The Role of Plastics in Sustainable Manufacturing

Overview of Plastics: Plastics Manufacturing and Consumption

Today, the plastics industry is a four trillion dollar industry that generates more than 300 million tons of plastic a year––nearly half of which is for single-use items, meaning that it will almost instantly become trash (Lerner). The majority of the 300 million tons are largely used as packaging materials and consumer products.

The other side of this picture is the consumer side. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that Americans throw away an estimated 100 billion plastic bags a year––each taking approximately a thousand years to break down (AsYouSow). However, the majority of plastics are not properly recycled and disposed of––less than one percent of plastic bags used in the U.S. are recycled (Lerner). Plastic litter entering the marine ecosystem has grown to an estimated 8 million tons per year––a mass expected soon to surpass the weight of all the fish in the seas––, with the U.S. as the world’s largest contributor to waste (Lerner). 

In 2015, the U.S. recycled roughly nine percent of its plastic waste, and since then the number has continued to drop even lower––which is largely due to the impracticality of end-user recyclable products as well as the pervasive lack of awareness on how to properly recycle in general (Lerner). The vast majority of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever produced—79 percent—ends up in landfills or dispersed across the globe (Lerner).

To make matters worse, the world’s production of plastics is not slowing down anytime soon. According to a report from the Center for International Environmental Law, “between extraction, refining, and waste management, the production and incineration of plastics will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere this year alone” (Lerner). This current linear plastic economy is not sustainable, and the environmental damage of plastics becomes more and more pervasive every day.

We cannot seem to escape plastic, with microplastics now almost everywhere. One study found these microplastics in the Pyrenees mountain air 100 miles from the nearest city (Lerner). Another study found that “microplastics are being turned into sewage sludge and spread on fields that grow food” (Lerner). Furthermore, recycled plastics, which are often seen as a sign of environmental progress, are increasingly recognized as posing threats to our health. “Plastics contain additives that determine its properties, including stability, color, and flexibility. Most of the thousands of these chemicals aren’t regulated, but it’s clear that some of those additives, which end up in recycled plastics, are dangerous” (Lerner). One study found that half of the recycled plastics in India contained a flame retardant associated with neurological, reproductive, and developmental harms (Lerner).

So, if we collectively know plastic to be harmful in more ways than one, why haven’t we stopped producing and consuming plastic altogether? We have seen how devastating plastics are in species extinction, ecological devastation, and human health problems. And as a response, the global economy has seen a boom in products and companies built around sustainable plastic alternatives. So, why haven’t we gotten rid of plastics entirely?

This paper will explore why the shift away from plastics has been such a painfully slow process. Through analyzing the key players and interest groups in plastics, voter preferences, and efficiency of the industry, this essay will provide the foundational groundwork for understanding the normative considerations of the transition toward sustainable manufacturing and consumption.

What is Sustainable Manufacturing?

For the framework of this essay, it is important to understand what sustainability means. We must conceptualize what sustainability and sustainable manufacturing really is to successfully achieve it. Sustainability focuses on taking into account all of the planet’s resources we use daily. The plastic industry is one of the major users of non-renewable resources, which begs the question of sustainability within the industry. Plastic solid waste (PSW) recycling is one of the most important remedies available for sustainable plastic waste recovery and yet the plastics industry faces a number of obstacles to recover this resource. Using a study conducted by Bupe G. Mwanza and Charles Mbohwa, sustainability (as they define it) is founded on three aspects, economic, environmental, and social aspects (Mwanza et al.). According to Mwanza and Mbohwa, “a sustainable system is a system that is appropriate to the local conditions in which it operates, from a technical, social, economic, financial, institutional, and environmental perspective, and capable to maintain itself over time without reducing the resources it needs” (Mwanza et al.).

Under this framework of sustainability, it is important to account for the economic drivers nations face which make sustainability difficult to achieve. The two researchers found that manufacturing is by far one of the main drivers to improve a nation’s economy (Mwanza et al.). Their findings suggest that it is a priority which many countries consider when trying to improve the living standards of its people (Mwanza et al.).

Other factors such as worker unions, lobbying groups, companies, jobs, and legislation play a key role in keeping the plastics industry alive and running. In the next section of this paper, interest groups, lobbying information, and government agencies involved in the plastics industry will be explored. 

