Resolved: The United States federal government should ban single-use plastics (essay)

Resolved: The United States federal government should ban single-use plastics.


Yes, we will debate about plastics for an entire month, including at some of the most prestigious debate tournaments of the year. At first thought, it seems awful, but there are enough different arguments to prepare and sustain debate, and it has been debated by policymakers around the world (this piece expresses scepticism of the workability), including in the US (this article argues for a uniform, federal solution).

I think it will also create some good debates about weighing the economy vs the environment (and even some de-development debates) as banning all single use plastics (plastic bottles, plastic garbage bags, etc..) would be a pretty radical policy intervention.

This quick topic analysis will get you started.


Single-use plastics, often referred to as disposable plastics, are plastic items that are typically used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These items are usually designed for convenience and are made from various types of polymers, which are synthetic materials derived from petroleum. The defining characteristic of single-use plastics is their limited use cycle; they are not intended for long-term use or repeated reuse.

The most common examples of single-use plastics include:

Plastic Bags. Often used in supermarkets and shops for carrying groceries and other purchases.

Straws and Stirrers/ Commonly used in restaurants, cafes, and bars for drinking or stirring beverages.

Water Bottles. Plastic bottles are used for water and other beverages, which are typically discarded after one use.

Food Packaging. Includes plastic wrap, grocery bags, and packaging for snacks and other food items.

Disposable Cutlery. Plastic forks, knives, spoons, and chopsticks are used in fast-food restaurants, takeaways, and at events.

Coffee Cup Lids. Commonly found on takeout coffee cups.

Product Packaging. Packaging for a wide range of consumer goods, from electronics to toys.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for doctors and nurses, such as gloves and surgical gowns.

This article presents an excellent overview of what single use plastics are (they include surgical gloves) and the environmental problems that result.

The United States Federal Government (USFG).

The USFG is the central government in Washington, DC, and it only has the authority to ban things within its borders.

This might even make the problem of plastic pollution worse. Why? Banning single-use plastics in the U.S. could inadvertently lead to a decrease in their prices globally due to a significant reduction in domestic demand, resulting in a surplus of these materials. This surplus might then drive down prices, making single-use plastics more economically attractive in other countries, particularly in developing regions where cost considerations heavily influence material choices. Consequently, while the U.S. could see environmental benefits from such a ban, the increased consumption of cheaper plastics in other parts of the world could offset these gains. Since there are fewer environmental regulations related to plastic use in other parts of the world, there could be a net increase in pollution. China, for example, has few environmental regulations but puts coffee cups in individual plastic bags so you can easily carry them back to the office. There is some good, general evidence about the increasing use of plastic bags in non-banned markets.

Moreover, if single-use plastics were banned in the U.S., companies like Berry Global Group, Dart Container Corporation, Sealed Air Corporation, Reynolds Consumer Products, Novolex, Pactiv Evergreen, and WestRock would likely intensify their efforts to export these products to countries where they are not banned. Facing a significant loss of their domestic market, these companies would be compelled to seek new markets to maintain their revenue streams. This shift in focus could lead to aggressive marketing and expansion strategies in international markets, especially in developing countries where regulations on plastics might be less stringent. Such a move would not only help these companies compensate for the loss of the U.S. market but also potentially increase the global proliferation of single-use plastics.

To combat this, the Pro is going to have to focus on environmental harms from single-use plastic that are specific to the US.

The Pro

The workability of single-use plastic bans. We just discussed the specific benefits of US action, but let’s now focus on some of the general harms of single-use plastics.  The effectiveness of the bans has been widely studied, with some studies showing a 33-96 percent reduction in plastics use.  There are plenty of advocates for banning single-use plastics and there is some evidence of success in various localities in the US, including in Rhode Island. where the ban may have increased environmental awareness. Most advocates argue the bans  work despite limitations.

Uniformity. A federal ban would resolve inconsistencies between various states and localities related to bans. This would contribute to greater enforcement and create more economic certainty across businesses that would just have to deal with uniform regulations.

