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Environmetal Policies on Microplastic

By Hailey Moll

It is estimated that between 9 to 14 million tonnes of plastic debris enters our oceans every year. Our rivers serve as funnels of plastic pollution into the ocean, with just 1,600 rivers accounting for close to 80% of plastic emissions (United Nations Environment Programme, Meijer et al.,Sci. Adv. 2021). As this non-biodegradable plastic trash drifts through ocean currents seemingly clogging our waterways in perpetuity, smaller, more hazardous iterations of plastic begin to emerge in the form of microplastics. Microplastics are small fragments less than 5 mm in diameter that form from a variety of sources. Larger macroplastic debris can break apart into continuously smaller pieces of microplastic as it swirls in ocean currents, or microplastic microbeads and fibers slip past water filtration systems as they rinse down the drain from cosmetics and exfoliants (National Ocean Service). While studies on microplastics are emergent, they pose a potentially dangerous threat to aquatic and human health. These microplastics can move through the food chain, from marine life to our plate as seafare. But they also can enter our bodies through inhalation and absorption and wind up in our organs (United Nations Environment Programme).

Despite what little we currently know about the environmental and human health risks of microplastic pollution in our drinking water and oceans, the issue has begun to permeate the policy sphere in recent years. Here in the United States, much of the major legislation addressing microplastic pollution has been proposed, but not passed, into law. The only major legislation to date at the federal level tackling microplastics is the Microbead-Free Waters Act (HR. 1321), signed into law by President Obama in 2015. This law bans the manufacturing, distribution, and introduction of rinse-off cosmetics that contain microbeads. However, this law addresses a mere fraction of the total sources of microplastic pollution. Nearly two thirds of microplastic release are from the washing of synthetic textiles in our laundry and the erosion of tires on the road while driving (IUCN).

In the last three years of U.S. federal legislative sessions alone, several proposed policies aim to improve recycling efforts and eliminate single-use plastic products from U.S. production and waste streams. A single-use plastic product is one that is designed to be disposed of after one use. With half of the roughly 300 million tonnes of plastic produced globally serving as single-use, these plastics greatly contribute to the growing hazard of microplastic pollution, as they are very challenging to recycle (NRDC). The Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Research Act (HR.2821) and the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 (S.984) would work to bolster the competitiveness of the American recycling industry and would establish mandates and incentivize the reduction of single-use plastic product production. Other proposed legislation illuminates the federal government’s interest in studying the health and environmental impacts of microplastics in our drinking water, with bills such as the MICRO Plastics Act of 2020 (S.3306) and the Save Our Seas 2.0: Improving Domestic Infrastructure to Prevent Marine Debris Act (S.2260). S.3306 would instruct the EPA to establish a pilot program aimed at testing the effectiveness and cost of tools and technologies that can remove and prevent microplastics from the environment. S.2260 would allow the EPA to send grants to local governments to help improve plastic waste removal (including microplastics) from drinking water. If passed, the bill would also instruct the EPA would also conduct a study with the National Academies on the effects of microplastics in food supplies and drinking water sources.

Looking more regionally in the scope of Project Plastic’s research, New York and New Jersey state legislation have yet to truly dismantle the microplastic problem in any passed or proposed laws. Both states created their own Microbead-Free Waters Act, however, only New Jersey successfully passed a state ban on microbeads in 2015 (Bill A3083). Both states have been able to pass bans on plastic bags, taking a strong step in the direction towards single-use plastic elimination. New Jersey’s Plastic Pollution Reduction Act goes even further to additionally ban the acquisition and selling of polystyrene foam food service containers and products, limit the use of plastic straws and paper bags, and appropriate money towards public education (ANJEC). Perhaps the most exemplary state that is a trailblazer in microplastic pollution prevention policy is California - passing laws such as the California Safe Water Drinking Act (SB-1422) requiring water testing for microplastics, and creating a Statewide Microplastics Strategy (SB-1263) that enforces the California Ocean Protection Council to address and decrease the risks associated with microplastics in marine ecosystems.

As research continues to shed light on the harmful effects of microplastics in our waterways, productive solutions to adequately protect human and marine life from this growing problem can originate from improved legislation at the local, state and federal level. While progress is slow, there still exists large gaps in plastic pollution management and recycling in the United States. Ultimately, comprehensive bans on all single-use plastics or improved recycling methods at the state and federal level would go a long way to mitigate further perpetuation of microplastic pollution.

What Can You Do?

