Year in review: public health, climate and consumer protection victories of 2021

Media Contacts
Taran Volckhausen

Former Communications Associate, The Public Interest Network

A new presidential administration opened the way for more national action by PIRG. At the same time, state partners continued to make progress across the country.


DENVER – No doubt, 2021 has been challenging in the United States. The country has grappled with the second year of a deadly pandemic, record-shattering extreme weather events and an unprecedented attack on the U.S. Capitol. On the positive side, President Joe Biden and the United States Congress celebrated a legislative breakthrough with the passage of the landmark bipartisan infrastructure law and various government agencies recalibrated their policies to better protect the public interest. Through it all, PIRG has advocated on behalf of Americans, winning important consumer, environmental and public health victories over the course of the year.

“To address our historic challenges, it’s more important than ever to advocate for policies that protect and strengthen the public interest,” said PIRG President Faye Park. “Through organizing the public, educating decision makers and strategically allocating our resources, we helped develop and enact policies that promote public health, a healthy environment and strong consumer protections.”

Here are some 2021 highlights and milestones that the PIRGs achieved and contributed to over the past year:


President Biden signed executive order backing the Right to Repair 

On July 9, the president signed a sweeping executive order “promoting competition in the American economy,” featuring several actions in support of the Right to Repair. In the order, President Biden called on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to establish rules to prevent repair restrictions, with a specific focus on cell phones and farm equipment. Bottom line: The president of the United States is officially behind Right to Repair campaign efforts, led by PIRG and its coalition partners.

FTC voted unanimously to crack down on repair restrictions with ‘new vigor’ 

The FTC unanimously voted to endorse a new policy statement regarding the agency’s more aggressive approach to enforcing Right to Repair laws. The document closely mirrors the requests that U.S. PIRG, and iFixit requests delivered to the FTC earlier this year. The PIRGs plan to keep supplying the agency with public support and actionable enforcement data. 

Apple and Microsoft made major concessions to Right to Repair

Bowing to shareholder pressure, Microsoft agreed to take concrete steps to allow consumers to get their devices repaired by people outside the tech giant’s authorized network. Microsoft will reportedly hire an outside research firm to analyze the environmental benefits of increasing access to repair, and of making new parts and documentation available beyond its authorized repair network by the end of 2022.

In November, Apple also conceded to the demands of the Right to Repair movement. One of the world’s largest smartphone-makers has now reversed its longstanding policy against making spare parts, repair instructions and repair software tools available to customers. The commitment is part of a new Self Service Repair program.


Rohit Chopra confirmed as CFPB director

The U.S. Senate confirmed consumer champion Rohit Chopra as the new director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Before assuming leadership at the CFPB, Chopra helped set up the agency, ran its student protection office and unapologetically stood up for consumer rights as a FTC commissioner.  

Lawsuit settled over illegal CFPB ‘Taskforce’ 

U.S. PIRG favorably settled a lawsuit over the CFPB’s creation of an illegal “Taskforce on Federal Consumer Financial Law” under the Trump administration. Former President Donald Trump had stacked what came to be known as the “Task Farce” with five representatives of the financial services industry and no consumer advocates. The PIRGs celebrated when President Biden returned the CFPB to its job: protecting consumers.

PIRG reported on predatory towing, airline complaints 

U.S. PIRG Education Fund released a report that found very few states offer basic protections against predatory towing practices. After the report was picked up by local and national news organizations around the country, a legislator expressed interest in introducing a bill in Colorado. In Boston and Baltimore, city councilors filed bills to protect consumers from predatory towing.

Near the end of the year, U.S. PIRG Education Fund analyzed more than 200,000 consumer complaints filed with the Department of Transportation (DOT) against commercial airlines. With these findings, PIRG put together a comprehensive report about which airlines have received the most and fewest complaints, and the issues that airlines need to address most. The report garnered significant media coverage, increasing pressure on federal regulators and airline companies to do better.

