President Joe Biden's administration is proposing a voluntary program that would encourage government agencies to reduce the amount of single-use plastics they buy, saying it wants to use the power of federal spending to push what it sees as greener packaging.
The Dec. 26 proposal from the General Services Administration, which oversees federal procurement, comes after conservation groups and some states had urged the Biden administration to take stronger steps and mandate single-use plastic reduction targets and reusable packaging goals for government agencies.
The GSA proposal is the latest step in a debate that started in 2022 when a coalition of 180 environmental groups petitioned the agency to use the federal government's influence as the world's largest buyer of goods and services — at nearly $700 billion a year — to push alternatives to single-use plastics.
The agency's plan appeared to leave all sides unsatisfied.
Industry organizations said GSA was unfairly targeting plastic and ignoring the negative impacts of other materials, while environmental groups said the agency's voluntary plan doesn't go nearly far enough.
Oceana, for example, said the proposal "falls short" because it lacks specific requirements around purchasing. It called on the Biden administration to mandate that agencies cut back on single-use plastic packaging in GSA contracts.
"The U.S. government could be one step closer to reducing its plastic footprint but missed the mark," said Christy Leavitt, Oceana's plastics campaign director. "The Biden administration must do more and set smart policies at the national level to reduce plastic pollution at the source and inspire the private sector to follow suit."
But plastics groups said GSA is unfairly focusing on plastics and ignoring the environmental impact of other materials.
"The General Services Administration's proposed rule to reduce plastic packaging in its procurement of goods is not backed by adequate scientific or administrative analysis and could result in unintended environmental and economic consequences," said Ross Eisenberg, president of America's Plastic Makers, a unit of the American Chemistry Council.
"Plastic packaging is the material of choice for many uses and often performs better than alternatives," he said. "Plastic is valued for its affordability, light weight and frequent ability to offer a lower life cycle GHG footprint compared to other forms of packaging."
The Plastics Industry Association said the GSA plan would raise costs for taxpayers.
"The administration's proposal by the GSA is shortsighted and will force the use of alternative materials that have a larger environmental footprint than plastic and cost taxpayers millions of dollars," it said. "Bans are not the answer — plastic products and packaging are the least environmentally impactful option in most applications where they are used and are often the material with the lowest carbon footprint, particularly if recycled."
The association estimated in a 2022 report that the government spends about $400 million a year on plastic packaging through GSA-related procurement and that replacing those goods with glass, aluminum and paper would increase costs by 75 percent.
On the other hand, the Center for Biological Diversity, which led the coalition of 180 environmental groups, called for stronger action from the Biden administration.
"Identifying single-use plastic is a tiny step in the right direction, and I'm glad the federal government responded to our petition," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director at CBD. "Pointing fingers at the problem won't be enough to fight the plastic crisis. We need a full government ban on these harmful wrappers and containers to end the scourge of plastic pollution."