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Spring 2024: Plastic

The Politics of Plastics: Is Misinformation Preventing Our Path Toward Progress?

Laura M Berkey-Ames


  • Plastic is consistently portrayed as a single-use material that either ends up in a landfill or the environment. Its many essential contributions to society and circular potential are not adequately recognized.
  • Organics, mechanical, and advanced recycling must work together to eliminate plastic pollution, but advanced recycling has become the target of falsehoods that jeopardize our ability to eliminate plastic pollution.
  • The acceptance of advanced recycling by stakeholders and policymakers as complementary to mechanical and organics recycling is critical.
The Politics of Plastics: Is Misinformation Preventing Our Path Toward Progress?
Richard Drury via Getty Images

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We are in the midst of a plastic waste crisis and our current path is unlikely to produce the sustainable future we desire. Plastics recycling rhetoric is emotionally charged, with policy akers and stakeholders rallying for change; but a combination of factors is preventing the alignment needed for sustained progress.

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution in April 2023 for public comment, the agency proposed a multifaceted approach to eliminate plastic pollution with methods that include reduction of certain plastic products and mitigation of pollution associated with plastic production and use. The draft strategy and public comments further exposed a decades-long debate that lies at the heart of how we save our planet.

Urgent calls to action are polarized into two distinct camps: (1) those who want to expand sustainable manufacturing practices and recycling infrastructure and (2) those who ultimately want to stop plastic production and ban plastic products. This ideological tug-of-war coupled with campaigns full of incomplete and misleading information—intentionally or not—can be the cause of political stalemates at the U.S. federal and state governmental levels, and on the global stage. However, there is a way forward if policy makers and stakeholders rise to this leadership challenge. This article explores the depth and scope of misinformation undermining pragmatic policy proposals that will extend and close the loop, while ensuring continued plastic production focuses on environmental stewardship, promoting healthy communities, and growing green jobs—all of which are vital to our planet’s longevity.

The Perception of Plastic

The perception of plastic is a paradox—it is a valued, yet vilified commodity. This versatile material helps combat climate change and supports healthy, sustainable communities. At the same time, global organizations, policy makers, private sector entities, stakeholders, the press, and the public continue to raise red flags about plastic production, use, and waste management. According to EPA, in 2019, “roughly 23% of global plastic waste was either improperly disposed, burned, or leaked into the environment.” EPA, Draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution (2023). Furthermore, “plastic products account for approximately 85% of total global marine waste and between 70% and 80% of all waste that ends up in land and marine environments combined.” Id. Grim statistics interlaced with stark images of plastic pollution illustrate the challenge before us, are evocative and upsetting, and drive the desire for change. While “86% of Americans agree we need to transition from an economy that throws things away to one that emphasizes reuse and recycling,” that driving force can create and amplify bias, and generate incomplete arguments that attempt to pinpoint the root cause of this problem without really doing so. World Wildlife Fund, Public Opinion Surrounding Plastic Waste and Consumption (2020).

Plastic is consistently portrayed as a single-use material that ends up in either a landfill or the environment, and its many essential contributions to society are not adequately recognized. Durable plastics in the automotive, building, and construction sectors fight climate change by saving energy and reducing emissions; medical and pharmaceutical-grade plastics save lives; plastic packaging strengthens food security; and compostable products support food waste diversion. These applications support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) by helping to “balance social, economic, and environmental sustainability.” United Nations Dev. Program, Sustainable Development Goals (2023). For example, BASF Corporation relies on the UN SDGs “as a guide for research, product development and business conduct” to ensure that “innovation and sustainability are inextricably linked.” BASF, UN Sustainable Development Goals (2023). From insulating foam for buildings to supporting electromobility to strengthening food safety and beyond, BASF’s product portfolio demonstrates why plastics play a vital role in implementing the UN SDGs. BASF, Plastics and Rubber (2023).

Life-cycle management of plastic also impacts perception. Conflicting messages about manufacturing processes, product design, and collection and sortation, coupled with inconsistent recycling access, contribute to feelings of apathy and disempowerment despite well-intentioned ambition. According to the World Wildlife Fund, although “many Americans are willing to take action to reduce their plastic waste, they also worry their efforts are in vain.” World Wildlife Fund, Public Opinion Surrounding Plastic Consumption and Waste Management of Consumer Packaging (2022). “Overall, more than 50% . . . believe their actions will have no impact on the overall amount of plastic waste.” Id. While recycling access and related infrastructure issues need to be addressed in many areas, this skewed perception puts plastic at a disadvantage by distracting from the opportunities before us. To make plastics more circular, harnessing sustainable manufacturing technologies is key. Unfortunately, these practices also face perception problems that negatively impact the environment, communities, and manufacturers’ ability to innovate and grow the circular economy.

Setting the Record Straight on Sustainable Manufacturing Technologies

Sustainable manufacturing technologies are critical components to solving the plastic waste crisis. However, efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle are sometimes mischaracterized because they are misunderstood due to messaging that distracts from fundamental truths. All three forms of recycling—organics, mechanical, and advanced—are complementary to each other and must work in concert, but advanced recycling, otherwise known as chemical or molecular recycling, has become the target of falsehoods that jeopardize far more than our ability to eliminate plastic pollution. Laura Berkey-Ames, The Case for Federal Recycling Standards, 37 Nat. Res. & Env’t, no. 1, Summer 2022, at 24.

