Plastics are an indispensable part of our lives today, and recent advances in material science have delivered truly amazing products from dissolving heart stents to lifesaving air bags to smart packaging that both protects our food and warns us when it’s about to be “past its prime.”
But over time, and with plastic being used in a growing number of products, some people have come to believe that these modern materials have greater environmental impacts than the materials they are replacing.
Is this true? Simply put, no — according to a comprehensive new study on the comparative environmental impacts of plastics.
A new study by the environmental consulting firm Trucost, “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” is based on natural capital accounting methods. This methodology measures and calculates the value of environmental impacts — such as consumption of water and emissions to air, land, and water — that typically are not factored into traditional financial accounting.
The findings likely will surprise many. The study finds that the environmental cost of using alternative materials is four times more than that of using plastics. Trucost found that replacing plastics in consumer products and packaging with a mix of alternative materials that provide the same function would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to a whopping $533 billion annually. That’s primarily because strong, lightweight plastics help us do more with less material, which provides environmental benefits throughout the entire life of products and packaging.
These results disrupt the commonly accepted narrative around plastics — the assumption that traditional materials have less environmental impact. In fact, these findings stand that assumption on its head.
The study builds on earlier research by Trucost for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that looked at the environmental costs of using plastics. That study did not ask: compared to what? In other words, since we need cars, packaging, electronics, and other consumer goods, what would be the impact of using materials other than plastics to make them? The new study answers that question.
Everything we do impacts the environment, whether simply breathing air, mining bauxite, or harvesting trees. The Trucost study takes a comprehensive look at these impacts and their costs. It looks at the entire life cycle of products and packaging — from extraction to disposal — and gives us a fuller look at the overall environmental impacts.
Natural capital cost accounting is similar to life cycle analyses, which is now accepted as the most comprehensive way to assess the impacts of materials, products, and packaging. To help ensure that the study’s methodology and data were sound, the results were reviewed by two of the most respected practitioners of life cycle studies — Denkstatt in Europe and Franklin Associates in the US.
By comparing the environmental costs of various materials we use, and by using decision-making tools made possible by these studies, we can make better decisions.
For example, the study will help consumer product companies and policymakers make smarter decisions about what we produce and how we produce it. By understanding the environmental impacts of the materials used to make car bumpers, food containers, electronics, and athletic wear, we can transparently enhance sustainability and reduce our impacts on the environment. In other words, this study can help drive informed policies that deliver greater benefits to people and the planet.
While comparing environmental impacts is critical, we must dig deeper. We also need to reduce those impacts. The report’s authors recommend steps to help further reduce plastics’ overall environmental cost, 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.
They also called for enhanced environmental leadership by the plastics industry, noting that the industry has “direct influence, or indirect influence… over a significant share of the environmental costs of plastic use… (and) is well positioned to play an enhanced leadership role in driving improvements in the environmental performance of the plastics value chain.” The plastics industry has embraced this challenge and has committed to ongoing innovations that will advance sustainability across major market sectors and the globe.
This new study helps provide the clearest and most comprehensive picture to date of the relative environmental costs and benefits of plastics compared to alternative materials. And by providing a path forward to further reduce these relative costs, the study provides valuable insights into how these materials can even further contribute to sustainability.
Jeff Wooster is global sustainability director for Dow Packaging and Specialty Products and chair of the American Chemistry Council’s packaging team. The Trucost study may be found here.