Plastics reduce environmental costs by nearly four times compared to alternatives: report
Despite a widespread perception to the contrary, the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than if plastics were replaced with alternative materials, a new study reports.
The study, by market research firm Trucost and commissioned by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), is based on natural capital accounting methods, which measure and value environmental impacts – such as consumption of water and emissions to air, land and water – which are not typically factored into traditional financial accounting.
Called “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” the report builds on earlier research by comparing the environmental costs of using plastics to alternative materials and identifying opportunities to help lower the environmental costs of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging.
The study reports that replacing plastics in consumer products and packaging with a mix of alternative materials that provide the same function would increase environmental costs from US$139 billion to US$533 billion annually. Why? Because strong, lightweight plastics allow packagers and others to do more with less material, which provides environmental benefits throughout the lifecycle of plastic products and packaging.
The study concluded that even when the environmental costs of alternative materials are lower per ton of production, the aggregate total is still greater due to the much larger quantities of material needed to fulfill the same purposes as plastics. “On average over four times more alternative material is needed [by weight] to perform the same function [as plastic],” the report said. For example, the report continued, a plastic drink bottle made of 30 grams of plastic would require 141 grams of glass or aluminum.
In addition, the report recommends steps to help further reduce plastics’ overall environmental costs, such as by increasing the use of lower-carbon electricity in plastics production, adopting lower-emission transport modes, developing even more efficient plastic packaging, and increasing recycling and energy conversion of post-use plastics to help curb ocean litter and conserve resources.
The report also suggests steps that can help further reduce plastics’ overall environmental costs by as much as US$41 billion industry-wide, including a potential US$7.6 billion in overall cost savings from increasing the use of wind, solar and hydro-electric power sources in plastics production; a possible US$7.3 billion in environmental costs savings from a 30 per cent reduction in materials used in the food, soft drink and ice packaging sectors alone; and a potential US$10.6 billion savings if the industry committed to a 20 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency for the fleets of vehicles used to transport plastic and plastic products.
“We now have a fuller picture of the environmental benefits of using plastics,” said ACC vice president of plastics Steve Russell. “From lighter, more fuel-efficient cars to smart packaging that helps our favorite foods last longer, our industry is committed to ongoing innovations that will advance sustainability across major market sectors and the globe.”