Environmental Impact and Wildlife Protection. Single-use plastics are notorious for their detrimental effects on the environment. They are a major source of pollution in natural habitats like oceans, rivers, and forests, where they not only degrade the beauty of these environments but also pose severe threats to wildlife through pollution (plastic bag specific). Animals are often harmed by ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic waste, which is become a massive pollution problem, leading to injury and death. By eliminating these plastics, we can significantly reduce environmental pollution (this article discusses the harms of plastic pollution but the difficulties that arise with plastic bag bans) and protect wildlife.

One of the primary ways single-use plastics harm the environment is through litter that enters water systems. Plastics discarded on streets often get washed into rivers and streams by rain or travel via storm drains and is not solved by recycling or other measures, leading to a significant concentration of plastic pollution in waterways. Notably, a small number of rivers carry a large percentage of the world’s total plastic that enters the oceans each year. This plastic pollution poses a severe threat to marine ecosystems and species​.

Marine animals, in particular, suffer greatly from the influx of plastic into their habitats. There have been instances of beached whales found with stomachs full of plastic trash. Studies have also found plastic in the guts of a high percentage of seabirds and turtles examined. This ingestion of plastic not only harms these animals but also leads to contamination of the seafood that humans rely on. The presence of microplastics in the guts of marine animals is a growing concern, and scientists estimate that, if current trends continue, there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans by weight by 2050. The impact of single-use plastics is thus a critical environmental issue, affecting both wildlife and human food sources​.

Climate Change and Carbon Emissions. The production and disposal of single-use plastics contribute substantially to carbon emissions, exacerbating the global climate crisis. These plastics are produced from fossil fuels, and the process of extracting and creating them releases a substantial amount of greenhouse gases. Estimates suggest that the extraction and transportation of these fossil fuels to plastic factories emit between 12.5 to 1.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. Additionally, the removal of forested land for oil extraction and pipeline construction contributes to over 1.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. This deforestation also decreases the amount of carbon dioxide that can be absorbed from the atmosphere. The refinement of plastics itself emits an additional 184 to 213 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year. Furthermore, landfills, which are the final destination for many discarded single-use plastics, account for over 15% of methane emissions. The disposal of more plastics in landfills exacerbates this problem by increasing landfill size and the associated emissions

Innovation in Sustainable Alternatives. Prohibiting single-use plastics can indeed stimulate innovation in sustainable packaging and materials. This prohibition creates a need for alternative solutions, which, in turn, drives companies to invest in research and development of eco-friendly products. Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies and retailers are already making commitments to improve the sustainability of their packaging, focusing on full recyclability and increased use of recycled content. These initiatives are part of a broader trend involving shifts in consumer preferences and regulatory pressure, which are encouraging companies to redesign packaging and explore circular delivery models, using materials like metal and glass in returnable systems. However, as, this article explains, this shift comes with challenges, including trade-offs between recyclability, carbon footprint, and food waste, along with the need for new recycling infrastructures. FMCG companies and retailers are finding themselves needing to collaborate more closely with packaging converters and recyclers to address these challenges, which can lead to more sustainable practices and potential economic growth in green industries.

Waste Management and Recycling Efficiency. Single-use plastics pose significant challenges to waste management systems due to their often non-recyclable nature and tendency to contaminate recycling streams. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that 91 percent of all plastic isn’t recycled, much of which ends up in landfills or the environment. Small items like straws, bags, and cutlery are particularly problematic because they can fall into the crevices of recycling machinery, leading to inefficiencies and higher costs for recycling centers. Bans on single-use plastics can alleviate these issues by preventing millions of tons of plastic from entering the waste stream, reducing pollution and the demand for plastic production, which contributes to global climate change. Moreover, bans drive companies to innovate and source sustainable materials, while also shifting consumer mindsets towards reducing waste. The overall effect is a more streamlined and effective waste management system, leading to cost savings and reduced environmental impact associated with waste disposal.

Public health concerns.   Single-use plastics pose significant health risks due to the harmful chemicals they can leach into food and beverages. These chemicals include endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, and heavy metals, which can lead to a range of health problems.

One of the main concerns is the leaching of chemicals from plastic into food and beverages, especially when the plastic is exposed to heat. This process can lead to an increased intake of potentially harmful chemicals. For instance, when plastic containers are used for storing fatty or oily foods, the chemicals used in plastic, which are fat-soluble, are more likely to leach into the food.