Interest Groups Involved

As a four trillion-dollar industry, it is needless to say that the plastics industry could vanish overnight. On top of that, the key players in the industry have no plans of slowing down anytime soon. In this section of the paper, the key interest groups will be established, along with relevant lobbying and campaign information, and involved government agencies.

The plastics industry cannot be discussed without mentioning the key players. Founded in 1937, the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) is a trade association that represents the plastics industry. ProPublica estimates that PLASTICS has spent over three million dollars on lobbying engagements (ProPublica). 

PLASTICS is most known for pushing lobbying efforts along with its lobbying arm, the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) to prevent local laws on plastic bags and auxiliary containers—one of the few actions shown to actually reduce plastic waste. PLASTICS/APBA have used model legislation created by the American Legislative Exchange Council to preempt approximately 70 million Americans in 10 states from enacting bag ordinances to reduce plastic litter in their communities (AsYouSow). Walden Asset Management also learned that lobbyists are currently working to expand preemption laws in other states.  

PLASTICS is not only dangerous for their lobbying efforts, but for their memberships with companies. PLASTICS does not currently publicly share its full member list, the few that are public include: ABB, Akzo Nobel, Alcoa, ASCENA (Ann Taylor Stores), BASF, Carlyle Group (Novolex), ChevronPhillips Chemical, DowDuPont, Eastman Chemical, Ecolab, LyondellBasell, Milliken, Mitsubishi Chemical, Newell Rubbermaid, Schneider Electric (Eurotherm), SC Johnson, Sealed Air, Sherwin Williams, Chemours, Toyota North America, and UL (AsYouSow). A review of member committee lists posted on PLASTICS’s website shows that many companies who are publicly committed to corporate social responsibility (CSR) values and have active CSR programs are members of PLASTICS––illuminating the massive hypocrisy and neglect toward sustainability within the industry (AsYouSow). Some companies have even made public commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

To demonstrate the true deception of these companies, it is worth understanding what the membership with PLASTICS entails. When a company becomes a member of PLASTICS, they provide two types of support to plastic preemption lobbying efforts: financial (as in dues) and association with the company’s brand. As investors in many of the companies, Walden Asset Management believes that “membership in PLASTICS poses significant reputational and financial risks to companies because it contradicts the companies’ public environmental, social and governance (ESG) positions and is often in direct conflict with company advertising statements” (AsYouSow). 

The example of PLASTICS and their company memberships provides a glimpse into the pervasiveness of greenwashing and false commitments within the plastics industry. When it comes down to a for-profit organization in the plastics industry, there will always be conflicting interests when discussing sustainable efforts. And as we’ll see, most of the time, profit will take privilege over the health of our planet.

On the other side of this battle, over three hundred local governments have enacted plastic bag fees or single use bag bans. These fees and bans have been proven to be effective in reducing litter and taxpayer costs to clean it up (AsYouSow).

In the U.S., the Trump administration has worked against international efforts to crack down on plastic waste, so cities and towns are left to their own devices to be trailblazers. By 2014, around one hundred and fifty California cities and counties had banned plastics. In 2016, green nonprofit groups built on those gains to win a statewide voter referendum banning single-use plastic bags, defeating a 5.5 million dollar campaign by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, whose backers included Hilex Poly, Superbag Corp, Advance Polybag, Durabag, and Formosa Plastics Corp (AsYouSow).  

In 2018, Seattle became the first major city to ban plastic straws outright. Washington, D.C., followed, along with smaller cities like Berkeley and Oakland, California, and Fort Myers, Florida (Rainey). In 2019, California became the first state last year to require that sit-down restaurants give plastic straws only to customers who request them (Rainey).

These taxes, bans, and fees on plastics have been catching on around the world. This past  March, the European Union voted to ban single-use plastics by 2021. In June, Canada followed suit, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “vowing to not just ban single-use plastics such as bags, straws, and cutlery, but also to hold plastics manufacturers responsible for their waste” (AsYouSow). One hundred and forty-one countries have now implemented taxes as well as partial bans on plastics (AsYouSow).

Behind these government agencies are nonprofit organizations like Greenpeace and Eco-Cycle, ensuring that major interest groups like PLASTICS don’t slow down their momentum. However, it is a huge concern to many activists that these plastic bags and straw bans are being replaced with “upon request” bills. Most of these bills end up being extremely weak because they exempt most situations where someone would get a straw or bag.

