The Case of Plastics: Sustainability Interest Group

You understand concerns about plastic, but getting rid of plastics is not the solution. Your group of recycling reformers, bioplastic developers, and biodegradability experts is using innovation to solve the problems of plastic. You believe the government should invest in your sustainable projects rather than limit plastic production.

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?


Sustainability 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 Sustainability Group:

  • Government regulation has the potential to interfere with the development of biodegradable plastics, better recycling systems, and more efficient ways to dispose of plastics.
  • The problems of plastics can be solved through innovation and scientific advancement in an open market, not through government regulations.
  • Instead of imposing restrictions and limits, government should provide financial support and incentives to innovators who are solving the problems of plastics.

Recommendations Based on Sustainability Group Concerns:

  • Biodegradable plastics should be exempt from this regulation. Because such plastics do not persist in the environment, they are of less concern.
  • Requirements for recovery and recycling should apply only to one-use, disposable plastics, such as plastic packaging.
  • The government should offer financial incentives for producers engaged in the development and marketing of biodegradable plastics to encourage the industry’s growth.
  • The government should offer financial incentives for producers engaged in the improvement of recycling infrastructure and in the expanding markets for materials made of recycled plastics.
  • The government and producers must partner to develop recycling and incineration practices applicable to as many types of plastic as possible to significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the waste stream.
  • Producers should be encouraged to reduce the amount of virgin plastic material through the manufacture of lighter, stronger plastics and the development of more efficient packaging techniques.
  • Producers must prioritize methods of natural degradation either through the production of biodegradable plastics or by bioengineering organisms that break down traditional polymers.

Case Study: The Future of Plastics

For more than 100 years plastic has been one of the most important materials we use to create the stuff of our physical world. Plastics are inexpensive, durable, versatile, and ubiquitous in our lives. For all their benefits, though, plastics also present challenges. Plastics are made with fossil fuels and keep us dependent on these nonrenewable, greenhouse-gas-creating resources. The additives used in plastics might negatively affect the health of humans and the environment. Perhaps most critically, the durability of plastics means that they persist, perhaps eternally, in the environment, creating an unsolved problem of pollution and waste.

Plastics are a necessary part of our modern world, and optimists are increasingly interested in finding solutions to the problems of plastics by reforming the ways that we make, use, and dispose of them. Their goal is to find solutions that will still allow us to enjoy the many benefits that plastics can provide without further damaging our planet.

One possible solution to the problems of plastics is “bioplastics,” which big companies market as more environmentally friendly than conventional plastics. The Coca-Cola Company now sells soda in “PlantBottles,” made out of plastic derived from sugar. Ford Motors has been using soy-based plastics to make parts for its cars since 2007. While conventional plastics are made from fossil fuels, bioplastics are made from plant sources like corn, soy, and sugar. It doesn’t get much bigger than Coke and Ford, and right now, “green” plastics are one of the fastest-growing parts of the polymer industry (expanding about 10% per year). They are still only 1% of total global plastics production, but someday they could make up the vast majority of manufactured plastics. According to one expert, “This is the future of plastics.” [1]

The future of plastics is rooted in its past. The earliest pioneers of plastics invention were searching for synthetic replacements for natural polymers like rubber, silk, and shellac, substances that were useful in industrial applications but too rare to fill the needs of the world’s growing economy. One of these pioneers, John Wesley Hyatt, invented celluloid, the first synthetic polymer, while searching for a replacement for ivory in 1869. His creation, made from the cellulose in cotton, was at the same time the first man-made polymer and the first bioplastic. The Age of Plastics and the Age of Bioplastics actually began in the same instant.

The Age of Conventional Plastic began several decades later, with the invention of Bakelite, the first fully synthetic polymer, in 1907. Bakelite was an excellent electrical insulator and was suitable for mass production, which gave it wide popularity in industrial and commercial applications in the industrializing world of the early 20th century.

Bioplastics remained important even with the advent of fully synthetic plastics. In fact, bioplastics had a mighty and enthusiastic champion in Henry Ford, one of the most influential industrialists in U.S. history. Ford encouraged his engineers to find industrial uses for the surpluses of crops like soybeans, and by the 1930s many of the parts of a typical Ford car were made out of soy plastic—a material they have returned to today.

Henry Ford touted soy plastic as “farm-grown,” light, and durable. As a demonstration for reporters, Ford gleefully swung an axe into his own car’s soy-plastic back panel, which rebounded without a mark. Ford hoped to expand the use of soy plastics; an auto prototype made with a soy-plastic frame was a full half-ton lighter than its 3,000-pound steel counterpart, offering greatly improved fuel economy. Even in the past bioplastics were seen as the future.

However, Henry Ford’s plans for a soybean future were killed by the dynamics of supply and demand. In the years following World War II the world was deluged with a supply of abundant, inexpensive petroleum. Cheap oil provided a tremendous boost to American industry and standards of living, but as a result petroleum-based plastics became less costly to manufacture and much more popular than plant-based alternatives. Many petrochemical plastics were also more durable and weather-resistant than bioplastics, increasing their appeal and utility.

Plastics became ubiquitous in American life after World War II. Shoppers bought food wrapped in cellophane instead of wax paper, wore clothing made from nylon instead of cotton, and played with toys made from polyvinyl chloride instead of wood. This expansion of postwar plastics was made possible by cheap and plentiful oil. Concern for sustainability or conservation was overlooked in favor of shorter-term thinking that emphasized cheap production, eager consumption, and easy, thoughtless disposal of plastic.

Over the past decade rising oil prices have forced Americans to again consider the value of conservation, and bioplastics are again seen as a solution for the future. The companies that produce bioplastics argue that they are more environmentally friendly than conventional plastics. But new bioplastics are far from perfect. The production of source materials (plants) still requires fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers. Polylactic acid, one of the most commercially successful bioplastics, can’t be heated above 114°F, limiting its usefulness. And, despite being made of plant material, most bioplastics do not easily biodegrade under normal conditions. One activist contends that using bioplastic is better than using conventional plastic but “not as good as asking ‘Why are we using so many containers?’ My worry is that [bioplastic] legitimizes single-serving, over-packaged products.” [2]

Bioplastics are not yet a perfect solution, but they are at the forefront of diverse efforts to think about plastic from a long-term, sustainable perspective. Other innovators are exploring ways to make recycling more efficient, while still others work to create truly biodegradable plastics. The growing value of fossil fuels has inspired other innovators to find ways to turn conventional plastic back into fuel. These investigators of sustainability recognize both the benefits and drawbacks of plastics. Somewhere in their efforts to solve the problems of plastics while recognizing plastic’s importance in our lives may be the key to the future of plastics.

[1] Ramani Naraya, quoted in Susan Freinkel, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story (New York: Henry Holt, 2011), p. 208.

[2] Elizabeth Royte, “Corn Plastic to the Rescue,” Smithsonian Magazine, August 2006. 


Assigned Readings

Other Resources


    Copy the above HTML to republish this content. We have formatted the material to follow our guidelines, which include our credit requirements. Please review our full list of guidelines for more information. By republishing this content, you agree to our republication requirements.