With the 2020 Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show a little more than a month away, we’re offering another conversation with an expert set to take to the conference stage in Nashville.
In this edition of “Meet the Speakers,” we chat with Jonathan Black, who’s part of the team that has put forth one of the most aggressive plastics recycling-related policy efforts ever proposed at the national level in the U.S.
Black is the lead environmental policy adviser to Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who alongside Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) last year floated an outline of legislation that calls for national extended producer responsibility (EPR) for plastic packaging, minimum recycled-content mandates for certain materials, a nationwide container deposit and more.
How have you seen the issue of waste management and recycling grow in importance over your almost 20-year career on Capitol Hill?
Congressional staff portfolios can vary depending on what issues are pressing and in the news. Twenty years ago, I was one of a few congressional staffers who worked on climate change issues. Now, every energy/environment staffer has that in his/her portfolio. The issue of waste and recycling feels similar. There are currently a few offices who have been working and looking at these issues, which have been traditionally addressed at state and local levels. But as the impacts of plastic pollution and recycling woes gain more and more attention, you can see more offices and members of Congress pressing for solutions. There is tremendous pressure building on this topic in a way that I have not noticed previously in my career.
Sen. Udall and Rep. Lowenthal are preparing to introduce legislation that could reshape the plastics recycling industry in the U.S. Why is now the time for bold legislative proposals?
Sen. Udall believes we are in a crisis situation and that we got here by relying on solutions that didn’t adequately address our needs. You’d be hard-pressed to identify a member of Congress who do not support recycling, but we have unfortunately relied on this as the single solution for too long. Recycling is a part of the solution, but we need to shift the burden of our waste management back to those who are creating the material in the first place. Those producers have very little connection to their product once it has been sold and have little incentive to design more efficient and less wasteful products and packaging. The public is realizing this across the world and pressing for solutions that are reflected in our legislation.
“Recycling is a part of the solution, but we need to shift the burden of our waste management back to those who are creating the material in the first place.”
How has the issue of ocean plastics and pollution raised the overall profile of waste management issues and concerns in Congress in recent years?
There is strong bipartisan outrage over the daily images and stories of ocean plastics and impacts to wildlife and nature. This is not only a coastal issue, as demonstrated by my boss’s interest – he’s from New Mexico. Plastic pollution is impacting everyone and that has raised the profile of waste management issues and concerns dramatically in recent years.
What are you looking forward to most about the 2020 Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show?
I’m really looking forward to meeting people in this field and learning more about plastics recycling. Over the course of the past several months, we have undergone an extensive stakeholder process drafting our legislation. We circulated an outline and discussion draft and received well over 200 responses from individuals, environmental groups, businesses and state/local governments. I have been impressed with everyone we have heard from and appreciate the passion and interest that everyone brings to this issue, so I’m looking forward to meeting people who work in this field and to learn more about plastic recycling.
Black will be participating in the conference’s opening session, “Legislation in the Spotlight,” taking place the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 18. Keep an eye on the conference agenda schedule for updates on that session and others.