The reason these “upon request” bills came to be is entirely due to PLASTICS. PLASTICS, representing manufacturers, has pushed “upon request” straw laws as a “reasonable compromise” that attends to both the goal of reducing waste and the goal of meeting the needs of consumers, particularly those with disabilities (Rainey). 

Other plastics industry lobbying groups, including ALEC’s (American Legislative Exchange Council) American City County Exchange and the National Federation of Independent Business, have also argued for preemption, or “uniformity” as they call it, on the grounds that bans hurt businesses that use plastic (Rainey). While presenting bans as bad for both businesses and poor people, who they claim will be disproportionately affected, the industry has also used campaign donations to make its case (Rainey). 

Among the sea of conflicting goals, mixed signaling, lobbying, and legislation are the collateral damages on consumers. The conflicting actions and messaging on behalf of the aforementioned interest groups play a direct role in shaping public consensus around plastics.

Voter Preferences and Polling Data on Plastics and Sustainability

The confusing messaging sent by the plastics industry has directly translated into public perceptions of plastics. Polling data on the public and consumers show a convoluted picture––one of split intention and action.

To set the groundwork, it is important to preface the discussion of plastics with the public perception of climate change as a whole. Researchers at Yale University and George Mason University conducted a project showing that 73 percent of participants polled said that climate change was happening (Schwartz). Additionally, as of this year, 68 percent of people were in support of the government doing more to deal with global warming (Schwartz).

With that, sixty-seven percent of U.S. adults support companies’ phaseout of plastic straws (Morning Consult). Another study conducted by Monmouth University found that nearly two-thirds of New Jerseyans (65 percent) claim to support a ban on single-use plastic bags, while twenty-nine percent are opposed (Monmouth University Polling Institute). Sixty-six percent of U.S. adults said they would have a more favorable view of a company that has a new recycling policy to reduce plastic waste (Morning Consult). And lastly, fifty-five percent say companies are not doing enough to reduce waste (Morning Consult).

Now, acknowledging climate change and applying pressure to third parties is one thing––taking on personal responsibility is another. According to a survey from PBS NewsHour and Marist Poll, two-thirds of Americans are willing to pay more for everyday items made out of environmentally sustainable materials instead of single-use plastic (Santhanam). Additionally, nearly a quarter of Americans  (24 percent) said they would pay five percent more to “make coffee cups, cutlery, and other daily use items that are typically tossed away after one use, more earth-friendly, while twenty-two percent of respondents said they would pay two percent more and another twenty percent of U.S. adults said they would pay one-percent extra, in this poll”––meaning that roughly a third of Americans unwilling to pay any more (Santhanam).

This polling data is somewhat supported by the changes recorded in consumer habits. “Products that had a sustainability claim on-pack accounted for 16.6 percent of the market in 2018, up from 14.3 percent in 2013, and delivered nearly 114 billion dollars in sales, up 29 percent from 2013. Most important, products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not. In more than 90 percent of the CPG categories, sustainability-marketed products grew faster than their conventional counterparts” (Whelan). This data is proof that consumers are voting with their dollars to take a stand against unsustainable brands. However, the increase in the market does not perfectly align with polling data, suggesting that interest in an issue does not directly translate into votes.

The discrepancy between interest and votes may also have something to do with political messaging on behalf of companies and interest groups in the plastics industry. A poll conducted by Waste360 found that 58 percent of respondents believe plastic materials are endlessly recyclable, but that’s not always the case (Waste360 Staff).  An empirical study conducted by Lesley Henderson and Christopher Green further illuminated this finding. Through surveys, the study found that their participants were “surprised at the sheer scale of the problem [of microplastics] and at the idea of plastics in the food chain” (Henderson et al.). In their conclusion, the researchers suggest that their findings point to the need for greater scientific literacy used in media to portray scientifically accurate and compelling stories (Henderson et al.). With that comes the accuracy of accountability. In the discussion of the study, the researchers reference cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, who argues that risk perception “depends on shared culture, not on individual psychology” (Henderson et al.). This point is an extremely important one when discussing the signaling from plastics beneficiaries. 

