This Is Plastics: New Paper: Pushing Plastics Production Elsewhere Could Harm the Environment and the U.S. Economy


New Paper: Pushing Plastics Production Elsewhere Could Harm the Environment and the U.S. Economy

A new whitepaper from George David Banks looks at the importance of plastics to U.S. national security and resiliency in the domestic economy.


Plastics are vital to industries across the U.S. economy, so much so that any policy or regulation that would inhibit the production of plastics or the use of advanced recycling technologies domestically would drastically impact job creation and economic activity in the country. In addition to significantly contributing to the U.S. economy as an industry, plastics reduce product costs and improve resource efficiency, helping the United States meet sustainability goals.

In a new white paper, George David Banks, a senior fellow for Climate, Trade Policy and Nuclear Energy at the Atlantic Council, provides a deep dive into the importance of supporting a strong domestic plastics industry to protect the environment and keep the U.S. economy strong. Bank’s work explores the following key findings:

  • The U.S. plastics industry is a major contributor to the U.S economy, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country.
  • Global demand for plastics is growing exponentially because of the convenience of plastics, as well as their economic and environmental benefits, particularly in the developing world.
  • Action to drastically reduce plastic manufacturing in the U.S. would mean an increase in imports from more greenhouse gas intensive competitors, like China, making U.S supply chains and key manufacturing sectors more vulnerable to changes in the global market.
  • Failure to support a domestic market would risk supply chain resilience and U.S. national security by increasing adversarial powers’ leverage due to an increased reliance on imports.
  • The United States can play an indispensable role in helping other economies develop effective waste management policies and advance innovation that can create markets that improve the economics of recycling.

In his paper, Banks explains that if the United States drastically limits domestic plastic production or investments in recycling, countries with more lax environmental laws and regulations will boost production to fill demand, leading to more detrimental environmental impacts—while also leaving the United States more vulnerable to job loss and industry deflation. To offset these risks, the United States has the opportunity to increase production and invest more in technologies, like advanced or molecular recycling, that ensure all plastics can be efficiently recycled.

As Banks writes:

“Capturing a significant share of this future market would bolster U.S. manufacturing, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and help maintain U.S. leadership in plastics innovation… Accordingly, increasing U.S. industry’s share in global plastics production at the expense of less efficient competitors would reduce global emissions.”

Aside from contributing to a robust economy and job market, plastics are vital to reducing the environmental footprint of various sectors and consumers. Plastics are net greenhouse gas savers compared to alternative materials due to their lightweight nature, which avoids the significant greenhouse gas emissions that are produced when transporting heavier materials like glass or paperboard. Furthermore, plastics are more effective at packaging food products and can extend the shelf life of items, reducing food waste and the emissions it produces.

Plastic is also vital to transportation, both public and private, and infrastructure in the United States. Automobiles and airplanes are relying more and more on durable and versatile plastics to reduce weight and increase fuel efficiency. This trend is expected to continue in the future. Infrastructure, including solar and wind technologies, also rely on plastic parts to increase the lifetime of machinery and reduce incidences of breakdown.

Despite these benefits, plastic pollution, particularly in the ocean, is an ongoing problem that must be solved—and industry is committed to doing so. By continuing to grow a strong domestic plastics market, the United States will also be able to invest more in the recycling and waste management systems that ensure these materials are never lost or mismanaged. The plastics industry has invested billions of dollars over the last few years to fortify the recycling industry, particularly focused on advanced recycling research and technologies. Continued efforts and partnerships to bolster this industry will ensure that U.S. plastic production and recycling industries are the strongest in the world, supporting new jobs and economic activity throughout the country.

Read the full paper here.

George David Banks is a Senior Fellow with both the Atlantic Council and Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions. He currently serves as the Chief Policy Advisor for the Climate Leadership Council’s Center for Climate and Trade.

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