Tell your Federal legislators to support local and state initiatives on microplastic and plastic pollution. Find out who your Members of Congress are for your state here:


House of Representatives

You can search what current microplastic legislation at your state and federal level is being proposed here:



You can call, email, or send a letter to your elected officials and tell them the specific bills you want to see passed! Use this template by the North Los Angeles County Regional Center to help you craft your letter and for tips and tricks on how to address your elected officials.

What Are We Doing?

Technology is already paving the way to designing solutions to our global plastic problem. Here at Project Plastic, our goal is to remove microplastic pollutants from water systems through developing a portable and affordable microplastic sequestering device, the Plastic Hunter. This device utilizes root biofilters to remove microplastics from rivers, while simultaneously monitoring levels of microplastic pollution in freshwater systems. Make sure to follow us on Instagram, and Facebook to follow our journey to clean up the world’s microplastics.

Brief History of MSW Treatment in the US

In the US, the MSW treatment system for modern society was first introduced in 1960, during which cities were exposed to health hazards caused by openly burned waste, open-air waste dumping sites, and unlined landfill sites. Congress promulgated the Solid Waste Disposal Act in 1965 to regulate trash disposal with rudimentary requirements (EPA report, 2020). In the late 1970s, the first comprehensive Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was enacted, providing more specific definitions of non-hazardous solid waste versus hazardous waste and strict mandatory requirements for waste disposal, processing, storage, and transportation. Recycling and composting were thereby introduced and promoted as measures to reduce waste generation sustainably. RCRA set up the foundation for MSW policies that extends until this day.

Plastic waste treatment, compared to those of other materials, is a reasonably recent matter. First, man-made plastic was invented in the UK in 1856 as an artificial alternative to ivory. In 1907, Bakelite, the first synthetic polymer made from petroleum, was invented and triggered a swarm for modern polymer material innovations in the 1940s and 1950s. Reaching its prosperity in the 1960s, plastic as a cheap, durable, and malleable material, replaced traditional materials such as paper, glass, and metal, and was broadly applied in packaging and building industries. However, the volume of plastic waste also became alarming ---- in 1960, plastic waste constitutes 0.4 percent of overall MSW; this number accelerated to 12.2 percent in 2018 (EPA report, 2020).

The challenge for plastic waste is that it can hardly be treated without causing any environmental harm since it is categorized as a hazardous material. Firstly, plastic products, depending on their polymer structure, can take from 100 up to 1000 years to decompose (Kershaw et al., 2011) in a landfill site. During transportation, lightweight plastic waste often gets blown away and finds its way to enter the waterways. Secondly, combustion with energy recovery is also tricky with plastic. The by-product of plastic emission contains toxic substances such as Bisphenol A, phthalates, and flame retardants, posing health hazards to humans and animals; combustion also generates greenhouse gas, exaggerating global warming (Verma et al., 2016). Although both scientific research and media widely believe that recycling is the more sustainable way for plastic waste treatment, the reality is that only around 8.5 percent of plastic were recycled in the US in 2018, which was significantly lower than the overall MSW recycling rate of 23.6 percent (EPA report, 2020). The majority of plastic were sent to landfill (77 percent) and incinerator plants (15.7 percent). The reasons behind plastic's low recycling rate in America reveals limitations on both policies and waste infrastructures.

Limitations of MSW Policy

While the government has supported green enterprises such as recycling centers and material recovery facilities by providing fund opportunities and tax reductions, the sustainability of these facilities is subject to factors such as market interest, profit margin, ease of operation, and public awareness. Policies that failed to consider these factors and foresee long-term consequences can inhibit the entire industry's well-functioning.

Waste export is a critical factor for global waste mismanagement driven by policy. For the US and other major plastic producers, plastic recycling is heavily dependent on exporting to less-developed countries. Notably, some policies inversely encourage shipping of plastic waste, rather than processing them domestically, because the prospected expense with all recycling stages is too high for many privately owned facilities to generate any profit. For example, the UK passed the Plastic Recovering Note (PRN) in 2007 as an effort to encourage domestic plastic recycling. The PRN functions as a credit system that gives subsidies to recyclers based on the mass of plastic they recycled. However, for the same amount of raw plastic scrap, domestic recyclers can only receive around 40% of PRN credits due to toxic components such as liquid and stickers, while the exporters earn the full credits despite contamination since everything is processed abroad without examination. The PRN system not only undercut profits from domestic recyclers but also transferred the contaminated non-recyclable waste to the countries they exported to, namely, China, Malaysia, and other southeast Asian countries. Although these countries can still make slim profits out of waste processing due to low labor costs, they also have less developed recycling facilities. In site surveys to several recycling centers in Shenzhen and Bangkok, contaminated water from the machinery covered the entire floor area; plastic bales were stored in open environments where workers sorted usable pieces manually. Poorly managed site conditions in these locations hold them accountable for their high plastic emission into the ocean.