Microplastics, tiny particles of plastic that can enter the human body through ingestion or inhalation, are another significant health concern. They can cause cellular damage, leading to serious health effects such as cancers, lung disease, and birth defects. Microplastics can also act as carriers for other harmful substances, increasing the potential for damage.

Moreover, the production and disposal of plastics can also lead to the release of toxic substances. For example, the incineration of plastics can release hazardous emissions, including hydrogen chloride, dioxin, cadmium, and fine particulate matter.

The disposal of plastic waste in landfills can also lead to the leaching of harmful chemicals into the environment. Children and infants are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of plastics. Exposure to plastics has been found to increase the risks of birth complications, lung growth issues, and childhood cancer A recent study showed that exposure to microplastics in newborns and infants could increase due to the use of plastic bottles.

Economic Implications. While there might be initial costs in transitioning away from single-use plastics, the long-term economic benefits are significant. These include savings from reduced waste management and environmental cleanup efforts, as well as the potential for growth in sustainable industries. For example, the ban or restriction in the sale of single-use plastics in the UK led to an increase in sales value by 11% across the single-use plastics product group.

This suggests that while the ban may decrease the demand and price for single-use plastics, it can also stimulate demand for alternative products, potentially leading to increased prices for these alternatives, triggering inflation. A move away from single-use plastics represents not only an environmental imperative but also an economic opportunity. Even double+ use plastics may be a good idea.

Awareness, Education, and Long-Term Sustainability. Implementing a ban on single-use plastics can significantly increase public awareness about the importance of environmental protection if accompanpied by other programs. It educates people about the impacts of plastic pollution and encourages more responsible consumer behavior, though some argue it will not be effective unless complemented by other policies such as consumer education. In the broader perspective, such a ban is a step towards a more sustainable and environmentally conscious future, aligning with global efforts to safeguard the planet for future generations. This approach highlights the need for a collective commitment to long-term sustainability and responsible stewardship of the environment.

Elections – Biden Bad. If the US government banned all single-use plastics, I think people would conclude that Joe Biden had lost his mind, and his approval would collapse. Trump will run on bringing back straws and sandwich bags. He’d easily win.

Limitations of recycling. John White addresses the limitations of recycling.

The Con 

Workability. There are some limits to the workability of the ban.

First, a lot of plastic pollution is from large plastics and other countries, especially Asia.

Second, Simple solutions like bans do not always work: “The review’s results pointed to the limited success of a plastic bag ban owing to lack of suitable alternatives, limited state capacity to monitor and enforce the ban, thriving black market, structural and instrumental power of the plastic industry.”  Muposhi A study of a plastic ban in Europe resulted in a trivial reduction in use and one of Ohio showed no reduction in use. There is also some evidence that when people are given fewer single-use plastic bags they buy more of them. Australia is a good example of where consumption of other single use plastics increased and the difficulty of proving any net reduction. Gains in reductions in single use plastics ofen result in in increases in the use of cotton and paper bags, which may be more environmentally unfriendly. Rebecca Taylor answers the argument that there is a substantial increase in offsetting plastics use.

See also Logo MasaniAliDugvergne,  Taylor,  Strapoli,Science Policy Review. “while single-use plastic bans have seemingly becomethe preferred policy response, there is debate regarding whether they are universally the optimal policy solution. This article reviews current implementations of these bans and examines the associated environmental trade-offs. It then presents a set of potential alternative or supplemental policy options with a focus on the importance of addressing the entirety of the plastic value chain in the development of policies to grapple with the plastic waste problem.”

Third, some alternatives to plastics could be worse than plastic. This is a common criticism.

Fourth,  some consumers will feel good about not using plastic bags and be more likely to harm the environment in other ways. Some even use the “recyclable” bags they purchase in the store as single-use even though the bags are more environmentally harmful to produce.

Economic Impact on Industries. Single-use plastics are a cornerstone of many industries, including packaging, medical, and food service sectors. A The economic effect of plastic bag bans (

Companies that rely heavily on these plastics for packaging and product delivery may face challenges in adapting to alternative materials, which could be more costly.