Advanced recycling harnesses technologies such as pyrolysis, gasification, solvolysis, and depolymerization to transform post-use plastics into their original building blocks, specialty polymers, and feedstocks for new products. Unfortunately, environmental organizations and other like-minded stakeholders, inclined to oppose any use of plastics whatsoever, have at times disseminated misleading and inaccurate claims about advanced recycling. They erroneously assert that advanced recycling is not circular manufacturing but rather incineration of solid waste. Manufacturers are accused of exploiting advanced recycling to produce more plastic or fuels; and advanced recycling is equated to more pollution, not less. “As they did with mechanical recycling, industries and corporations are now painting ‘advanced recycling’ as a ‘green,’ ‘circular’ panacea to the plastic crisis . . . [w]hile doing nothing to stop plastic production—the key cause of plastic pollution.” Plastic Pollution Coal., “Advanced Recycling” Is Not a Solution to Plastic Pollution (2022).

These false claims are all too easily taken at face value. In reality, advanced recycling converts biogenic feedstocks and hard-to-recycle plastic waste, such as films/flexibles and mixed plastics, into virgin-grade raw materials to create plastic and nonplastic products that have the same properties and performance as those manufactured from fossil resources. With advanced recycling, manufacturers can “process these products in the same way as conventionally manufactured products and use them in applications with high demands on quality, hygiene and performance” such as “medical applications, food packaging or safety-relevant automotive parts,” none of which is possible with other forms of recycling. BASF, ChemCycling (2023).

Importantly, there is a stark difference between incineration and advanced recycling. Incineration requires the presence of oxygen to burn materials in a combustion chamber (EPA, A Citizen’s Guide to Incineration (2023)), whereas advanced recycling technologies such as pyrolysis thermally decompose materials in the absence of oxygen. Env’t Prot. Agency, Potential Future Regulation Addressing Pyrolysis and Gasification Units, 86 Fed. Reg. 50,296 (Sept. 8, 2021). While gasification, solvolysis, and depolymerization also do not involve combustion, a controlled amount of oxygen and/or steam may be used in the chemical reactions that occur during the manufacturing process. Dep’t of Energy, Hydrogen Production: Biomass Gasification (2023). Although some advanced recycling processes produce byproducts that can be consumed internally to replace fossil fuels, any blanket comparison to incineration is simply incorrect.

Furthermore, calls to stop plastic production and use alternative materials like paper, metals, and glass are not the answer. When production inputs, transportation emissions, and other factors are fully considered, “[p]lastics offer a lower total GHG contribution compared with alternatives” and “GHG savings range from 10% to 90%, considering both product life cycle and impact of use.” McKinsey & Co., Climate Impact of Plastics (2022). Argonne National Laboratory also found that substituting 5% feedstock made from advanced recycling in place of conventionally produced feedstock reduces GHGs by 18% to 23%, decreases fossil energy use by 65% to 70%, and cuts water use by 48% to 55%. Ulises R. Gracida-Alvarez et al., Life-Cycle Analysis of Recycling of Post-use Plastic to Plastic Via Pyrolysis, 425 J. Cleaner Prod. 138867 (2023). While product recyclability, collection, and sortation play important roles, the acceptance of advanced recycling by stakeholders and policy makers as complementary to mechanical and organics recycling is critical. Advanced recycling will ensure that plastics remain in the marketplace and out of the environment, while simultaneously helping manufacturers achieve their sustainability goals and comply with recycling requirements mandated by governments. If the United States and Canada integrated advanced recycling solutions, this would yield an additional 2.5 million pounds of recycled plastic annually, generating “more than $970 million USD per year . . . with a net benefit of $1.4B compared to landfilling, as soon as 2030.” Closed Loop Partners, Transitioning to a Circular System for Plastics (2021). These funds could be used to expand recycling infrastructure and sustainably manufacture environmentally friendly products. To achieve zero waste and ensure a flush recyclable materials marketplace, advanced recycling must be viewed as a valuable technology with unlimited potential; yet policy makers often find themselves at a crossroads, struggling to move this issue forward.

Finding Balance between Political Ideologies and Competing Policy Priorities

Polarized perspectives regarding plastic are influenced by factors such as domestic and global initiatives, the press, stakeholders, political affiliation, lack of public education, and cognitive bias. Consequently, implementing effective circular policies is often complicated by competing interests. This is evident by the absence of U.S. federal recycling standards that could streamline programs nationwide. Instead, Congress has taken an incremental approach, enacting narrowly tailored bipartisan legislation that is not unhelpful but does not fully meet our nation’s true needs. To fill the gap, U.S. federal agencies are leveraging existing statutory authority to regulate the life cycle of plastics. Hyperactivity in the states, which has created a patchwork of sometimes conflicting recycling requirements, is also a reaction to Congress’s glacial pace of progress. On the global stage, 175 national governments are developing a treaty to eliminate plastic pollution. UN Env’t Programme, INC on Plastic Pollution (2023). As negotiations continue, national governments and stakeholders have taken sides, calling for a treaty that either regulates plastic manufacturing and products in unrealistic ways, or focuses on national action plans based on countries’ recycling capabilities and targeted problems. While polarized perspectives seem like opposites, these positions have shared principles but simply take different approaches to solving the problem. And yet, how is balance achieved amid competing policy priorities?

Finding common ground is key and policy makers must embrace diverse views and the genuine concerns they represent. Despite strong emotions associated with this topic, level-headed leadership is necessary. Elected officials must be able to objectively evaluate the evidence to fully comprehend the science behind advanced recycling technologies, the consequences if plastic ceased to exist, and why pragmatic yet progressive solutions—rather than bans—are necessary to eliminate plastic pollution. This is true not only of policy makers but for all stakeholders that participate in this debate.

The current path will not produce the future we desire, and the persistence of misleading information will not yield successful results. To effectively combat the plastic waste crisis, policy makers must differentiate fact from fiction, transcend the constraints of polarized perspectives, and find common ground that is based on understanding what the environment, modern society, and manufacturers need to not just survive, but thrive. It is only then that we can transform the politics of plastics into holistic, sustainable solutions that will create a future of which we can be proud.