The Case of Plastics: Industry Interest Group

You represent the plastics industry—those companies that make and sell plastics. You oppose regulation of plastics as an unfair and unnecessary burden on producers that underestimates the value of plastics. You believe that problems with plastics should be addressed through innovation and increased recycling, not government regulation.

Read the Original Regulation and your group’s Goals and Recommendations for the final regulation, and use them to prepare answers to the following questions, which the Regulators will ask during the Hearing:

  • Recycling in the United States is currently a function of municipal governments. Who should be responsible for plastic waste? Should the producers of plastics bear more of a burden than the consumers? What is the role of individual responsibility in addressing the matter of plastic waste?
  • Only a small percentage of plastic waste in the United States is recovered for recycling, meaning most plastic trash goes into landfills. What is the best way to reduce the amount of plastic entering the waste stream? Is curbside recycling the best option? Do we need to develop new methods of recycling and fuel recovery? Or is reducing plastic production and consumption the best way to reduce waste?
  • The goal of this hearing is to create a federal regulation that will effectively address concerns about plastics. What issues would governmental regulation of plastics most effectively address? What can be accomplished without governmental regulation that would improve the way we use and dispose of plastics? What new problems might result from these regulations?
  • What historical cases, examples, or evidence provide useful lessons about the successes or failures of addressing the impact and implications of our uses of plastics?
  • Do the problems caused by our use of plastics outweigh the benefits that they provide?


Industry Interest Group Roles

Goals & Recommendations

Recommendations for the Regulation of Plastic Waste

Prepared in Advance of the Environmental Protection Agency Hearing

Main Concerns of the Industry Group:

  • Any government regulation of plastics will limit business growth, prevent job creation, and impose too many expensive burdens on producers and should be prevented.
  • The industry can solve the problems of plastics on its own, without government regulation.
  • Plastics solve many problems that alternative materials cannot address. Therefore, improved disposal methods for plastics are superior to efforts to limit plastic production. Government efforts should finance Industry efforts to develop recycling infrastructure rather than to regulate or limit plastic production.

Recommendations Based on Industry Group Concerns:

  • Any regulation in the recovery and recycling of plastics should apply only to one-use, disposable plastics, such as plastic packaging.
  • Municipal and state governments should be required to work with producers to improve existing recycling infrastructure and develop new recycling systems.
  • Producers should not be penalized for failure to meet plastic recovery goals or any other requirement of the regulation.
  • Financial incentives will be made available to producers who choose to invest in the development of new recycling infrastructure or in the improvement of existing recycling systems and to producers who voluntarily reduce plastic production.
  • Financial incentives will be made available for producers to invest in the development of biodegradable plastics.
  • Improvements to existing state and municipal recycling systems should be financed by state and municipal governments.
  • Producers will continue to educate the public about the importance of recycling and proper disposal of all plastic materials.

Case Study: Plastics: An American Success Story

The United States is one of the most successful industrial powers in history, and plastics have been critical to that success. Plastics manufacturing is America’s third-largest industry. One million Americans work directly in this industry, producing materials vital to other industries. The plastics industry benefits the American people as well, providing a plethora of goods that are durable, lightweight, inexpensive, and environmentally beneficial.

The plastics industry grew with American industry and helped propel the development of the United States into an industrial giant. At the end of the 19th century industry in the United States saw explosive growth, ignited by improvements like railroad expansion, the rise of electrical power, and the use of scientific investigation to address industrial problems. It was during this period that John Wesley Hyatt invented celluloid, the first man-made polymer.

Developed as a substitute for increasingly rare ivory, celluloid provided a cheaper alternative for expensive items like tortoiseshell brushes, billiard balls, combs, and even linen shirt collars. This revolutionary new product freed manufacturing from the limits of natural resources, which was good for people and good for the environment. An 1878 ad for celluloid proclaimed, “Celluloid [has] given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect respite in their native haunts, and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.” [1]

In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic polymer, Bakelite, as a substitute for shellac, another natural material used for electrical insulators. Bakelite also proved extremely versatile and ideal for mass production. Baekeland marketed it as “the material of a thousand uses,” and it soon became popular in commercial products like telephones, radios, and jewelry as well as in the electrical machinery that was powering America’s industrial growth.

The success of Bakelite led large chemical companies to invest in polymer development. One of these research programs ended a long-running quest for a synthetic substitute for silk. DuPont scientist Wallace Carothers made the breakthrough in 1936 with a polymer that could be spun into fabric: nylon. The public embraced nylon stockings so enthusiastically that scammers in the 1940s tried to pass off once-coveted silk stockings as the real (nylon) thing.

During World War II the plastics industry proved its value to American industry. Fought on battlefields around the globe, the war was also a contest of manufacturing capacity. To win the war American industries searched for materials that could substitute for and improve the performance of scarce natural resources like rubber, metal, wool, wood, and cotton. In all cases plastic provided the answer. Plastics went into war materials of all sorts, from helmet liners, to bomber windshields, to components of the first atomic bomb.

World War II proved a boon for the plastics industry. Plastic production tripled between the outbreak of the war and its end in 1945, and growth continued after the war as plastic consumer products flooded the market. The postwar boom of plastic accompanied a postwar surge in the population. This new generation of Americans, the Baby Boomers, grew up in a world of previously unknown material abundance, thanks in large part to inexpensive plastic.

Plastics also provided for many technological advances. Inventions like padded foam dashboards and plastic bicycle helmets improved safety. Lighter cars boosted fuel efficiency. Medicine benefited tremendously from the use of plastic, and plastics made technologies like cell phones and high-powered computers a possibility.

Americans have not always embraced plastics despite their many benefits. Since the days of celluloid, which acquired a reputation of being dangerously flammable, people have looked at unfamiliar materials with suspicion. Public anxieties continue to shape perceptions of plastics. There is widespread concern that polyvinyl chloride, a common plastic, leaches toxins. Fears abound over bisphenol A (BPA), an additive in some plastics, even though no harmful effects have been proven and the Food and Drug Administration classifies BPA as safe.

The plastics industry is also blamed for waste and litter problems. Anti-waste activists attack plastic packaging without considering the important role it plays in protecting food. Without plastic packaging food prices would increase, and there would be less food available to feed the world’s population. Furthermore, activists who target plastic bags often overlook the environmental liabilities of paper bags: the manufacturing and transportation of paper bags consume more energy and produce more air pollution than that of plastic bags.

The environmental benefits of plastics are often ignored by those seeking to limit plastic use. Most of the fossil fuels used to make plastics are by-products of refining that would otherwise be discarded as waste. Because of their light weight compared to other materials like glass or metal, plastics require less fuel to transport. Plastics make vehicles themselves lighter as well, adding to fuel efficiency. Plastics are also excellent insulators. Therefore, they conserve nonrenewable fossil fuels and help reduce emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

Furthermore, the plastics industry has been promoting recycling since the Society for the Plastics Industry proposed the numbered codes for recycling plastics in 1988. Most municipal recycling systems were created as a result of the industry’s recommendations.

For the past century plastics have improved the lives of billions through advancements in safety, medicine, transportation, energy efficiency, and technology. Plastics have increased the standard of living and created widespread material prosperity. It would be impossible to imagine our world without plastic, a substance that allows us to “devise materials to meet precise specifications. This is a great step toward the practical mastery of the world we live in.” [2]

[1] Quoted in Donovan Hohn, “Moby Duck, or, the Synthetic Wilderness of Childhood,” Harper’s Magazine, July 2007, p. 62.

[2] Joseph L. Nicholson and George R. Leighton, “Plastics Come of Age,” Harper’s Magazine, August 1942, p. 307.


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