This misinformation and lack of knowledge are largely due to the recycling messaging many plastics companies send via advertising and media to greenwash their products. 

A great example of the spread of misinformation is the now-infamous “Crying Indian” ad. In 1971, companies like PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Phillip Morris, teamed up with the Ad Council to create Keep America Beautiful, an anti-litter organization to roll out this ad, demonstrating an Indian man who tears up when he sees a bag of litter thrown on the ground (Lerner). The intent of the ad was to express concern about pollution, brought to the airwaves by the very same companies that produced the pollution. The ad ends on the note of emphasizing consumers’ personal responsibility for recycling––a despicable and almost laughable message. Similar ads by Keep America Beautiful would stress the importance of individuals’ actions by demonstrating tree-planting and recycling, in protecting the environment (Lerner). This signaling is hypocritical, to say the least.

On top of that, these very companies stress the recyclable nature of their plastics, without taking into account the minute percentage of plastics that are successfully recycled. Starbucks, for instance, has received much praise for its recyclable and strawless, which the company predicted will eliminate a billion straws (Lerner). But because these lids are made from polypropylene (and there is little to no market for recycled polypropylene) that number has no basis in reality. According to Sharon Lerner of The Intercept, “only five percent of polypropylene was recycled in 2015—and that was before China decided to stop taking our waste” (Lerner). Since then, the percentage recycled is likely much lower still, meaning that Starbucks’ claims are fruitless, and the “vast majority of the 1 billion new recyclable Starbucks lids will end up where the old ones did—in landfills, trash heaps, incinerators, and the oceans” (Lerner).

The fixation on the latter portion of the plastics’ life cycles, and the fixation on single items like lids, straws, and plastic bags were confirmed by an empirical study conducted by (Nielsen et al.). Their review of one hundred and eighty articles within the fields of environmental science and environmental studies has revealed that “political analysis and debate around plastics is concentrated at the pollution and disposal end of the plastics life cycle, with a particular emphasis on marine pollution. Less attention has so far been given to plastics manufacture and patterns of overconsumption… We also observe that politics have previously been articulated around just a few individual objects.” (Nielsen et al.). The researchers agree that going forward, this should not be the case. However, going forward, this need not be the case. The political focus needs to be on the entire system of plastics production, not just the end of the plastics life cycle or specific objects.

Efficiency of Plastics Industry and Sustainable Manufacturing

So, how can the system (as Nielsen and his colleagues refer to it), be improved? Well, to refer to the recommendations Nielson and fellow researchers made, we can start by demanding transparency from the media, the government, and companies. “As long as media and public attention remain fixed on plastics, governments and corporations can score considerable goodwill and appear ‘green’ by addressing the plastic issue alone, foregoing action in other areas of urgent environmental need” (Nielsen et al.). Furthermore, policy responses and initiatives, as well as large corporation messaging should resist the temptation of pointing blame and looking for solutions in technological fixes and adjustments to individual behavior (Nielsen et al.). Instead, we should “directly confront the systemic, large‐scale economic and political arrangements, as well as the governing norms and practices, that stabilize unsustainable patterns of production and consumption” (Nielsen et al.). Only then will it be possible to attack the root cause of our most devastating and existential environmental and sustainable challenges facing plastics (Nielsen et al.).

Researchers Mwanza and Mbohwa set out with the goal to address the obstacles facing plastic recycling and manufacturing companies from a sustainable perspective (Mwanza et al.). The study conducted a survey on various plastic manufacturing companies in Kitwe city in Zambia to identify the major obstacles affecting sustainable PSW recovery and recycling. The study looked at potential technological, economic, legislative, and environmental obstacles companies faced in achieving more sustainable PSW recovery and recycling. 

The results indicated the major obstacle faced by these companies to be technology which accounted for twenty-five percent, while legislation and environmental concerns were the least of the obstacles accounting for approximately sixteen percent. The results have therefore indicated the need to “improve issues related to technology in the plastics manufacturing and recycling industries. Obstacles such as slow pace of technological upgrading, limited machine manufacturers, weak tooling sector, lack of sorting facilities, complex mold design, poor troubleshooting in the operation of processing machines and varying technical requirements” (Mwanza et al.). These findings may very well be useful in analyzing the efficiency of all plastics manufacturers around the world.