Moreover, the financial incentive for plastic recycling is relatively low compared to virgin plastic production. For recyclers, the value of recycling plastic is typically related to the type of polymer and the size of individual items. By category, only #1 PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and #2 HDPE(High-density polyethylene) are considered profitable for recovery; #4 LDPE,#5 PP, #6 PS, and #7 Other can sometimes be recycled depending on their condition and form; whereas #3 PVC cannot be recycled at all. Furthermore, items below 3 inches, such as single-use plastic bags and bottle caps, are considered of negative value because of their sorting difficulties. However, even the high-value plastics are bearing great competition from virgin materials. In 2020, the price for recycled PET rose to an average of $72/ton above the price of virgin PET plastic (aclima, 2020). This may not affect larger collaborators, but smaller manufacturers may shift to the cheaper virgin PET. Moreover, increased operational cost and lower value for recycled PET have triggered 40 percent of recycling businesses foreclosing in California in the last 5 years, including the largest chain recycler, RePlanet. Unfortunately, as an intermediary between consumption and re-production, recycling companies have very little flexibility to act against market fluctuations. Without a stable demand for recycled materials, either promoted by policies or not, they run the risk of going bust and intensifying the lack of capacity for waste management.

Finally, the current MSW management system pushes all environmental liabilities from consumers to recyclers. For consumers, there is no incentive other than sustainability commitments to pick the more expensive alternatives over plastic. Nationally and state wise, waste disposal standards for consumers are at most instructional with no legal liabilities. Oftentimes in the trash disposal area, materials are displaced and mixed with other materials, adding to the difficulty for post-consumer processing.

Limitations for Waste-processing Infrastructure

The efficacy of waste infrastructure heavily affects the cost and risk associated with recycling. In the US, plastic recovery typically refers to a sequence of systems operated by different agents. Post-consumer waste collection is often operated by each county or individual institutions on a regular basis; sorting is operated by Material Recovery Facilities in which plastics are separated and compressed to single-material bales; reprocessing is operated by individual recyclers who convert sorted plastic items into raw materials. While facility buildings in the US are well-engineered and protected from extreme weather, network settings and machinery defections elongate the waste journey, making plastic harder to return to the market.

In most American cities, waste management adopts the centralized model, meaning waste is transported across long distances from collection points to regional MRFs. MRF is the crucial coordinator that accepts unsorted waste and delivers valuable stacks of materials, whose capacity and service radius discern how fast plastic can reenter the market. The problem with a centralized model is that only a couple MRFs located at the outskirts of a city are covering waste sorting for the entire city. In LA, there are 8 MRFs currently in service. The average distance from MRFs to serviced areas is around 15 miles (calculated from satellite map measurements). Long journeys made between collection sites, MRFs, and reprocessing centers are not only expensive and time-consuming but also increases the risks of mismanagement in transportations. Although MRFs' location may relate to an array of reasons such as zoning regulations, cost of land and hazard prevention, the current network's logistic efficiency needs further investigation to reduce the service radius of MRFs.

Moreover, MRFs are currently limited to sorting only selected types of plastic despite automation. As mentioned above, PET and HDPE plastics can be sorted because of their higher market value. Additionally, optical identification and air-jet are typically used to automatically separate plastics based on transparency and density differences during the sorting process. PET is clear, which is obvious while scanned by the camera, while HDPE has heavier massing, which will be blown into a separate conveyer belt driven by its gravity. The rest of the plastic, however, often contains PP and LDPE, and others that are considered more challenging to be separated are organized into a mixed bale, preparing to be shipped to East Asia. Based on the author's interview with Sims Municipal Recycling in Brooklyn, the biggest MRF in the US processing over 200,000 tons of recyclables each year, the existing automated sorting lines are still limited in precision. For lightweight plastic and smaller pieces, workers at the end of the streamline will need to manually separate the materials, which is somewhat labor-intensive than simply shipping them abroad.

Additionally, the existing collection network has a leak hole in the waterborne plastic collection. As the biggest conveyor of ocean plastic, rivers attract plastic waste from an array of urban sources. Regardless of how engineered, the waste managements are, it is almost inevitable that plastic debris can find its way to the rivers. Cities like LA cleans the riverways regularly, using conventional cranes or small boats. On clear days, floater barriers are installed to trap debris that are floating on the surfaces. However, there is a lack of measures designed for catching most plastic debris, which usually happens in extreme weather. In fact, the abundance of plastic debris was recorded, reaching up to18 times during storm surges, primarily carried by urban runoffs (Castro‐Jiménez et al., 2019). Prevention systems targeted at high aquatic plastic concentrations have not yet been installed to prevent plastic from entering the ocean.