Convenience and Hygiene. Single-use plastics offer unmatched convenience and hygiene, particularly in the food service and medical industries. They are lightweight, durable, and, most importantly, hygienic – attributes that are difficult to replicate with other materials. In medical settings, for example, single-use plastics are crucial for maintaining sterility and preventing the spread of infection.

Cost and Accessibility of Alternatives. Alternatives to single-use plastics, such as biodegradable materials or reusable items, can be more expensive and less accessible. As companies pass increased costs on to consumers, this could disproportionately affect small businesses and lower-income consumers who rely on the affordability of single-use plastic products. These higher prices could drive down sales, hurting consumers.

The transition to alternative materials may also be financially challenging for developing countries where cheaper plastics are more widely used due to cost constraints.

Recycling and Waste Management Challenges. While single-use plastics do pose waste management challenges, the infrastructure for recycling and managing alternative materials is not always in place. In many regions, the recycling systems for materials like glass and metal are less developed than those for plastics, potentially leading to increased environmental impact if these materials are not properly recycled.

Lifecycle Environmental Impact of Alternatives. Some argue that the environmental impact of producing and recycling alternatives to single-use plastics can be greater than that of the plastics themselves. For instance, the production of paper bags and glass bottles often requires more energy and resources, leading to higher carbon emissions.

Practicality in Certain Applications. In some applications, there are currently no viable alternatives to single-use plastics that offer the same level of performance. This is particularly true in specialized fields like certain medical applications and in packaging for specific types of food products, where the unique properties of plastics are essential for safety and preservation.

Potential Increase in Food Waste. Single-use plastics play a significant role in preserving food and extending its shelf life. Without these plastics, there could be an increase in food waste, as alternative packaging might not provide the same level of protection against spoilage and contamination, threatening food safety.

Political capital. In debate, the “political capital disadvantage” refers to the argument that a policy decision, such as banning single-use plastics, can exhaust a political leader’s or government’s political capital. Political capital is the amount of influence, goodwill, and negotiating power a political entity possesses, which is crucial for implementing policies and achieving broader political goals.

Banning single-use plastics could undermine political capital in the following ways –

Expenditure of Influence. Enacting a ban on single-use plastics typically requires significant political maneuvering and expenditure of influence, as it can be a contentious issue. This process often consumes a large portion of a leader’s or government’s limited store of political capital.

Industry Opposition. The ban is likely to face strong resistance from industries that depend on single-use plastics. Overcoming this opposition demands further spending of political capital, as leaders engage in negotiations or confrontations with powerful industry stakeholders.

Public Reaction Management. If the ban leads to inconveniences or higher costs for consumers, it can trigger public dissatisfaction. Addressing these grievances and maintaining public support can further deplete political capital.

Resource Diversion. Focusing on the plastic ban might require diverting resources and attention away from other critical policy areas. This reallocation can be perceived as a mismanagement of political capital, especially if there are other urgent issues requiring attention.

Potential Alienation of Allies. Pursuing a policy that is not universally supported can lead to the alienation of certain political allies or segments of the electorate. This erosion of support weakens a leader’s coalition and reduces their overall negotiating power within the political arena.

Elections – Biden Good. If the US government banned all single-use plastics, I think people would conclude that Joe Biden had lost his mind and his approval would collapse. Trump will run on bringing back straws and sandwich bags. He’d easily win.

Business Confidence.  The “business confidence disadvantage” is based in concepts in economics and policy analysis that refer to the negative impact on business sentiment and investment due to certain government policies or actions. When businesses anticipate higher costs, more regulations, or market uncertainties, their confidence in making investments or expanding operations can diminish, undermining the overall economy.

There are a number of ways (links) that banning single-use plastics could undermine business confidence.

Increased Costs and Operational Changes. A ban on single-use plastics could lead to higher operational costs for businesses, especially those heavily reliant on these materials, such as the food service industry, retail, and packaging sectors. Companies may need to invest in new materials or redesign products, which can be costly and time-consuming.

Regulatory Uncertainty. The introduction of a ban can create uncertainty about future regulations. Businesses might hesitate to invest in new projects or innovations if they’re unsure about how regulations might change soon.