The study then touched on the economic aspects of sustainability. Economic aspects of sustainability include; “long-distance from attractive export markets; relatively small local and regional markets for recycled products; limited level of export readiness; strong competition from imports, high cost of input material; high compliance costs; high logistics costs; cost of labor high; lack of collection capacity; lack of producer responsibility; limited research and development…” and the list goes on (Mwanza et al.). 

As far as environmental aspects of sustainability go, issues such as “lack of certification to determine quality standards, lack of quality testing facilities, lack of proper plastic waste management; lack of legislations on plastic waste collection and recycling; lack of extended producer responsibility; and lack of design for the environment” are listed in the study (Mwanza et al.). 

And lastly, or social aspects of sustainability, the following were identified as obstacles; “limited research and development, low domestic demand for recycled products, high quality demand for recycled materials, negative society image towards the plastic industries, lack of extended producer responsibility, and no or limited machine manufacturers” ((Mwanza et al.).

As a whole, the researchers recommended a few changes to improve the plastics recycling system: “creation of domestic markets for recycled plastics, ensuring material applicability in the manufacturing process, substitution of virgin materials and prevention of downcycling, transactional cooperation on plastic waste recycling, enforcement of legislations and laws on plastic waste recycling” (Mwanza et al.). These findings and suggestions are transferable to the world at large, and something companies around the world could and should implement to improve efficiency and sustainability commitments.

Another serious issue worth discussing that is facing the efficiency of the plastics industry is the myth of recyclability. This point was touched on earlier in the paper but deserves further attention. 

In 2017, China decided to stop receiving the vast majority of plastic waste from other countries, sending our already dysfunctional recycling system haywire.  blew the flimsy lid off our dysfunctional recycling system. In turn, the value of various recycled plastics depleted.

This change, along with the fact that the growing output of new cheap plastic is currently undermining the industry’s own argument that recycling can resolve the waste crisis is a sign of market inefficiency. It is already impossible for most recycled plastics to compete with virgin plastics in the marketplace; with the exception of bottles made of PET and HDPE, the rest of the waste is basically worthless (Lerner). Not to mention that the recent fossil fuel boom makes it even cheaper to make new plastic and therefore even more difficult to sell the recycled product (Lerner). This, in turn, makes the plastics companies’ push for recycling that much more implausible and pointless—this also further incentivizes plastics companies to do everything in their power to disempower and misinform consumers and kill efforts to limit plastics.

To recap: why does the plastics industry look the way it currently does? For starters, there are rich and powerful stakeholders like PLASTICS, ACC, and ALEC ensuring that the plastics industry lives on. Within their wishes, jobs, businesses, unionized workers, trade agreements, and government agencies and pieces of legislation all coincide with the inability to realistically outright end plastic production. Additionally, the goals that exist for states, cities, nonprofits, and activists to push for sustainable practices are divided, causing collective action to be weak.

With that, issues like a lack of a market for recycled plastics and lack of competitive alternatives to traditional recycling make for today’s current concoction of plastic proliferation.

The paper further overviews how interest groups and media have played into consumer perceptions of plastics to disempower them from applying pressure to plastics stakeholders. We have seen this misinformation with the fixation on consumer-centric actions like reducing, reusing, and recycling, as well as the fixation on single items like plastic bags and straws as opposed to the production of plastics as a whole. Consumers lack accurate knowledge on plastics and recycling, largely because they’ve received inaccurate signaling from plastics producers. With the lack of knowledge on the actualities of plastics and their damaging effects comes the lack of competitive alternatives to plastics for consumers to make intentional decisions in the economy. For many industries, plastics monopolies the material sourcing, further disempowering individuals to vote with their dollar. 

Though, all hope is not lost for the future of sustainable manufacturing and consumption. Many researchers, like those at the Harvard Business Review are of the belief that sustainable manufacturing is the future, and companies that do not make the transition over will be left behind. “The legacy companies that will thrive are those that accept this shift and are willing to pivot [to sustainable practices… Given the evidence that consumer tastes are changing, an attitude of “Why mess with a recipe that has worked well over the last 40 years?” is the wrong one to take.” (Harvard Business Review). If anything, now is the opportune time for new and existing companies to buy recycled plastics at their low cost and reinvent a new purpose and market for them. With every inefficiency is a great opportunity to break into the industry and solve its biggest problems.