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Plastic Recycling vs. Climate Change: Part 5 – Pragmatic About Plastic 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
March 24, 2023

This is the fifth and last column in a series in which I argue against municipal plastic recycling programs because such recycling does not work and there are negative consequences for the environment (here are links to the first column, second column, third column and fourth column). This column takes a pragmatic look at the place of plastics in our modern consumer economy—the main point being that we are not going to phase out single-use plastics nor should we. What we must do at all levels of government is make sure that the widespread use of plastics does not contribute to climate change. 

Many years ago, my spouse arranged for our family to tour an industrial facility that manufactures the yogurt we regularly buy at the grocery store in one quart plastic tubs (similar to those shown in the photo at the top of this column). Much to my surprise, I learned that the yogurt is manufactured in those tubs, not just inserted into them for sale. During the tour, we also learned how this manufacturing process contributes to enhanced food safety. And those tubs are much less likely to break during transportation and are far less heavy than the only other feasible alternative of glass. Yogurt is an excellent, healthy food and its ready availability in the local store is a clear benefit to the consumer. 

The activists who are challenging the widespread dependence on single-use plastics in the world economy have many important points to make. For example, in some developing countries there have been abusive sales practices involving the packaging of small amounts of products such as shampoo in flimsy plastic pouches. Much of the ensuing waste has gone directly into local waterways and from there into the ocean. In other locations, large-scale incineration facilities have unleashed toxic plumes from burning plastics onto the surrounding neighborhoods with terrible consequences for public health. 

But those problems generally are not relevant to managing plastics in the United States. In our context, single-use plastics have greatly reduced food spoilage, made many foods more affordable, mitigated health threats from food contamination and reduced the fuel required for transportation from source to market. Single-use plastics also are crucial to ensuring patient safety in hospitals where infections easily can pose a greater risk than the original reasons for seeking treatment. I am certain that a thorough cost-benefit analysis would show huge net benefits to American consumers from single-use plastics. I get frustrated by the unwillingness of environmental activists to engage cost-benefit analysis and too often pursue advocacy that is not based on sound science. 

Another issue to recognize is one I previously wrote about in a column for the PA Times: The current monetary value of all fossil fuels, including those commonly used as feedstocks for plastics, is in the many quadrillions of U.S. dollars. Pragmatically, it will not be possible to limit the extraction and sale of those resources. What might be possible is to direct as much natural gas and petroleum into plastics rather than into fuels. 

If we recognize that single-use plastics are here to stay, and that they are an outlet for the petrochemical industry, then the most important goal for managing the ensuing waste is to keep the carbon in those plastics sequestered as permanently as possible. This is why I repeatedly have said that plastic waste in the United States generally should not be recycled or incinerated, but landfilled in ways that prevent decay for thousands of years. As long as the plastic waste remains inert, the carbon in that waste is kept out of the atmosphere. There is a possible “win-win” scenario in which the petrochemical industry can remain profitable without producing fuels that add CO2 to the atmosphere. 

I am heartened to see recent efforts to find use for plastic waste as a construction material (video) and possibly for use in roads. I wish everyone seeking ways to reuse plastics the best of success. And I remain concerned by the flow of microplastics into the oceans and the land from there into the food cycle. We should be worried by research stating that microplastics are now found lodged in our bodies with unknown consequences for health. But the existential threat of our time is from rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. We have to make reducing that CO2 a priority or billions of people will be at risk for displacement, famine and war as rising sea levels redraw coast lines around the world. Public policy always involves navigating tradeoffs and avoiding goal displacement. As I have argued, the plastic recycling programs around the United States need to be kicked to the curb in favor of carbon sequestration. 

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and is an executive-in-residence at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux. 

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