Supply Chain Disruptions. A sudden ban can disrupt existing supply chains, particularly for businesses that rely on single-use plastics for packaging, transportation, or product design. Adjusting to new materials or suppliers can be a complex and risky process.

Consumer Response and Market Changes. Businesses may also be concerned about how consumers will respond to changes in product packaging or pricing. There’s a risk that consumers might not accept alternative materials, or that the increased costs could lead to reduced demand.

The internal links between business confidence and the broader economy are significant.

A decline in business confidence, sparked by factors like a ban on single-use plastics, can have a cascading effect on the economy. It often results in companies scaling back on investments and hesitating to grow their operations, thereby slowing economic expansion. This uncertainty, coupled with rising operational costs, may compel businesses to halt recruitment or even reduce their workforce, potentially increasing unemployment rates. Additionally, this environment of regulatory unpredictability and financial constraints can dampen innovation, as companies might prioritize immediate financial stability over investing in research and development. Changes in product offerings and pricing, in response to the ban, can alter consumer behavior, leading to a decrease in consumer spending, which is vital for economic growth. Moreover, in the global market, a regional ban can lessen the competitiveness of local businesses, adversely affecting international trade dynamics and the broader national economy.

Oil price disadvantages. Oil is used in plastic production, and reducing it could hurt the economies of oil producing countries.

States “alternative.” Although the Con cannot counterplan in PF debate, the there are various bag bans in 18 different states. California was the first  and Colorado was the first.  The Con could “suggest” state and local bag bans as an alternative to federal bans. This would  avoid triggering election effects. Many localities have enacted bans and have the authority to do so.

Recycling alternative. Promoting single use plastics with recycling may present the best hope for reducing environmental damage.

Voluntary alternative.  Programs that simply encourage people to use fewer plastic bags do not appear to work.

Tax alternative. 

The “Squirrelly” debate topic

February is a critical month in the competitive debate circuit. It’s a period marked by a high density of tournaments with big names and lots of debate rounds. During this time, debaters are expected to engage with a wide range of topics, often under time constraints that limit their ability to develop deep, nuanced understandings of each subject. This scenario can lead to what is known in debate circles as “squirrely” arguments.

“Squirrely” arguments refer to strategies where debaters, often due to limited preparation time or to catch their opponents off guard, construct arguments that are unconventional, unexpected, or based on more obscure interpretations of the topic. These arguments might stretch the typical boundaries of the subject or use creative, sometimes tangential angles to make a point. Here’s how debaters might employ such tactics on this topic.

Unusual Angle on Environmental Impact. Debaters focusing on specific species affected by single-use plastics could highlight the plight of the Hawaiian Monk Seal and the Leatherback Sea Turtle. Both species are critically endangered and often ingest or become entangled in plastic waste, which can be fatal. The argument could emphasize the ban’s impact on these particular species, using them as a case study for broader environmental discussions.

Economic Arguments with a Twist: In exploring obscure economic impacts, debaters might consider the bamboo and hemp industries. These industries could see a significant uptick in demand as alternatives to single-use plastics. Debaters could argue that a ban on plastics could inadvertently boost these niche markets, with wider economic implications for countries that are major producers of bamboo and hemp.

Health and Safety in Emergency Situations. In emergencies, single-use plastics are vital for maintaining hygiene and efficiency. Debaters could cite natural disaster responses, like in the aftermath of hurricanes or floods, where single-use water bottles are essential for clean water distribution. Similarly, in medical emergencies, single-use plastics are crucial for sterile equipment, like syringes and IV bags, underscoring their irreplaceability in crisis scenarios.

Sociopolitical Angles with Specific Countries. Debaters could discuss how a ban on single-use plastics might affect international relations with countries like China and India, major producers and consumers of plastic products. The argument could delve into the geopolitical implications, such as how such a ban might influence trade relations, environmental diplomacy, or even economic policies within these countries.

Technological and Innovative Perspectives. For technological breakthroughs, debaters could reference advancements in biodegradable plastics, like PLA (polylactic acid) which is derived from renewable resources like corn starch. Another example is the development of marine-degradable plastics, which break down in ocean environments, potentially addressing the issue of oceanic plastic pollution. These examples showcase how the push against single-use plastics could drive innovation in material science.


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