PIRG testified before Congress on toy safety

U.S. PIRG Education Fund released its 36th annual Trouble in Toyland report, focusing on the rise in counterfeit and knockoff products. The well-publicized report release led a U.S. Senate committee to invite report author Hannah Rhodes to testify about counterfeit products and other dangers posed by certain toys.

The CPSC recalled 10 million high-powered magnets, regulated infant sleep products

U.S. PIRG Education Fund has spotlighted the risks of high-powered magnets for years in our annual Trouble in Toyland reports. In August, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recalled about 10 million high-powered magnets sold by Zen Magnets LLC. High-powered magnets, also known as “rare earth” magnets, have a stronger magnetic force than ordinary magnets. When someone ingests high-powered magnets, they can lodge onto parts of the digestive tract and potentially bore holes through internal organs. Children have died after ingesting high-powered magnets.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund has been calling attention to dangerous infant sleep products for more than two years. In an incremental victory, the CPSC approved tough new standards to regulate several infant sleep products for the first time. The mandatory safety regulations will affect all products marketed as sleep products for babies up to five months of age. 

Illinois passed 36% consumer loan interest rate caps

Illinois passed the Predatory Loan Prevention Act, which implemented a 36% interest rate cap on consumer loans, including payday and car title loans. Illinois PIRG helped pave the way for the victory alongside a coalition of more than 50 consumer, faith, labor, community and civil rights organizations. 


President Biden canceled permit for Keystone XL pipeline: 

On his first day in office, President Biden canceled the Keystone XL pipeline permit. Before he assumed office, U.S. PIRG called on Mr. Biden to cancel the controversial pipeline, which would have ferried toxic fossil fuels from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, to protect the environment and public health. In June, five months after the permit cancellation, the pipeline’s developer, TC Energy, ended the project. 

Congress limited methane emissions: 

In a bipartisan vote, the Senate reversed a catastrophic methane rule enacted under the Trump administration. President Biden later signed that reversal into law. Methane, which is commonly released during the extraction of fossil fuels, is a highly dangerous greenhouse gas that warms the planet with 28 times the strength of carbon dioxide. U.S. PIRG and Environment America had called on the president to overturn the methane standards in the “First Things to Fix” report, which outlined 20 environmental priorities Mr. Biden should enact when taking office. 

The EPA mandated a phase-out of climate super-pollutant HFCs: 

In Dec. 2020, Congress passed a major energy bill that included a provision to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), climate change-exacerbators known as “super greenhouse gases.” Then, this past year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enacted mandates to follow through on that bill. This policy should prompt significant climate improvements relatively quickly.


COVID-19 vaccination promotion

U.S. PIRG Education Fund launched an effort to reach thousands of people, especially those living in rural areas, with accurate information about the COVID-19 vaccines. In Arizona, Florida, Maine and Massachusetts, our volunteers and staff organized community forums with doctors, mobilized local leaders and partnered with schools to vaccinate as many people as possible. 

Wendy’s held the antibiotics 

PIRG helped convince Wendy’s, the third-largest U.S hamburger chain, to commit to phasing the routine use of medically important antibiotics out of its entire meat supply chain by the end of 2030. We need to reduce use of our lifesaving medicines in meat production, because it makes them less effective for when people need them to fight infections. 


Virginia, Colorado and Washington banned single-use plastic

In March, the Virginia legislature passed a statewide bill to ban plastic foam food containers, making it the sixth state to do so. Disposable foam products are non-recyclable and rank among the most common and harmful plastic pollutants made today.

Two months later, in May, Washington state responded with an even more comprehensive ban on plastic foam products, including foam coolers and packing peanuts. The bill also includes mandates for manufacturers to use recycled content in plastic bottles and jugs for household cleaning and personal care products.

Not to be outdone, in early July, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, which, like Virginia’s and Washington’s laws, bans single-use plastic foam food containers. However, Colorado’s law also bans single-use plastic shopping bags and restores the right of local municipalities to enact their own plastic regulation.

Maine, California broke new ground with producer responsibility, truth-in-labeling laws

Maine passed the first-ever statewide “producer responsibility” legislation. This law will hold the manufacturers and sellers of packaging — particularly single-use plastics — responsible for the costs of cleaning up their waste.

