PUBLISHED:March 09, 2024

Environmental Law and Policy Clinic advocates reducing single-use plastics in government purchasing


Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic calls on independent federal management agency to do more to reduce single-use plastics in federal procurement

headshots of Andrew Kelbley and Anne-Elisabeth Baker Andrew Kelbley ’24 and Anne-Elisabeth Baker MEM ’24

Working toward stronger standards to reduce plastic pollution, the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic (ELPC) submitted comments earlier this week on a proposed new rule that aims to reduce the amount of single-use plastic packaging consumed by the federal government.

The General Services Administration (GSA) Acquisition Regulation for Reduction of Single-Use Plastic Packaging would encourage the use of single-use plastic free packaging in the billions of dollars of goods ordered each year through the GSA, the centralized purchasing agent for the federal government. More than a third of all plastic produced goes to make packaging materials that are discarded after one use.

The clinic’s 20-page submission was produced by ELPC student-attorney Andrew Kelbley ’24; Anne-Elisabeth Baker MEM ’24, a student consultant at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment (NSOE); Clinical Professor Michelle Nowlin, faculty co-director of ELPC, and ELPC staff scientist and Lecturing Fellow Nancy Lauer. The clinic’s comments were submitted on behalf of signatories from the North Carolina Plastic Waste Reduction Coalition, a network of NGOs and individuals working in the state to address the damage that single-use plastics cause to human health and ecosystems.

The ELPC’s recommendations focus on three specific measures in federal procurement policies that the clinic says would reduce single-use plastics:

  1. Show products with plastic packaging on the Federal Supply Schedules only if no feasible alternatives with single-use plastic free packaging are available;
  2. Ban certain types of particularly harmful plastic packaging, including polystyrene and plastic film, from the Federal Supply Schedules; and
  3. Remove single-use plastic items from the Federal Supply Schedules that have existing alternatives.

Kelbley said, “Sometimes purchasing guidelines are an obstacle for agencies, so we were able to work on the federal version of those purchasing guidelines through our GSA comments with the hope that federal agencies will have fewer obstacles if they try to engage in sustainable procurement in the future.”

The comments emphasize that federal leadership is needed to address this program and model sustainable procurement policies for state and local governments. This is informed by several considerations: plastics are made from oil and gas and, thus, are a significant contributor to global climate change; due to a combination of technical and economic factors, recycling of plastics in the U.S. has averaged five to six percent over the past 20 years; as the use of single-use plastics escalates, municipalities across the country are struggling to dispose of the increased volume waste – most of which is stored in landfills located in low-income communities of color; and, compounding the problem, at least 20 states – including North Carolina – have preempted plastic reduction efforts by local governments.

The ELPC document highlights President Biden’s 2023 Executive Order on Environmental Justice, “Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All,” which directs every federal agency to “make achieving environmental justice part of its mission.” The executive order explicitly calls on them to “identify, analyze, and address disproportionate and adverse human health and environmental effects (including risks) and hazards of Federal activities.”

The team states that to comply with this directive, the GSA has an obligation to implement stronger standards to reduce the plastic pollution that is harming vulnerable communities and ecosystems. The clinic’s recommendations align with the GSA’s goals and are designed to enable companies to explore alternative materials and pivot away from single-use plastic containers.

Project exemplifies the interdisciplinary focus of Duke Law School

The document is an example of interdisciplinary collaboration between Duke Law and NSOE students working together at the ELPC, under the guidance of Nowlin and fellow ELPC faculty co-director Ryke Longest, the John H. Adams Clinical Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs at Duke Law.

Kelbley and Baker started working on a plastics reduction pilot program for North Carolina’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (NC DNCR) in August of last year. Both say they gained a better understanding of the gaps and challenges with plastics use, which led to them developing recommendations to the GSA.

Comments to the General Services Administration by Sean Rowe on Scribd