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Environment

Misguided Proposal Attempts to Influence Biden Administration Policies on Plastic

A misguided proposal released recently calling on President-elect Joe Biden to curtail plastic manufacturing and use would do serious economic harm and impact growing efforts to improve recycling and address plastic waste in the environment.

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The Presidential Plastics Action Plan issued by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and other groups proposes broad regulatory and administrative actions that, if enacted, would threaten an engine for economic growth at a time when jobs and innovation are critical to the American recovery. It would also hamper growing efforts by a wide range of environmental groups and industry to eliminate plastic waste in the environment. Realistic and actionable solutions and policies to improve recycling and create economic value from waste have significant support, including from the public, environmental groups, industry, and government. The proposed RECOVER Act is one example of a policy solution that would help states and municipalities invest in recycling programs, upgrade recycling facilities, and enhance the recovery of materials. It would create new high-pay jobs and drive badly needed investment into waste management programs in local communities across the United States.

While supporting sensible government policies, the plastics industry is already taking actions to accelerating the momentum necessary to realize a future where plastic waste in the environment is eliminated, including partnering with many environmental groups on the issue. For example, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a group of over 80 member companies, project partners and supporters, is working to secure a world free of plastic waste, build and scale solutions that increase the reusability of plastics, create economic models that capture the significant value of recyclable materials that today end up in landfills, and educate consumers about disposal and recycling.

Eliminating plastic waste from the environment and improving recycling also means that Americans will continue benefiting from the unique properties of plastics. Plastics have revolutionized whole industries such as healthcare, transportation, food, and technology among others. Plastics ensure health and hygiene in medical applications, keep our food fresh and safe, improve the safety and fuel efficiency of our cars, and enable the devices that we use every day to communicate.

The misguided proposal that seeks to influence the Biden administration not only ignores the sensible actions being taken and the already growing momentum to address plastic waste by many environmental groups, the plastics industry, and members of government, it threatens the jobs and economic growth that such actions will create at a time when they are so badly needed.

Plastics manufacturing provides American jobs.

The NGOs’ plan calls for curtailing billions in planned investments, negatively affecting potentially thousands of American manufacturing jobs at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions jobless across the country. The plan mischaracterizes plastic manufacturing as a “dirty industry,” ignoring the lower lifecycle emissions of plasticscompared to other materials like paper and glass.

Yet leaders must consider the industry’s economic impact when considering policy recommendations. Plastic manufacturing is the eighth largest industry domestically, accounting for more than one million jobs in the United States and $432 billion in shipments.

The United States cannot afford to lose such a vital industry to public health during a pandemic. COVID-19 has highlighted the need for domestic manufacturing when the global supply chain was disrupted. Personal protective equipment such as respirators, masks, face shields, goggles, gowns, coveralls, and gloves (all made of plastic) that are normally produced in Asia, could not be sourced to meet demand. Restricting investment in the plastics industry will only hurt these efforts in the long fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Banning single-use plastic hampers federal emergency response.

Additionally, the proposal asks Biden to “direct the head of each federal agency to ensure that it does not purchase single-use plastic products.” A government ban on durable plastics goods would inadvertently harm the federal government’s ability to respond to emergencies.

In 2020 alone, the federal government through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)  responded to a record setting hurricane and wildfire season with millions of dollars’ worth of life-sustaining commodities such as water, tarps, plastic sheeting, cots, blankets, and generators, all safely packaged in or made from plastic. Under this plan, FEMA could be legally required to procure reusable products such as water bottles when its own research has shown water bottled by individuals instead of commercial processes is more likely to be contaminated in an emergency. A ban on federal acquisition of bottled water would leave many to the mercy of the elements in their time of need.

Alternatives to plastic products are more carbon intensive.

Alternatives to plastic—for which this plan hopes to drive demand through government action—generate higher carbon emissions and require high re-use to be equivalent to plastic. According to a study by the Danish government, a cotton bag would need to be reused up to 7,100 times and a bleached paper bag up to 43 times to have a smaller global carbon footprint than a plastic bag used once.

Another study by Swiss researchers, showed that glass baby food jars produce between 25 percent and 33 percent more greenhouse gases than plastic ones. Glass’s heavier weight results in more fuel consumption to transport products made from and packaged in glass. At the end of their life, these alternatives are much bulkier and heavier, further increasing their lifecycle emissions through costs to transport to disposal sites.

Misguided policies could increase negative environmental impacts.

As a Biden administration forms and looks for solutions to the waste issue, more viable sets of recommendations andinitiatives, which detail a path to a circular economy where 100 percent of U.S. plastic packaging will be recyclable or recoverable by 2030, and will be reused, recovered, or recycled by 2040. These plans and projects provide a realistic approach that avoids the pitfalls of the NGOs’ proposal, which calls for labelling plastic as hazardous waste and increasing plastic waste in landfills, rather than enabling the circular economy.

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