President Joe Biden's administration said July 7 it's studying how to reduce government purchasing of unnecessary single-use plastic packaging and shipping materials, in response to a petition from environmental groups.
The General Services Administration, which oversees government procurement and manages federal property, is not making a specific proposal but rather put out a formal announcement asking for public comments on what new regulations it could enact.
It tied the plastics action to the Biden administration's larger efforts to look at how federal purchasing can reduce climate change.
"With single-use plastics being a significant contributor to the global plastic pollution concern, it is a logical step for the agency to examine this," the agency said. "GSA is interested in its potential to play a supporting role [in climate action] including by reducing single-use plastics."
The GSA notice said its proposal is in response to a February petition from the Center for Biological Diversity and 180 other groups asking GSA to prohibit other government agencies from buying single-use plastics.
CBD said the U.S. government is the world's single-largest consumer of goods and services.
"I hope this incredibly promising development marks the start of a federal commitment to strike at the root of the plastic pollution crisis," said Emily Jeffers, the CBD attorney who wrote the petition.
The environmental groups said current federal rules around green purchasing are not specific enough to prompt agencies to reduce buying single-use plastic, and it compared federal action to the decision by President Bill Clinton to phase out smoking in federal properties 25 years ago.
"Just as President Clinton's ban on smoking in federal buildings in 1997 prompted widespread smoking bans and reduced public health risks, President Biden can prompt a transition to a plastic-free future by eliminating the use of single-use plastic by the federal government," CBD said.
Environmental group Oceana welcomed GSA's decision and pointed to polling showing more than 80 percent of Americans want national policies to reduce single-use plastics.
"Americans have made it clear they want our country's leaders to tackle the plastics crisis head-on, and government officials need to continue heeding the call," Oceana said.
A plastics industry group, however, warned that replacing plastics in federal purchasing could result in higher greenhouse gas emissions.
The American Chemistry Council pointed to a July 6 report from McKinsey & Co. comparing plastics with other materials in 14 applications across packaging and durable goods.
"If GSA restricts the purchase and use of plastics for the federal government, the likely result will be increased greenhouse gas emissions," ACC said. "McKinsey ... found in 13 out of 14 applications where both plastics and nonplastic alternatives are used at scale, that plastics reduced GHGs from 10 percent — 90 percent over the nonplastic alternatives.
"A better solution for our climate and the environment would be for the GSA to use its authority to enhance the collection of used plastics to be recycled in the buildings it manages," ACC said.
GSA is accepting public comments until Sept. 6.
The agency's announcement comes a few weeks after the Biden administration said it would phase out single-use plastics on national park lands over the next decade.
Some state governments have gone in the opposition direction, however.
Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who was elected last year, announced in April he was rolling back "burdensome" restrictions on single-use plastics in state agencies, parks and universities put in place by his Democratic predecessor.