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The Presidential Plastics Action Plan urges president-elect Joe Biden to take eight key executive actions to solve the plastic pollution crisis. The demands are mostly wrongheaded and would engender numerous unintended consequences.

Clare Goldsberry

December 10, 2020

8 Min Read
US protestors
Image: Rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock

Get ready to fight back in 2021, as some 550 community and conservation organizations, including many members of the #breakfreefromplastic movement and the Surfrider Foundation, take on the plastics industry. The coalition released its Presidential Plastics Action Plan, urging president-elect Joe Biden to take eight key executive actions to solve the plastic pollution crisis and become a #PlasticFreePresident.

These proposed executive actions include a moratorium on new plastic production facilities, using federal purchasing power to curb single-use plastics, tightening up regulation of the petrochemical industry, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and protecting communities from pollution.

“The plan responds to the plastic industry’s aggressive expansion of facilities using the country’s oversupply of fracked gas to make throwaway plastic that fills our oceans, landfills, and landscapes,” said the group. “Petrochemical-plastic projects harm frontline communities with toxic air and water pollution, and worsen the climate crisis and the impact of the pandemic.”

Julie Teel Simmonds, Senior Attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, commented that these goals can be achieved by the president-elect during his first few days in office, thus bypassing Congress. Implementing this plan would “begin solving the plastic pollution crisis” and would “protect vulnerable frontline communities and marine life while addressing a key driver of climate change.”

In taking a look at this eight-step “action plan” to get rid of plastics, we can easily see several unintended consequences these steps would create.

Use the purchasing power of the federal government to eliminate single-use plastic items and replace them with reusable products. When the term “single-use” plastics comes up in connection with the goal to “eliminate” these items, does that mean all single-use plastics (SUPs)? Does that include single-use plastic healthcare products, such as syringes and instruments used for various types of medical testing? Many single-use items are critical to the healthcare industry to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. Even simple SUPs used for retail bags, takeout food containers and cutlery, straws, and other everyday items that make life convenient are ultimately better for the environment when compared with the proposed “reusable” products.

Should every fast-food eatery and restaurant offering takeout meals — which is just about every restaurant in the world at this point — be mandated to use glass containers (knowing that silica sand is becoming in short supply, so glass may get more expensive) or, worse, stainless-steel cutlery or aluminum containers that must be returned to the restaurant? That requires sterilization in lots of hot (energy), soapy (chemicals) water (a valuable resource) and would exponentially increase the price of a Big Mac. Not to mention the trips people would have to make in their vehicles (using fossil fuel) to return the stainless-steel cutlery and glass or china dishes to the restaurants. Fast-food places would have to install dishwashers to handle the huge amount of reusable dishes they would accumulate every day.

It’s not just the energy required to manufacture the glass dishes or stainless-steel cutlery that is of concern. With the drive toward renewables, energy will be less consistently available and more expensive. Just ask Californians. If more energy will be required to make more and more reusable items, and still more energy is needed to wash and sterilize them, we could find ourselves in a huge energy crunch in no time at all.

Single-use plastic retail bags, as I’ve explained numerous times in blogs, are much more energy-efficient to make than the alternatives, and it’s been proven in many studies that people use these bags multiple times to take out garbage, remove cat litter, pick up dog poop, and more. A paper bag is truly single use and requires more energy and resources — specifically water — to produce than a plastic bag.

Cotton retail bags have been promoted as alternatives, but they are far from being eco-friendly. It takes lots of fossil fuel to prepare the land, plant the cotton, spray the cotton fields with weed killers using aerial spraying methods, spray the fields with defoliant, and run equipment to pick the cotton and ship it to be made into fabric. The justification is that cotton is a natural product. Well, so is plastic! It comes from the earth and is made by natural processes as ancient animals and biomass become fuels.