Defections in both policy and infrastructure in the US significantly impact the slow rate and high cost for recycled plastic, forming a dead circle that more virgin plastics are demanded. More emissions are inevitably made. To reduce plastic emissions to the ocean, breakthroughs in systematic optimizations are particularly expected at all scales.

Part II Alternative models for managing plastic waste

Innovations in waste management are appearing globally, initiated by both authorities and private enterprises. These initiatives either challenge the widespread centralized models, or tackle gaps in existing infrastructure through the development of novel and precise plastic collection and processing technologies. Although certain models may not be practical or culturally appropriate to directly replicate in America, their principles and methods can be utilized to form an innovative framework for US plastic recycling policy and infrastructure.

Governmental Initiatives

During the post war boom, Japan experienced rapid economic development and population growth, resulting in increased urban consumption and waste production. While limited by the small territory and scarcity of landfill sites, Japan's waste management has been relying on energy recovery and recycling. Since 1995, domestic waste sorting has been distributed through a plethora of steps, firstly integrated with the waste disposal of every household, followed by centralized sorting in MRFs. Disposal is strictly regulated that PET HDPE and PP are required to be separated first and disposed of at specific locations; violations will be subject to fines and penalties. For an item that contains various materials, the household is responsible for disassembly and categorization. As a result, individuals are forced to participate in waste sorting, which reduces MRFs' workload and ensures a higher recycling rate of plastic. However, applications of the same system are very limited outside of Japan, as it requires individuals to be extremely cautious. The concept of 'early sorting' can be valuable for constructing the US waste framework.

In Germany, specificity in material separation broadened potential applications for recycled plastic. They developed an optimized sorting method that organizes plastic by type and size and identifies the objects' color. Since colorants are commonly added to the polymer, they also affect the properties of plastic in heat resistance, food safety restrictions, Etc. (Sepe, 2016). The same type of plastic of different colors may not be compatible with each other; when combined, they form into a greyish polymer complex, exhibiting uneven qualities depending on the composition. This drastically constrains the reuse applications to only clothing nylons, plant pots, or furniture, which can hardly be recycled again.

Meanwhile, in Eisfeld, a reprocessing company called Systec Plastic GmbH applied an LED scanner that identifies plastic colors and separates colored flakes in repeated circuits. Sorted flakes are turned into pellets and sold to companies with specific requirements. The specification in the sorting procedure boosted recycled plastic's commodity value, however, the re-applications are still consumer goods, which means they will likely return to the MRFs in a short period.

Enterprise Initiatives

While centralized waste management exhibited the limitations of high logistic cost and a long recycling sequence, decentralized waste management models started to take off in India. According to Saahas Zero Waste (SZW), microunits for community waste treatment were established near the residential areas and business campuses, operated directly by the SZW. This significantly streamlines the logistical challenges associated with conventional waste collection and sorting, thereby increasing the net rate of recycling wherever microunits are applied. Another company called Sampurnearth developed an end-to-end decentralized waste management network. The platform analyzes schedules, locations, and capacities of individual recyclers and clients, pairing them with optimized routes and services.

Other innovations are appearing in tackling plastic waste collection in aquatic ecosystems. The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization founded by a young entrepreneur, Byan Slat, from the Netherlands. As a business leader in researching ocean plastic distribution, the group strategically designed their plastic capturing prototypes by targeting a higher concentration of plastic waste. They found out that most plastic (by mass) in vertical water columns are concentrated on the first 1 meter of water surface. This guided them to designing the Boom Floater and Screen system and the Interceptor plastic collector, trapping plastic debris from both oceans and rivers. Although neither of the proposed systems can be permanently integrated into urban environments, the method of trapping surface plastic can be constructive for future urban infrastructures. Recently, the organization is attracting media attention and public funds. However, they have yet to consolidate the product line produced by recycled ocean plastic. Again, converting aquatic plastic to consumer goods is to repeat the circuits of current plastic consumption.

Part III Innovations for Plastic management in Urban Environment

Before entering the ocean, all marine debris once existed somewhere on land. The ocean plastic problem analysis is ultimately a re-examination of the global waste management framework and a reflection on how innovations transform social norms with bipolar consequences. Primary producers such as the USA are urged to take more responsibility and rapidly adjust their MSW management. After identifying the MSW system's flaws and limitations in comparison to successful case studies, potential adjustments are funneled into two objectives: aquatic plastic collection and source reduction. Achieving these changes requires immediate restructuring of waste policies and physical settlements. After all, waste management reform should not stagnate or inhibit urban development, but simply aim to redefine how cities repurpose their ecologically hazardous biproducts in a sustainable fashion.

