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Oct 04th
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The Plastic Debate Take Two


plasticdebate2Part two in a four part series looking at the discourse surrounding plastic bag bans

When we truly sit down and think about everything in our lives that is plastic, we might begin to realize our love affair with synthetic materials is not a simple one. Look around you right now: Can you live without your plastic computers, cell phones, toilet seats, bags, pacemakers, sneakers, toothbrush, coffeemaker, iPods, or chewing gum (yes, gum)?

Society of the Plastic Industry (SPI) and American Chemistry Council (ACC) are two of the biggest names in the fight for plastic bags in the single-use plastic bag debate. The ACC has threatened to sue cities and counties that ban plastic bags. Plastic is ACC’s main product and it appears in large letters towards the top of their website. Throughout all of the ACC’s arguments against banning single-use plastic bags, they promote the idea of responsible use, reuse, recycling and disposal of plastic bags. Through this discourse they construct a rhetorical argument that highlights recycling as a positive disposal method in our communities.

The ACC makes it clear on their website and through their counter-arguments that their organization recognizes that more can be done to address environmental concerns. “We work to create solutions to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up in our landfills and, sometimes, as litter,” it reads. Even the visual elements on their website represent the “recycle” theme. There is a large advertisement for recycling on the right hand side of the site when you read the section called “About Plastics.” The advertisement highlights recycling by using images of items found in plastic bags and the colors green and blue, which are universally recognized to connect with nature and recycling. This further enforces the ACC’s rhetorical strategy to push the notion of recycling and sustainability when discussing the consumers’ need for plastic bags.  

The ACC’s key arguments in the plastic bag debate include: plastic’s connection to innovation and sustainability; plastic bags being light weight, which helps reduce energy, waste, and green house gas emissions; and that plastics make modern life possible. The ACC’s tactics revolve around enabling modern life, convenience, and sustainability, all of which appeal to American ideals.

SPI, “The Plastic Industry Trade Association,” represents the third largest manufacturing industry in the United States. The SPI outlines their main arguments as the following: “better for the environment, better for recycling, and better for reuse.” Unlike the ACC, the SPI uses their discourse to reinforce the idea of plastic being “better” than any other alternative material for bags.

SPI uses facts and statistics to construct scientific ethos as a means of building credibility for their presentation in the rest of their main points used in the debate. For example, in their persuasive tactics to support why plastic is “better for recycling” SPI explains, “There is a growing market for recycled plastic that didn’t exist 15 years ago. Today’s recyclers make $.15 - $.20 per pound on collected bags. It’s also cheaper now to use recycled plastic than to obtain new materials, increasing potential for more recycling and for more use of recycled bags. Bags can be recycled into plastic lumber, planters for gardening, new plastic bags, and other products.” Here SPI highlights the concerns regarding cost, while also pushing our need to recycle. Especially in economic times like we are facing today, Americans value the cost of products and services.

The plastic bag industry doesn’t think we need to cut back on plastic. It’s their livelihood, and they’ve grounded their rhetorical arguments in using terms such as ”sustainability,” “recycle,” “reuse,” and connecting the idea of plastic to the greater good of modern life. Plastic corporations want to convince the public that recycling is the best approach to the plastic-versus-paper argument and that a ban on single-use plastics is not necessary.

In the next blog I will examine the rhetorical strategies used by environmental groups as they push back at plastic corporations in the debate over single-use plastic bags.

Jamie Foster is a second year graduate student in communication studies at San Francisco State University, where she is currently studying the discourse used within the plastic bag debate and how each side—plastic corporations and environmental groups—construct their arguments. Good Times will be host to four blogs by Jamie about this subject. If you would like to see a complete version of her paper or have any questions please email her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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