Taxing the Materials Needed to Fight Climate Change?
Can we address the problem of plastic waste while preserving the societal benefits of plastics?
Absolutely. But not if Congress passes ill-advised taxes on plastics.
As Congress debates how to pay for a proposed $3.5 trillion spending plan, some policymakers are considering a colossal tax on plastic resin, the material used to make countless consumer goods. Because plastics are used in products ranging from our family cars to our kids’ sports gear, this “Plastic Tax” would impose significant additional costs on most everything we buy.
The tax ostensibly is designed to help reduce plastic waste. But it would do nothing to create circular solutions that help keep plastics out of our environment.
The tax purportedly focuses on items such as packaging and “single-use” plastics. But it taxes resin that is not used to manufacture “single use” products…. and then provides tax rebates to many downstream users of plastics that do not pay the tax in the first place. (The rebate is galling. Many companies would pay the tax, the government would hold the money, and then companies would have to ask for it, an expensive use of labor that defies common sense and imposes lost opportunity costs).
In its implementation, the tax would penalize many of the durable products that we need to combat climate change. It actually is at direct odds with the spending plan’s provisions to combat climate change.
To drive down greenhouse gas emissions, we need to dramatically increase fuel efficiency in our cars, energy efficiency in our homes, and operational efficiency of our lower carbon energy sources, such as wind and solar. We also need to build a more resilient national infrastructure that can better manage the impacts of rising global temperatures.
All of these necessities are enabled by plastics. We need the benefits of plastics to fight climate change and its impacts.
- Electric vehicles require versatile, lightweight plastic car parts to reduce weight and increase range.
- Our homes and buildings benefit from higher performing plastic foam insulation and sealants that drive down energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
- Solar power relies on multiple plastic technologies to protect panels and transfer energy.
- Wind turbine blades are typically made with strong yet lightweight plastic composites.
- And our aging water delivery/waste infrastructure would benefit greatly from modern, cost-effective, durable plastic piping.
Taxing plastics basically would incentivize the use of many alternative materials that are less effective at delivering the fuel, energy, and operational efficiencies needed to combat climate change.
There’s a whole host of reasons this tax is a bad idea. It would raise the cost of plastics used in everyday goods, especially impacting those who can afford it least. It would jeopardize 90,000 American jobs. It would shift plastics production to China and other countries that do not have the same labor and environmental standards as American companies. And the tax revenues are not even targeted at solutions to plastic waste.
This tax will not help end the very real problem of plastic waste. There is growing support for better solutions to address plastic waste. And they all focus on the same outcome: ending plastic waste, not ending plastics. A few examples:
- America’s plastic makers have urged Congress to enact "5 Actions for Sustainable Change" aimed at ending plastic waste and moving us toward a circular economy in which plastics are reused instead of discarded. Among our recommendations: requiring all plastic packaging to contain a minimum of 30% recycled plastics by 2030.
- In February, the international community is expected to begin the process of negotiating a global agreement among nations to end plastic waste.
- Billions of dollars have been invested over the past few years to scale up new advanced technologies to dramatically increase the types and amount of plastics that can be recycled.
We can tackle plastic waste while we combat climate change. And we can preserve the societal benefits of plastics while accelerating an end to plastic waste.
As the movement to end plastic waste gains momentum and mobilizes across the globe, we need helpful public policies that contribute to real solutions. Not regressive taxes.
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