Romer from EPA tweet_i.jpg

Remember the Presidential Plastics Action Plan, the regulatory wish list/to-do list that environmental groups delivered to the incoming Biden administration back in December?

The Environmental Protection Agency has tapped an attorney from one of the organizers of the plan for a senior-level policy job working in part on plastics.

EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention tweeted Oct. 26 that Jennie Romer, a Surfrider Foundation attorney steeped in plastics issues, is joining as a deputy assistant administrator in the OCSPP.

“Jennie is bringing her experience and expertise in reducing #plasticpollution to @EPA to advance our #P2 programs,” the tweet said.

Romer founded the website and has spent more than a decade working around plastics policy.

She co-authored a 2012 legal journal paper, for example, titled “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: The Plastics Industry’s ‘Public Interest’ Role in Legislation and Litigation of Plastic Bag Laws in California,” which traced the legal and political fights over bag laws in the state.

Romer’s paper opened with a quote from a 2008 Time magazine article on the bag battles.

“In the pantheon of lost causes, defending the plastic grocery bag would seem to be right up there with supporting smoking on planes or the murder of puppies,” it said. “The ubiquitous thin white bag has moved squarely beyond eyesore into the realm of public nuisance, a symbol of waste and excess and the incremental destruction of nature.”

That eye-catching opening doesn’t mean there’s going to suddenly be a national plastic bag law. Moving federal policy can be like steering an ocean liner, so I don’t want to overstate what one appointment means.

But it shows an increased interest in plastics in President Joe Biden’s EPA and, maybe most prominently, brings a voice to the table with that presidential-action-plan kind of perspective.

At Surfrider, Romer was a legal associate for its Plastic Pollution Initiative, where it has recommended model bag laws that include regulations on both plastic and paper bags.

At EPA, she will be one of three deputies in the chemical and pollution prevention office, which itself is one of 11 offices that report to EPA Administrator Michael Regan. She’ll oversee pollution prevention topics within OCSPP.

While with Surfrider, she supported the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act — the first of the big plastics environmental bills proposed in Congress. She spoke at the kickoff news conference in February 2020 with senators and members of Congress. She praised the bill’s focus on reducing “problematic plastics” and its call for a moratorium on new resin plants, an area of huge concern for plastics industry groups.

I’m not going to pretend I have a crystal ball and say what a Biden EPA will do on the details of plastics policy. I’m not sure anyone knows. EPA and other agencies will get pulled in a lot of different ways.

Traditionally, waste and recycling have been more state issues, but that’s changing as the topic has become more nationalized.

Things that in 2020 were limited to the Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act — like its call for recycled-content standards for plastic packaging — have in 18 months become part of the American Chemistry Council’s legislative proposals.

Let’s say the EPA winds up helping draft regulations around recycled-content standards for plastics. Each side would prefer its friends in those government seats.

Or here’s another area of at least some convergence: extended producer responsibility.

The Break Free bill called for expanded producer responsibility for packaging, drawing praise from Romer at the launch last year. This year, EPR became part of the ACC’s legislative proposals.

Of course, the plastics industry and Break Free supporters likely have different ideas about what exactly those EPR or recycled-content rules should look like.

But any way you approach it, government leaders are bringing new voices in.

Romer’s appointment echoed, on a much smaller scale, an announcement from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who named a former Greenpeace leader dubbed “Green Jesus” as the new head of the agency Environment and Climate Change Canada.

When I asked EPA’s press office about Romer and what she might do around plastics, they didn’t get into details.

EPA said she joined the agency Oct. 26 and would work on leveraging pollution prevention efforts with their risk reduction programs and on “integrating pollution prevention considerations into our environmental justice work.”

“She will also be helping us on a variety of other initiatives, including our contributions toward addressing the marine litter crisis,” a spokesperson said.

Government needs to do more around plastics environmental issues in many areas, like how we pay for more recycling, what’s the role of plastics in climate change and concerns around environmental justice and pollution in fenceline communities.

The appointment of someone with Romer’s background in plastics to a higher-level public position in EPA shows how those changes are playing out.

Steve Toloken is a Plastics News assistant managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.