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Plastics are among the most ubiquitous materials on the planet, used for functions ranging from single-use cups to medical syringes to industrial equipment. The properties that make plastic useful, however, also make them highly persistent in the environment when improperly disposed. Moreover, although plastic polymers are inert, they break down in the environment into harmful microplastics and nanoplastics, and plastics are often made using toxic chemicals or include toxic additives. These properties have caused a plastic pollution crisis. Massive amounts of plastics and breakdown chemicals contaminate the oceans and other ecosystems throughout the globe. The United States continues to contribute to this crisis despite extensive regulation at all phases of the plastics life cycle. Two key limitations in U.S. environmental law help explain this paradox. First, the U.S. environmental regulatory process is so granular and complex that EPA and other agencies cannot keep up with massive growth and evolution in plastic materials and production. Second, the core philosophy of U.S. environmental law is to regulate production externalities without infringing on producer and consumer choice. We rarely question a product’s societal utility relative to its environmental impacts. U.S. contribution to the plastic pollution crisis is not likely to abate unless these limitations are addressed. Moreover, the limitations highlighted by this analysis apply to other applications of U.S. environmental law, resulting in continued releases of “forever chemicals” and other intractable forms of pollution.
Adler, Robert W. and Wells, Carina E., "Plastics and the Limits of U.S. Environmental Law" (2023). Utah Law Faculty Scholarship. 356.