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Greener Plastic Products


“Plastics” is a broad category of polymeric substances that have varied applications and widespread use. Typically derived from petroleum, natural gas, and coal, they generally contain carbon and hydrogen along with added nitrogen, oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur. Plastics can be made to have different characteristics by modifying the structure of the polymer and adding other substances. Examples of plastics include: polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, acrylics, polypropylene, polyethylene, and composites such as fiber-reinforced plastic.

Plastics are used in the building construction, electronics, medical, packaging, consumer, transportation, and aerospace sectors. They constitute one of the largest US industrial sectors, which has been faring well economically in recent years—e.g., shipping more than $500 billion worth of materials per year. Plastic products are so widely used because they have many advantageous properties—they can be durable, long-lasting, lightweight, corrosion resistant, easy to cut and join, easy to install and remove, different colors, and nonconductive.

Plastics can, however, have negative health and environmental effects throughout their life cycle. They are generally made with toxic materials in very energy-intensive processes, toxic fumes are often emitted during their manufacture and use, they can be hazardous when they come in contact with food and potable liquids that people ingest, they can degrade during use, they can trap and be ingested by wildlife on land and in the ocean, they can be difficult to recycle and reuse, they are a significant component of landfilled material, and they do not easily biodegrade.

Because of their economic importance, widespread utility, and possible negative health and environmental impacts, EPA is seeking greener plastics, as follows:

Topic Code 5B: Greener Plastic Products. For a specific type of product that is made with plastic, develop, demonstrate, and commercialize a greener version of the product that (a) is not made with toxic materials, (b) does not emit toxic fumes, (c) is not toxic if ingested, (d) is easily recycled and reused, and/or (e) rapidly biodegrades in soil and water. Examples include: alternatives to products made with polyvinyl chloride or polystyrene. Comparison with the performance and cost of the currently-used plastic product and assessing its overall life cycle are integral to this topic.

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