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The Plastics Industry Association is pushing back against the federal government's plan to reduce reliance on single-use plastics with a robust information campaign.

Hal Partenheimer

August 8, 2022

5 Min Read
us versus them
Image courtesy of Alamy/Giovanni Di lorenzo

Where, oh where, is Mr. Reagan when you most need him? Known for many positive contributions to our nation during his time as US President, perhaps no quote is as well-remembered as his reproach of unnecessary government intrusion when he quipped, “The nine most dangerous words in the English language — ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

The General Services Administration (GSA) recently established an open comment period for a proposed ruling that would limit or cancel the government’s reliance on single-use plastics in many areas of its functions. This constitutes just one more item in an endless litany of government overreach actions. The negative ramifications of this proposal cannot be overstated. Some of our economy’s largest sectors affected by the GSA petition include, but are not limited to, transportation, infrastructure, and shipping. It will trickle down to all sectors of society.

Environmental toll of plastics is overstated

The Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) makes it clear this latest attempt to banish single-use plastics (SUPs) will not go unchallenged. It has unveiled a new campaign and webpage, stating that “bans and other regulations that reduce access to plastics will only hurt consumers and reduce our abilities to meet environmental goals, including reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” With the launch of its new campaign, PLASTICS has taken this proposed ruling seriously and is disseminating information and relevant data to push back against the ban.

Last month, global management consultancy McKinsey released a comprehensive report on plastics and the environment. “Climate Impact of Plastics” stated: “Among applications for which non-plastic alternatives are used at scale, the plastics examined in this paper offer a lower total GHG contribution compared with alternatives in 13 of 14 cases. GHG savings range from 10 to 90%, considering both product life cycle and impact of use.”

The GSA’s decision to enact this legislation is driven not by sound science but by knee-jerk capitulation to the environmental left and powerful lobbyists averse to plastic and the pollution it is blamed for causing. Granted, we see it everywhere: Streams, lakes, city streets, most any nook and cranny imaginable. However, does the fault lie with the polymer or the consumer who improperly disposes of it?

Enviro-hysterics are most effectively addressed with calm reason, or in this case, data. When viewed through the lens of life-cycle assessments (LCAs), it becomes readily apparent that not only does the widespread use of SUP make scientific sense, but the use of alternative materials such as paper, wood, metal, or glass is more costly and can be more damaging to the environment.

The proof is in the LCA

Environmental scientist and Fraser Institute senior fellow Kenneth Green’s new paper published on the PLASTICS site supports LCA as foundational to quantifying plastic's impact on the environment. Green presents several LCAs showing that plastics, in single-use applications or in long-term use, are a better choice than alternatives.

  • Scientific life-cycle assessments of plastics and alternative materials find that plastics tend to have lower carbon footprints, making them the more sustainable option.

  • Life-cycle assessments also suggest that substituting other materials for plastics would create negative environmental tradeoffs.

  • Plastics have become critical to sustaining prosperous and technological societies. Discontinuing the use of plastic would be detrimental to both human and environmental well-being. [Italics mine]

Are we supposed to believe the GSA does not have access to the same statistical analysis and peer-reviewed studies the general public does? To be fair, as Green points out, “current recycling systems are economically inefficient, yet fully reclaiming plastic monomers would bring society’s use of plastic materials closer to current conceptions of environmental sustainability.” Our current system is far from perfect, but it is improving and will continue to do so free from government involvement. Free market systems and capital investment will provide the long-term solutions to successfully address industry challenges.

Proposed rule runs counter to goal of reducing GHG emissions

Chris DeArmitt states in his concise expose of plastics lore, Plastics Paradox, that it is inconceivable that government policymakers and bureaucrats cannot perform a simple ‘plastics LCA’ Google search, for example, and find all the data they need to reference, crosscheck, and fact-find prior to making informed decisions that affect us and our environment. Is this caused by laziness, incompetence, or, as some policymakers are wont to do, simply a case of jumping on the gravy train that is Big Government, regardless of the consequences?

FTI Consulting's Emilie Newton references the new PLASTICS campaign as a source that “catalogs scientific research showing how plastic is better for the environment than the most common alternatives, including aluminum, compostables, glass, and cotton due to its smaller GHG footprint, among other environmental benefits.”

Further, the GSA diktat would fly in the face of the Biden administration’s supposed priorities on reducing GHG emissions. Newton states: “By restricting the government’s ability to purchase goods made from or packaged in plastic, the proposed rule would run counter to the Biden administration’s goals to reduce emissions.”

After a remarkably brief 100 years of existence as a significant human-use material, we still have much to learn about the proper reuse, recovery, and recycling of plastics to mitigate pollution. It is understandable that the general public demands a response, and one on this scale would suggest a need for government intervention. However, a ban across such large swaths is counterproductive in the face of so much proof to the contrary.

Plastics applications are just getting started, relatively speaking, and just as with other materials, adaptation and advancement in manufacturing will continue to benefit our world. Hat tip to the Gipper: Private enterprise, free market forces, and the will of educated consumers, in time, will achieve the necessary resolutions. We don’t need another bloated government regulation, so obviously wrong and environmentally damaging, to tell us how to manage single-use plastics.

About the Author(s)

Hal Partenheimer

Hal Partenheimer is a freelance writer based in Dallas, TX. His passion for the environment, energy, the folly of "catastrophic" climate change, and new technologies that address them all take him to wildly exciting places. Writing about them keeps him in a state of happy harangue. Hal has a B.S. in biology and geology and has spent more than enough time in the oil patch of the Permian Basin. He can be reached at linkedin.com/in/hpartenheimer.

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