Suspend and deny permits for new or expanded plastic production facilities, associated infrastructure projects, and exports. On Nov. 4, Simmonds’ organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, announced that the Army Corps of Engineers had suspended its permit for Formosa Plastics’ proposed plant in St. James Parish, LA, a day ahead of the filing deadline for the Corps to defend its issuance of permits in a federal lawsuit filed by project opponents. Does this mean that all new or expanding plastic production plants would have permits suspended or denied? Will that include plastic processors/converters that make all types of plastic products, including those for building and construction, electronics, transportation? The Action Plan does not specify which plastic facilities it intends to prevent but I’m assuming any and all are at risk, putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

Make corporate polluters pay and reject false solutions. Corporate polluters are defined as those who make the plastic that eventually becomes visible pollution, as people throw waste into the environment. Corporations that manufacture plastic or the items made from plastic don’t pollute — people pollute! I see it every day in my own neighborhood! While the plastic-haters believe that recycling, both mechanical and chemical, is a false solution, along with bioplastics and compostable materials, they are only partly right. Recycling is a form of reusability, but it depends on people actually putting the recyclable materials in a place where they can be collected and taken to sorting facilities so that these valuable plastic materials can become new products. That’s key to making recycling actually work.

As for bioplastics and compostable plastics, those are both iffy. The assumption is that items made from bioplastics will be thrown out into the open environment, where they will degrade over a period of time. While they degrade faster than traditional plastics, it’s not fast enough to actually satisfy those who are concerned about the environment. Compostability is an even more ambiguous solution, given that few municipal recycling programs offer curbside collection for compostables, and recycling facilities do not sort for compostable plastic materials. Just saying something is compostable doesn’t make it so. On those two premises, I tend to agree with the nay-sayers.

Update existing federal regulations using the best available science and technology to curtail pollution from plastic facilities. It is not clear which type of plastic facilities the Action Plan is referring to. Large resin producers adhere to various EPA regulations involving air and water pollution. Clean manufacturing is a primary focus for all plants. The plastics industry has done an excellent job keeping plastic pellets out of the environment at processing/converting plants. After all, every pellet lost is money down the drain. Plastic is a valuable commodity and any loss is a loss of revenue for a manufacturer.

Stop subsidizing plastic producers. I’m not sure what this means as I am unaware of government subsidies being given to resin producers or to plastics processors or converters. This requires further research.

Join international efforts to address the global plastic pollution crisis through new and strengthened multilateral agreements. This is already taking place throughout the world, if those anti-plastic groups would take the time to do some research. Throughout Asia, India, Europe, and North and South America, efforts are underway to support the value of plastic materials through proper disposal, collection, and recycling methods, including advanced recycling programs developed by many resin producers.

Reduce and mitigate the impact of abandoned, discarded, and lost fishing gear. Many coastal areas throughout the world are actively engaged in projects to keep lost fishing nets and other gear from waterways.

In response to this Presidential Plastics Action Plan, Plastics Industry Association President and CEO Tony Radoszewski pledged that the plastic industry will work with the new administration to support jobs, economic growth, and environmental sustainability, detailing bipartisan solutions for Congress.

“While we’re focused on working together toward bipartisan solutions, activists are determined to destroy an American industry that employs more than one million workers in the United States,” said Radoszewski. “The plan proposed by the Center for Biological Diversity and partner organizations is misguided and aims to eliminate all plastics without taking into consideration the many benefits that plastics provide. That’s shocking, as we are right now witnessing the vital role of plastics in combating the pandemic. People around the world depend on plastic for fresh food, water, medicine, and other necessities anti-plastics crusaders take for granted.

“Modern infrastructure is the solution to all kinds of waste, not just plastic. Our industry is investing in new technologies to build better recycling infrastructure and working with leaders of both parties to develop workable solutions. Plastics were created for a reason and lifecycle analyses consistently show that, on the whole, plastics are more environmentally beneficial than alternative materials —and even more so when they are successfully recycled into new materials,” said Radoszewski.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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