Conflicts in Chemistry: The Case of Plastics

Sustainability-Plastic-Recycling-Reformer

Sustainability-Plastic-Recycling-Reformer

 

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Sustainability Group: You are a Plastic Recycling Reformer

Your Background and Biography

You hate waste. As a child, your parents taught you to clean your plate, to repair broken items, and to recycle anything you could. In a college environmental-studies class you learned that recycling was not everything you previously thought. Your professor dispelled the fairy tale of recycling by hammering home all of recycling’s problems and inefficiencies. You were surprised to learn that most recyclable material never even makes it to a recovery facility, and of the material that does, not all can be used. Less than 10 percent of plastic trash produced in the United States is recovered for recycling. 

It was pictures of U.S. trash in overseas dumps that truly changed your life course. These images of trash piles made you indignant, furious, and somewhat guilty. How much of your own personal waste was now befouling a Chinese or Indian slum? Not only was this situation bad for the environment, it was also exploitative and inhumane. But you are a problem solver. Your visceral response to this problem inspired you to find a better way to dispose of plastic waste and clean up these trash heaps.                

After years of trial and error you have found an effective, sustainable way to recycle plastics, and you now run a growing business. In traditional plastic recycling, plastics are sorted into different types, grades, and colors, and then melted down and re-formed into uniform pellets that are sold to producers who remake them into useful products. Your process does this more efficiently than other methods, uses less energy than the production of virgin plastics, and doesn’t waste valuable resources like oil. Even better, it helps divert waste from landfills and put it back into circulation.

You are proud of your success, but the plastics you recycle are only a drop in the global bucket. You know your system can meaningfully reduce the demand for new plastic resin and clean up trash dumps around the world. But recycling reform has not spread as you hoped. For change to occur America must radically rethink recycling and adopt your method on a massive scale. You are at this hearing to promote the viability of your method for large-scale reform. The new regulations must encourage innovators like you to make meaningful changes that significantly reduce plastic waste.

You understand the arguments for reducing plastic production, but plastic bans will not solve the problem. The trash is already there. You’ve seen the landfills, and you know the answer isn’t just to reduce future waste but to recover the waste that already exists. For this reason you advocate entirely new forms of plastic collection—not just curbside recycling but a systematic approach to recovering plastics from landfills and dump sites. You want to ensure that the new regulation encompasses and encourages this sort of innovative problem solving and provides assistance to you and people like you.

Your Mission

Your goal at this hearing is to convince the Regulators to include the Sustainability Group’s recommendations in their final regulation. To make this argument effectively, you must

  • Complete the assigned readings listed at the bottom of this page;

  • Work closely with the other members of your group to develop clear answers to the Regulators’ questions;

  • Make use of as much specific information as possible to develop strong arguments for your position that creative problem solving and innovation are the best solutions to the pressing environmental problems caused by plastic waste and fossil fuel−based production;

  • Read as much as you can about your position and the positions of the other groups; and

  • Complete written reflections on your character, interest group, and readings as assigned. 

Your Victory Objectives

  • You will receive 10 points if the Regulators select your group’s proposal as the final regulation.

  • The Regulators will rank the interest groups by how well their goals are represented in the final regulation. You will receive between 1 and 5 points based on how the Sustainability Group is ranked and how well the regulation reflects your goals.

Sources

Sustainability Group Sources

Your Individual Sources

  • Plastic Recycling Is a Work in Progress,” by Claudia H. Deutsch, New York Times, March 30, 2002

  • Select one article from the bibliography on The Case of Plastics website recommended for the Sustainability Group. Read the article and write two paragraphs summarizing the article and how it will be useful to you in the upcoming debate.

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