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Plastics have smaller environmental impact than alternatives, according to industry association

Plastic PET bottles close up
PLASTICS latest report examines numerous life cycle assessments to measure the sustainability of different packaging materials compared to plastics, including steel, aluminum and glass.

The Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) has published a report that analyzes scientific data on the environmental impacts of plastics and finds plastics to be more sustainable than alternative materials when life cycle assessments are taken into consideration. The report, authored by environmental scientist Kenneth Green and titled Plastics and Sustainability, further finds that eliminating plastics would be detrimental to ongoing sustainability efforts and that enhancing recycling systems is a practical solution.

"Too often we see groups criticize plastics using unscientific information. The report released today summarizes what data has indicated for years: plastic is lighter and more durable than alternatives, and it has a smaller environmental footprint," said Tony Radoszewski, President & CEO of PLASTICS. "Switching to alternatives would not only harm an industry that employs almost a million Americans, but it would also harm our environment and our well-being."

Plastics and Sustainability examined numerous life cycle assessments to determine differences in methodologies measuring the sustainability of different materials, including steel, aluminum, glass, and others. The report acknowledges that plastics' sustainability can and should continue to improve over time.

"Assessing sustainability has to include plastic's impacts on the physical environment as well as the climate, including the production of plastics from fossil fuels, and disposal of plastic waste into the environment. But we must take care in choosing alternatives," said author Kenneth Green. "Comparison studies and common sense tell us that alternative materials will also produce environmental impacts, quite possibly worse than the plastics they replace."

Plastics and Sustainability is consistent with reports that have looked at compilations of scientific life cycle assessments. One such study from University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability, published in 2020, found that plastic has fewer environmental impacts than single-use glass, indicating that the increasing trend to substitute single-use plastic packaging with single-use glass-based packaging is "particularly troublesome" from a sustainability perspective.

Key Findings

  • Current recycling systems are economically inefficient. However, a full reclamation of plastic monomers would bring society's use of plastic materials closer to current conceptions of environmental sustainability.
  • Contrary to established wisdom, scientific life cycle assessments of plastics and alternative materials find that plastics tend to have lower carbon footprints, making them the more sustainable option among current materials in a number of applications.
  • Those life cycle assessments also suggest that substituting plastics with other materials would create environmental tradeoffs that could be less environmentally sustainable.
  • Plastics, a relatively novel material in the history of human goods manufacture, have become critical to sustaining prosperous and technological societies. Suggestions to discontinue using plastic would very likely be detrimental to both human and environmental well-being. 

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