A Diversified Waste Management Framework

Current MSW management operates linearly, collecting, sorting, reprocessing, and manufacturing work in sequence without cross communications. Loopholes in any of the procedures will likely impact the efficacy of the following steps. Conversely, in Japan and India's models, sorting can be introduced at multiple stages of waste management, either combined with disposal or with collection. Systems can work in redundancy, that not only institutions and counties are in charge of waste collection, but also end-to-end trades are initiated between private owners and recyclers. The shift of the operational model will give opportunities to a much more diverse and comprehensive 'waste landscape' in urban environments.

Existing infrastructures will be more closely connected, meanwhile new infrastructures may take off across the city. On a local scale, since most US cities have yet developed specified waste collection stations, clear instructions and pairing disposal container design are expected to be adopted as defaults of each neighborhood. On an urban scale, MRFs' shortened service radius will optimize logistic efficiency, while decentralized sorting and reprocessing units start to pop up, operated by private enterprises. Innovations such as river plastic capturing systems will be broadly adopted, tackling the current waste leakages and providing end-of-line protections for urban waters.

Policies are essential for guiding this transformation. Specifically, stricter regulations should be enacted with the aim to facilitate the recycling process or reduce the productions of virgin plastic. Regulations should include but are not limited to moderation of colorant use and undetachable mix of plastic (factors that increase sorting difficulty); more substantial economic incentives for domestic recyclers such as business pairings and financial aids. Although material trades and consumer behaviors are primarily affected by the market, policies can play an integral role in governing the sustainability market.

Limitations and Conclusions

An optimized waste management framework may escalate the low recycling rate of plastic. However, the effect may still be slim, considering the overall waste volume. In fact, all evidence now suggests that plastic recycling industries can hardly overturn any profits from recycled materials ---- it will always be an uphill battle. Moreover, waste importers already started to reject waste imports due to the growth of wealth and environmental concerns. Before 2017, mainland China and Hongkong cumulatively imported around 72.4 percent of plastic waste worldwide. In 2017, the Chinese government enacted a strict ban on all imported waste, which shifted the plastic import amount to other Asian countries. In 2019, Malaysia, the biggest importer after China, announced the prohibition of plastic scraps, followed by Thailand, which plans to ban waste imports by 2021. When exporting will no longer be an option for mitigating excessive domestic waste, every country is forced to develop alternatives to cope with waste management.

A noticeable trend is the development of plastic alternatives, such as bioplastics, attracting vast amounts of research and development funds. It is likely that when alternate materials become more affordable in the near future, and America's oil price offers a less competitive margin, the market will eventually turn away from plastic. Recycling still holds significance in that it buys time for this transition and that plastic items will still require some kinds of treatments while fading away. However, instead of turning recycled plastic into consumer goods, storing them in products that can last longer maybe another path moving forward. Building materials such as plastic lumber have been gathering attention since 2000. Combined with wood flakes or fiberglass, it exhibited better structural performance than timbers and is cheaper to produce. Innovations focusing on long-term plastic products deserve further investigation, to store plastic in the thickness of the city, rather than in the vastness of the city.

However, over the last decade, there has been a resurgence of interest in Ota Ward's manufacturing sector. The district is now a key location for experimental high-tech prototyping and development. This is because of "Nakama Mawashi" (literally meaning passing something around to friends). The proximity of different specialist machining centers, with owners often being neighbors and close friends, affords the area a unique collaborative community where groups of machinists assist one another in completing projects. This collaboration ethos allows for abstract concept designs to be rapidly developed into concrete prototypes, which has made the district a beacon for technological innovation. This has led to increased corporate and governmental involvement with the district since 2010, with government-funded urban workshops like the Ota Techno Core being developed to encourage new generations of small factory owners. Housing units like the Ota Techno Core follow the same structure of traditional urban workshops, with a machine shop at ground level and housing on the upper floors [Fig. 14.1]. However, the design of each workshop integrates the extensive electricity and ventilation systems required to house modern machinery and are soundproofed to minimize noise pollution [Fig 14.2]. In doing so, new urban workshops are more discreet than their impromptu counterparts and are more appealing to new generations of machinists. These government and commercially sponsored urban workshops now comprise the additional 1000 small factory operations that have arisen in Ota Ward since 2010. The resurgence of urban machining clusters within a post-industrial city like Tokyo indicates the potential of collaborative and complementary manufacturing communities, not as a production powerhouse, but instead a launchpad for high tech enterprises and technological innovation.


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