This Is Plastics: GSA action could harm environment, broader economy

GSA action could harm environment, broader economy

Proposed rulemaking by the General Services Administration (GSA) that limits or bans the use of plastic materials will have detrimental impacts on consumers, businesses and the broader economy— and switching to current alternatives like glass, paper and aluminum would have a greater environmental impact.  

What did the GSA announce?

The GSA is seeking public comments on proposed rulemaking to reduce federal purchase of single-use plastics following a legal petition led by Center for Biological Diversity requesting the Biden Administration leverage its power to ban agencies from buying such products.

Plastics are critical to the U.S. economy.

As one of the largest manufacturing sectors in the U.S. economy, the plastics industry and the products it produces are critical to everyday life. A thriving, robust plastics industry is vital for job growth and the health of the economy. Banning or restricting the federal purchase of plastics sets a precedent that will have negative, cascading impacts on the broader U.S. economy, effecting job creation and revenue generation in states, cities and towns that are reliant on plastics manufacturing and recycling to create financial opportunity.

Plastics are the environmentally friendly choice.

Alternative materials like paper, glass and metal have a higher environmental impact than plastics because they require more energy, resources and water to produce. Alternate materials are also heavier than plastics, meaning they require more energy and environmental resources to transport from production to distribution and result in higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Throughout the product lifecycle, plastics remain less resource-intensive and, even at the recycling stage, plastics are more easily re-manufactured into new products with fewer emissions generated than alternatives.

Bans are not an effective environmental solution.

Despite science-backed evidence that plastics are a more environmentally friendly material than alternatives like aluminum, glass and others, single-use plastics remain a target of, at times, misplaced scrutiny. The plastics industry is committed to addressing the issue of plastic waste and protecting the environment but GSA’s decision to evaluate and consider prohibiting use of single-use plastics by federal agencies will only serve the opposite purpose.

Recycling is key.

The plastics industry agrees that plastics do not belong in the environment and is committed to investing in modern recycling infrastructure, initiatives and technologies to make the future circular economy a tangible reality. However, restricting use of a material like plastics that is vital to businesses, government functions and the general public will not reduce waste issues—instead, burdensome restrictions will reduce efforts to create innovative technologies and a more environmentally sound end-of-life for plastics.


Learn more about the impacts of GSA’s announcement and consequential policy choices here.


Who would bear the brunt of such a rulemaking?

From food packaging to renewable energy and transportation infrastructure to smart technologies, plastics are essential to industries across the economy. A proposal to restrict federal purchase of certain plastics, particularly in shipping and packaging, would send shockwaves up and down an already strained supply chain.

Shipping and Logistics

Plastic packaging protects goods during transport while reducing shipping costs and emissions because the material is both durable and lightweight.

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Construction

Plastics play a crucial role in the construction of a modern home and are the ideal alternative to traditionally used building materials, like metal or wood, because they are malleable, long-lasting, sturdy and can also make construction safer and more affordable.

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Infrastructure

With plastics, the current administration’s efforts to update aging infrastructure is possible because of plastics’ superior performance features—making them crucial to the advancement of sustainable infrastructure like roads, buildings and piping.

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Packaging

By elongating sell-by and use-by dates and ensuring that products are less likely to be punctured, broken or damaged, plastic reduces food insecurity, food waste and thus, greenhouse gas emissions.

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National Parks & Wildlife

Plastics make National Parks and public spaces safer, more efficient and environmentally friendly; recent moves by the federal government to ban single-use plastics in parks would lead to similar environmental and economic upset.

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Consumers

Plastics are a critical facet across multiple industries because they are versatile, durable and cost-effective. Limiting purchase and use of single-use plastics would directly impact consumers and taxpayers, who would ultimately bear the brunt and cost implications of the federal government switching to more expensive materials.

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Rulemaking must consider the full scope of evidence demonstrating plastics’ environmental and economic benefit.

Industry

The U.S. Plastics Industry contributes significantly to the U.S. economy in terms of job creation, economic activity and growth. The industry enables innovation in sustainable products from transportation to food processing and packaging to renewable energy technologies and infrastructure.

Single-Use v. Reusable

Single-use plastics outperform reuse options made with alternative materials in terms of energy and water use, resource extraction and emissions. Single-use plastics also increase affordability and accessibility for vulnerable groups.

Research

Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) from various academic institutions, think tanks and government bodies from around the world find that plastics outperform alternative materials in terms of: emissions during production, use and during end-of-life; water and energy usage; and resource extraction.


Single-use plastics are key to building a circular economy and achieving sustainable climate goals. 

Industries across the global economy choose plastics because they are lightweight, durable, versatile and the most resource-efficient option available. As the United States outlines sustainable ambitions to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and build a circular, greener future, plastics can be a partner in getting there. Alternatively, restricting federal purchase of plastics in favor of alternatives with the intention of environmental benefit would have the opposite effect.

Paper

Paper bags have to be reused eight times to offset their environmental impact to equal a plastic bag’s footprint because of the paper pulp used in production.

Aluminum

Aluminum is produced from bauxite rock, which can only be acquired through an environmentally detrimental mining process that upsets the surrounding animal habitat. Once acquired, production of aluminum accounts for over four times the emissions of a plastics product of the same size.

Compostables

Compostable materials are made of paper, cardboard or bioplastics and are designed to breakdown under specific conditions, otherwise it releases high levels of methane, which is 26 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Glass

Glass containers use 90% more material by weight than plastic containers, making the latter lighter to transport while using less fuel resources and lowering emissions.

Cotton

Organic cotton totes have to be reused over 20,000 times —that’s every day for 55 years—to offset the environmental costs of production.


Learn more about the sustainability of reusable alternatives compared to single-use plastics here.


Carbon conservation: Not only do single-use plastics produce fewer emissions during production and transport when compared to alternatives, but post-use recycling processes are also more environmentally friendly. Advanced recycling processes single-use plastics for second-life and can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 50%.

Energy conservation: Plastics reduce fuel and energy needs because they are significantly lighter to transport than alternatives like glass and aluminum. One study found that replacing plastics with alternative materials like glass, aluminum and paper would result in energy costs that are four times higher. 

Water conservation: Reusable options often require continuous washing that wastes more water over time. Comparatively, the production of plastic items uses less water and yields products that can be reused multiple times, outliving their original designation as single-use.


Learn more about plastics and resource conservation here.