In an effort to address the so-called “climate crisis,” members of Congress have proposed legislation so extreme that it could destroy the entire U.S. plastics industry, forcing the United States to rely on China and other nations to meet demand for various plastic products. For U.S. consumers, that means fewer jobs, higher prices, and the potential for product shortages, including shortages of medical supplies and packaging necessary to protect our food supply. The bill’s supporters might call this interpretation extreme, but the details speak for themselves. Let’s take a look.
The proposal in question is a relatively short provision buried inside two larger pieces of legislation: The Break-Free from Plastics Act (H.R. 2238), sponsored by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) and the Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s (CLEAN) Future Act (H.R. 1512), sponsored by Rep. Frank Palone (D-NJ).
Both bills would “pause” approval of any new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Air Act permits for plastics manufacturing plants, advanced plastics recycling facilities, and any facility that produces ethylene and propylene “for the purposes of plastics production.” Ethylene and propylene are the petrochemicals necessary to produce most plastics. The Break Free from Plastics Act would also halt Clean Water Act permits.
The word “pause” is just a polite way of saying “moratorium,” which will effectively undermine the rights of these companies to freely conduct business. Since industrial facilities cannot operate without Clean Air Act permits, the impact could be severe and would grow in severity every day the moratorium remains in effect, which could be a long time.
Before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could lift the moratorium, it would have 18 months to conduct, or commission the National Academy of Sciences to conduct, a study on the impact of plastics on the environment, after which it would have to issue new Clean Air Act regulations based on the study findings. Both bills give the EPA three years to complete these tasks, but given the fact that regulatory agencies are slow moving and often miss statutorily determined deadlines, it would likely be much longer.
The two proposals focus the moratorium on “new permits,” which means that it might allow the EPA to renew existing permits. If courts somehow determine that permit renewals would constitute “new permits,” then the legislation would shut down the plastics industry within five years, since permits must be renewed every five years.
Even if these provisions allow renewals, any changes to operations might require new permits—and any new facilities certainly would. Such limitations would likely have crippling effects on the plastics industry at large.
Petrochemical companies would feel the pain as well, because they produce ethylene and propylene as a byproduct of oil refining and natural gas processing, much of which is sold for plastics production. It’s possible that petrochemical companies would not be allowed to get new permits for modifications or expansions if they planned to sell ethylene and propylene for plastics production. Without those markets for these secondary chemicals, petrochemical industry costs would rise and so would consumers’ energy bills.
Whether the petrochemical industry could find other markets for those chemicals remains to be seen, but if not, much of these valuable chemicals could become waste products. Meanwhile, the supply of ethylene and propylene for plastics production would dwindle, dealing yet another blow to plastics manufacturing.
By destroying the plastics industry and making fossil fuels more expensive, these policies would cause many U.S. job losses, as the plastics industry employs nearly a million people directly and about half a million indirectly, producing $451 billon in shipments annually, according to the Plastics Industry Association.
But perhaps more troubling is the potential for shortages and high prices for products with critically important applications. As more and more of our plastics manufacturing shifts overseas to places like China, the impact would affect everything from the food industry and essential medical device manufacturing to untold numbers of consumer products and more.
For example, without sufficient access to plastics for food packaging, the stability of our food supply would be at risk, and food would be more expensive. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) points out on its Plastics Makes it Possible website how essential plastics are in ensuring a safe and long-lasting food supply. Food packaging of all kinds is vital to preventing contamination of food during transport and marketing, protecting the food from physical damage, and reducing food waste by preserving food for longer periods of time.
Plastics are particularly good at performing these functions and are less expensive than alternatives—metal, glass, and paper—because they require less energy to make and transport. These attributes explain why plastics have become so pervasive in food packaging, which is why even reduced use will involve major tradeoffs.
And ironically, because plastic packaging is lighter and highly effective in food preservation, plastics have a better environmental profile than alternative products and unpackaged food. For example, a 2015 study conducted in Europe found that fresh food, such as produce, packaged in plastics has a lighter “environmental footprint” than unpackaged food because there is more food waste without the use of packaging. ACC explains:
Even though more packaging is being used, less food is being wasted, leading to a lower overall carbon footprint. The study’s project leader said: “Food packaging can make an important contribution to environmental protection, especially if it is the right packaging for the right application.”
Ironically, the study also concludes that plastic food packaging also produces less “greenhouse gas emissions,” which means the Break Free from Plastics Act and the CLEAN Future Act legislation would undermine their stated goals.
Similarly, if lawmakers passed the moratorium, we would have to rely on foreign sources for essential medical supplies, making our medical needs less secure. Consider the fact that plastics are used very widely for IV tubing, blood bags, gloves, medical devices, syringes, prosthetic devices, as components in masks, and much more.
Replacing even some of these plastic products would not be an easy task, since alternatives don’t perform as well. Consider plastic tubing used for intravenous administration of fluids and drugs. This tubing is transparent so hospital staff can easily confirm what fluids are being administered and that they are flowing correctly. It is flexible, does not kink, and is affordable. What non-plastic material could perform those functions?
Similarly, plastic packaging that keeps medical supplies sterile until opened for use is essential to controlling the spread of diseases in hospital settings. The plastic containers that hold fluids—including the nation’s blood supply—are also not easily replaced even with glass, which is heavier and has much greater potential for breakage.
If plastic production in the United States were slowed or halted, medical facilities would likely experience shortages of these essential medical supplies, and many people could die as a result. In that case, medical facilities would have to rely on imported products. If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it is that we need to be prepared with domestic supplies of such critical items. Yet even during the best of times, if we cripple our domestic plastics industry, we will make medicine much more expensive and less accessible for many people.
Clearly, these proposals to “break free” from plastics and shut down the industry—even if just for a few years—are wildly irresponsible. Rational lawmakers need to pay attention and ensure that such provisions don’t pass on their own or get slipped into a larger piece of legislation. If somehow this foolish proposal did become law, the ramifications would be severe, and many Americans would suffer dearly.