Burden of Recycling Plastics –  Extended Producer Responsibility Programs

End-market solutions such as Colorado’s Circular Economy Center are a critical piece to reducing plastic pollution from cities, towns, counties, and beyond. However, a holistic approach at the state-level is necessary to reduce plastic pollution effectively and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs and similar packaging laws are legislative tools that do just this. This approach supports local governments in diverting plastic pollution from landfills and the environment, reducing plastic production, enhancing local recycling programs, educating consumers about recyclable plastics, holding plastic producers accountable for their pollution contribution, and incentivizing packaging innovation. 

California, Colorado, Maine, Oregon, New Jersey, and Washington have active EPR or similar programs that are committed to help local governments alleviate financial and physical collection burdens. Oregon’s Plastic Pollution and Recycling Modernization Act builds local community programs and capacity by leveraging the resources of plastic producers. This capacity building happens through various strategies including compensation to local governments for aspects of their recycling programs and support for education and outreach. The rulemaking and implementation of the act rely heavily on input from local governments, which is demonstrated by their representation on the advisory committee for the rulemaking process. Strong and transparent EPR programs are a great state-level solution to the growing problem of packaging waste and plastic pollution, but the success of these programs relies on the inclusion of strong support for local governments for implementation.

An example of general and plastic waste.

Considerations for Local Implementation – Taxes, Fees, Preemptions, and More

In addition to EPR and circular economy policies, states are enacting legislation that impacts local government’s ability to successfully reduce plastic pollution, both positively and negatively. 

In Northern Virginia, a group of local governments are working collaboratively through the Northern Virginia Waste Management Board to implement the guidelines of the Virginia Disposable Plastic Bag Tax. This specific legislation does not mandate the adoption of a bag tax, but gives local governments the opportunity and guidance to adopt an ordinance should they choose. The region has implemented a five-cent tax on every disposable plastic bag used by customers at the point of sale. Considering equity impacts from a point-of-sale tax, a portion of the revenue from the region’s tax will be used to provide reusable bags to recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) benefits. Additionally, local governments will utilize the revenue to support programs that aim to reduce environmental waste and mitigate pollution and litter, while also enhancing capacity to address sustainability and climate-related issues. Recognizing the opportunity and benefits of regionally consistent messaging, the region collaborated on developing education and marketing materials for local businesses and residents about the tax. This effective approach at the state-level put in place the guidance and implementation support for local governments to enact a bag tax, while recognizing that this policy lever may not be the appropriate solution to reduce plastic pollution for every jurisdiction at this time.

An example of a reusable bag for shopping.

Heading now to the State of Pennsylvania, where local governments and environmental organizations saw a major win after an existing preemption that blocked all municipalities from enacting or enforcing laws that would affect single-use plastic or polystyrene expired. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, West Chester, Narberth, and Lower Merion, with the Clean Air Council, filed a lawsuit against the state to protect the authority of municipalities to enact and enforce laws to protect their residents, including those that aim to curb plastic pollution. This lawsuit was not won, but ultimately led to the preemption expiring and not being reinstated into the current code. There are numerous states with current preemptions in place. Recognizing that the momentum for laws to address plastic pollution including plastic bag bans and polystyrene often starts at the local level, this creates a major barrier for local governments to overcome in these states. The Surfrider Foundation recommends local governments take an approach of strong on-the-ground presence to continue to pass local single-use plastic bag regulations coupled with talking to state legislators to make sure that they’re aware of the issue’s importance to their constituents.

Join the Global Movement to Beat Plastic Pollution

World Environment Day is coming up on June 5th, and this year the focus is on solutions to plastic pollution. Local and state governments in the U.S. have a big role to play in curbing plastic pollution across the globe.

  • The Circular City Actions Framework provides urban changemakers with five complementary strategies they can use to start working towards a more circular system. Consider leveraging the framework to rethink how plastics are managed in your community, from extraction to disposal.

Resources for States and Local Governments