California successfully passed the first-ever statewide truth-in-labeling bill to address greenwashing, the public relations tactic of making something seem more environmentally friendly than it is. The law requires manufacturers to truthfully acknowledge whether their product is recyclable and label it appropriately. CALPIRG Students helped secure key votes for the labeling bill with lobby meetings, letters to the editor and activist training for members.  


Historic federal funding for transit, passenger rail and more

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF) passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden set a precedent for how to transcend partisan gridlock to get things done. Through the legislative process, PIRG pushed for health- and environmental-centered policies and supported bipartisan compromise at critical stages in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. The $1.2 trillion law makes significant strides toward cleaning up our transportation system, including: $39 billion for the largest-ever federal investment in public transit; $66 billion for the largest-ever federal investment for passenger rail; $2.5 billion for the largest-ever federal investment for electric school buses; and $7.5 billion for the first-ever major federal investment in electric vehicle charging.

Cities, states invested in electric buses

Two years after TexPIRG first called on Houston’s transit agency to commit to zero-emissions buses, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) approved a goal in late summer to transition the urban area’s entire public transit fleet to zero-emission vehicles by 2030. A few months later, Austin’s transit agency approved a contract for 197 new electric buses over the next five years — one of the largest electric vehicle purchases ever made in the United States.

Colorado passed greenhouse gas rule to cut transportation emissions

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) passed a new rule to cut greenhouse gas emissions, clean up air pollution and increase transportation options, such as transit, walking and biking. Before passing the precedent-setting rule, CoPIRG met directly with CDOT to influence its decision making, submitted comments and included the rule in recommendations to cut ozone pollution. CoPIRG was part of a larger coalition of multimodal advocates.


McDonald’s & Wendy’s committed to removing toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” from food packaging

PIRG has urged fast food restaurants to formally commit to phasing out PFAS-treated food packaging. In January, McDonald’s committed to eliminate PFAS-treated food packaging used in its restaurants globally by 2025. Wendy’s issued a similar commitment in April. 

Maine, California, Connecticut, and other states banned PFAS in products, strengthened disclosure laws around PFAS

In October, California became the seventh state to ban the use of PFAS in food packaging. The bill also required manufacturers to disclose all potentially hazardous, intentionally added chemicals on the packaging for cookware and bakeware products.

Congress reinstated “polluter pays” fee to speed up Superfund cleanups

Over the course of 2021, PIRG released three reports to educate the public on the EPA’s languishing Superfund program and the health risks that stagnation posed to the American public. PIRG’s efforts helped to convince members of Congress to support reinstating a “polluter pays” fee on hazardous chemicals as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. After 26 years of footing the bill for hazardous waste cleanup, part of the burden will now shift to the polluters responsible for creating these toxic messes in the first place.

L’Oreal rolled out new ingredient disclosure standards

For years, PIRG has called on L’Oréal to follow through on its commitment to disclose more of its fragrance ingredients. In October, the cosmetics giant unveiled new disclosure standards that will allow customers to review more of the ingredients in the L’Oréal products they buy and help them make better-informed purchases.

The EPA banned chlorpyrifos

After a court ordered the EPA to address the use of chlorpyrifos, a brain-damaging pesticide, PIRG organized members to call for an outright ban. This fall, the EPA banned the pesticide  from use on all food crops, which accounts for more than 90% of its use.


Congress finalized strong rule for No Surprises Act 

The No Surprises Act, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, will help millions of Americans avoid paying for unfair and expensive out-of-network health care bills they couldn’t avoid. U.S. PIRG worked with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to finalize portions of the No Surprises Act to ensure the law includes ironclad rules to protect Americans from most surprise medical bills. 


Maryland established permanent vote-by-mail list

Maryland passed a law that enabled voters who prefer to vote by mail to do so without having to apply for a mail-in ballot for each election. This bill was a priority for Maryland PIRG and other voting rights proponents across the state who advocated for its passage through public hearings, mobilizing support from the public and conversations with legislators.