Environmental Law Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium report outlines existing authorities the U.S. Government can use to stem the flow of plastic pollution

March 2024

(Washington, D.C.): A report, released today, from the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and Monterey Bay Aquarium demonstrates the U.S. government can make important progress toward its goal of eliminating the release of plastic into the environment by the year 2040 under its current authorities. The analysis, Existing U.S. Federal Authorities to Address Plastic Pollution: A Synopsis for Decision Makers, offers an objective, comprehensive overview of existing federal legal authorities – including  laws, regulations, and executive actions – that can accomplish the goal set by the Biden-Harris Administration in April 2023. It provides a variety of legal pathways to address plastic pollution using available policy tools and can help agencies identify opportunities for action.

Read the report highlights here.

Read the full report here

Read more about ELI's plastics-related work here.

“Taking action to start addressing the growing plastics problem doesn't require new legislation or regulations,” said Sandra Nichols Thiam, report author and the Environmental Law Institute’s Vice President of Research and Policy. “For many environmental problems like this one, we already have the legal and policy tools that enable action. By synthesizing these existing tools, this report is a jumping off point for immediate action on plastics.”

“The United States, today, has a clear opportunity to make significant progress toward the Biden-Harris Administration’s ambitious goal,” said report co-author Margaret Spring, the Chief Conservation and Science officer for Monterey Bay Aquarium and an ELI board member. “This report helps illuminate the substantial toolkit federal decision makers have already, and urges the U.S. government to protect our health here at home and set an example for the world by using them to help solve this crisis.” 

“This report will greatly assist the Administration in taking effective and equitable action to address the plastic problem across the plastic pipeline, especially the top priority of reducing plastic waste by decreasing plastic production and increasing reuse system availability and access,” said Carlton Waterhouse, a Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Center at Howard University School of Law and ELI board member.

The ELI and Monterey Bay Aquarium legal analysis builds on a 2021 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), which found that the United States is the largest global producer of plastic solid waste, and that global plastics production could almost quadruple by mid-century. This new analysis focuses on identifying which existing policy options can be implemented in each stage of the plastics life cycle. These already available solutions can fill the gaps between sources of plastic waste and management systems meant to prevent plastic waste from entering the environment.

While the report acknowledges that steps are underway to shape a domestic strategy on plastic pollution, it demonstrates that the White House, federal agencies, and commissions can act today to achieve the recommendations of the NASEM report and the Biden-Harris Administration’s goal. Potential steps identified by ELI and the Aquarium include updating industry-specific effluent limitations and emission standards, restricting certain plastic constituent chemicals, and recognizing microplastic particle pollution as a specific type of ambient air pollution and consumer exposure hazard.

The report concludes several federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), possess extensive authority to protect human health and the environment from the impacts of plastics and related pollution. It also shares how other agencies and offices can play important roles – within their authorities – to provide coordination, research, and outreach across the U.S. government and help inform policy making. 

“The knowledge and the tools to act exist already,” Spring said. “We need decisionmakers to take advantage of the authorities they currently have  to drive changes at the state, national, and global levels, and this report shows a way forward.”

Key strategies highlighted by the report follow: 

Reduce plastic production and pollution from production:

  • Limit emissions of microplastics as particulate matter under the Clean Air Act;
  • Use Toxic Substances Control Act to strengthen review and controls on polymers and chemicals;
  • Limit emissions and chemical discharges from plastic production facilities; and
  • Use National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and environmental justice policies to evaluate plastic production facility impacts in environmental permitting and siting decisions.

Innovate material and product design:

  • Enforce product standards for plastic manufacturers under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act and the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act;
  • Encourage voluntary commitments and collaborations for innovative materials and products; and
  • Enforce standards for labeling and marketing under the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Decrease waste generation:

  • Use Toxic Substances Control Act to ban products based on their use of certain additives, plasticizers, or other chemicals;
  • Use federal purchasing power to prioritize sustainable plastic alternative products and services;
  • Regulate and reduce the loss of preproduction plastic pellets under the Clean Water Act;
  • Examine how deposit return systems and extended producer responsibility requirements fare in states to support state initiatives and inform the development of federal equivalents under the Pollution Prevention Act; and
  • Support affordable and convenient reuse and refill systems.

Improve waste management:

  • Control plastic waste import and export under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act;
  • Set pollution control limits on point sources such as stormwater drainage systems or municipal wastewater treatment plants under the Clean Water Act; and
  • Improve nonpoint source pollution prevention programs for ocean and river discharges under the Coastal Zone Management Act.

Capture plastic waste from the environment:

  • Remove plastic waste from beaches, rivers, inland waterways, and localized hotspots under the Clean Water Act; and
  • Remove plastic waste from ocean wildlife and habitats under the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act.

Minimize ocean disposal:

  • Increase enforcement for at-sea dumping and disposal under the Marine Debris Research, Prevent, and Reduction Act, the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act of 1987, the Marine Protection Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act; and
  • Reduce the amount of fishing gear that is discarded or abandoned in the ocean.

Support Information and Data Collection, Research and Development, Education and Outreach: 

  • Clear research priorities set by the White House in executive orders or actions;
  • Research on health risks and exposures to inform regulatory action; and
  • Deploy the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, and Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act to collect information and data, conduct research, and engage in outreach. This must include pollutant emissions monitoring, data collection on plastic production as well as waste releases.
About Monterey Bay Aquarium

With a mission to inspire conservation of the ocean, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the most admired aquarium in the United States, a leader in science education, and a voice for ocean conservation through comprehensive programs in marine science and public policy. Everything we do works in concert to protect the future of our blue planet. More information at MontereyBayAquarium.org.

About Environmental Law Institute

The Environmental Law Institute is an internationally recognized non-partisan research, publishing, and education center working to strengthen environmental protection by improving law and governance worldwide. We make law work for people, places, and the planet. More information at eli.org