Cutting back on U.S. plastics production could hurt efforts to fight climate change by shifting production to other countries, including China, that have less environmentally friendly manufacturing, according to a new report from a conservative environmental think tank.
The May 16 report from Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions can be seen as a center-right response to other research arguing that the U.S. plastics industry — and its increasing production — is a growing contributor to climate change.
In particular, it pushes back on proposals in the Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act in Congress that would freeze new permits for plastics resin production for several years while new emissions rules are written.
It said ethane-based production of U.S. plastics is environmentally cleaner than naphtha-based production in other parts of the world.
"Attempts to curb plastics production in the United States on the basis of reducing emissions would ultimately have a paradoxical effect of increasing emissions globally through a larger share of plastics produced in China using naphtha as a feedstock," the report said.
"Legislators and environmental activists should understand that U.S. plastics production is not the problem — it is actually the answer to addressing global GHG emissions, particularly if it displaces dirtier overseas production," CRES said in a news release.
CRES will be hosting a forum in Washington June 16 to discuss the report and the role of the U.S. plastics industry in global climate mitigation with its author, George David Banks and others, including Matt Seaholm, the CEO of the Plastics Industry Association. (The forum was originally scheduled for May 19, but was rescheduled.)
In an email touting the report, the plastics association described itself as a "forum member and sponsor" of CRES.
Banks said in an interview that he hopes the report helps Republican policymakers produce more substantive proposals for plastics issues.
"The center-right needs to have a better policy response to what's coming out of Democratic policymaking circles," Banks said, referring to the Break Free act and other legislation.
The report said that worldwide demand for plastics is growing because of environmental and economic benefits, like reducing food waste and improving energy efficiency.
Banks also noted benefits like lightweighting automobiles and reducing energy in transporting goods because of lighter-weight plastics packaging.
But the report, and Banks, call the plastics ocean waste and litter issues substantial. It said the problem largely stems from poor waste management practices overseas.
"Waste management presents market challenges, but those are mostly in overseas markets that are increasing plastic use but suffer from a lack of enforcement and compliance regimes," the report said. "Global recycling rates need drastic improvement, but addressing that problem depends largely on the ability of U.S. plastics producers to innovate and develop solutions that can be exported overseas."
The environmental group Beyond Plastics, however, said the plastics recycling problems run deeper, with plastics recycling rates never getting above 10 percent.
"This report misses the mark and relies on recycled old arguments that the problem is with other countries that are receiving massive amounts of unrecyclable plastics from the U.S. and Europe," said Judith Enck, founder of the group and a former regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. "Plastics recycling has been a failure.
"There are huge environmental and economic benefits from reducing the generation, use and disposal of plastics," she said. "Those benefits may not accrue to the plastic manufacturers but they will for the rest of the world."
Enck's group released a report last year that estimated growth in plastics production means it will soon be a larger contributor to climate change than the coal industry.
Beyond recycling, Banks said there could be advantages for the U.S. plastics industry if global trade and climate policies more precisely measured the carbon intensity of goods that are shipped around the world.
The report said that if trade and climate policy priced plastics products by their carbon intensity, "U.S. production would gain a competitive advantage because of its reliance on ethane."
"U.S. production is just a lot cleaner than it is in other places," Banks said. "I want us as a country, as we're figuring out how to address the challenges that plastics presents, I want us to have a really balanced conversation as to what the benefits are as well."
CRES describes itself as a conservative organization seeking clean energy solutions. The organization Influence Watch said it advocated for U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Agreement and against President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from that treaty, which President Joe Biden later rejoined.
The plastics report is the latest in a series of policy white papers it has released around climate issues.