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A full lifecycle analysis shows that plastic has a smaller environmental footprint than often-touted replacement materials.

Hal Partenheimer

April 20, 2022

5 Min Read
Earth Day marked on calendar
Image courtesy of Alamy/OntheRun Photo

As usual, the joke is on the greens. While they’re celebrating Earth Day on April 22, rebelling against all things plastic and filling their Birkenstocks with mud and small sharp stones, the plastics industry is hard at work pumping out one of the most useful products ever conceived by man.

With only 9% of the world’s plastic currently being recycled, there is no arguing we are awash in an infinite variety of the polymers. But a new mantra of “30 by ‘30” has been adopted by many in the plastics industries. That is, a brand’s plastics packaging will need to average 30% recycled plastics across its product portfolio, according to the American Chemistry Council.

Even as eco-activists clamor for total cessation of production, manufacturers are working diligently with chemists, recyclers, and national and local governments to reduce, reuse, and recycle to achieve circularity.

Many activists claim that replacing plastics with glass, paper, or metal will lessen the impact on our environment. However, a basic life cycle analysis (LCA) of these materials proves otherwise. Rather than vilifying plastics, we should be celebrating the miracle material on Earth Day for the following reasons.

Plastic versus glass or paper

Plastic is far more cost effective than glass or paper to produce. It is lighter weight, more durable, and a higher percentage of it is more easily recycled than other materials. Manufactured using fewer natural resources, plastics creation does not degrade the environment to the extent that glass or paper do.

Glass is significantly heavier and requires extreme heat during the manufacturing process. Because of its fragility, it can create environmental hazards and harm wildlife and humans when it is not disposed of properly.

Paper requires large swaths of forest to be harvested and the use of excessive volumes of water and chemicals for bleaching and refining. Many of our forests are already in decline because of urban expansion, assault from insects and disease, and their slow growth metabolism.

Advanced recycling

While mechanical recycling will maintain its place in the broad scheme of overall plastic recapture and repurpose, it is limited in its capability to handle but a few of the plastic types. Advanced recycling, being chemical in nature, can process all seven plastic types.

Although detractors cite high energy requirements and the management of process contaminants as substantial hurdles to overcome, its major benefit is little to no polymer deterioration. In some cases, the process can be conducted at room temperature, further reducing energy consumption and emissions.

These are two critical components of circularity that strive to keep all plastics in closed-loop cycles, working toward an end to plastic pollution. With evolving technologies accelerating advanced recycling, more plastics are being diverted from landfills, streams, and oceans and repurposed for continued use, often in different forms and new applications.

Automotive lightweighting

Plastics have revolutionized the automobile industry. Where cars and trucks were built predominantly with steel, glass, and rubber just a few decades ago, they now contain up to 10% by weight of some form of plastic. This is increasing annually based on improvements in polymer chemistry, heat tolerance, and consumer demand for lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

It has been argued that the introduction of a higher percentage of plastic in automobiles would compromise passenger safety. However, with safety and construction standards constantly being scrutinized and improved, cars and trucks are safer now than ever before.

Healthcare and patient safety

The use of plastics in healthcare settings cannot be overstated. Walk into any hospital room, surgical center, cafeteria, or pharmacy, and without having to look too closely one sees plastic everywhere.

From syringes to pillboxes, surgical tools to breathing tubes, artificial joints to implants, and even the ubiquitous hospital gown — an endless source of gaffes and blushing cheeks — plastics have substantially advanced medical technology and patient safety. One need look no further than the advent of single-use devices, dramatically reducing the potential for hospital-acquired infections among patients. Single-use devices typically are mass produced by injection molding, which is more cost efficient than other techniques.

Top innovations in today’s medical field would not be possible without heavy reliance on plastics. Plastic drug-delivery devices won’t crack or break like their glass counterparts. Many healthcare professionals also cite the benefits of inert and non-ionic surfaces made from high-grade plastics over any other material for similar tasks.

Food packaging

Plastic packaging prevents food waste compared with other materials, thereby also reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that over 6% of all GHG emissions globally come from food waste.

In 2018 in the United States alone, 24% of all landfill material was food waste. Incredibly, if food waste was a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of GHG on the planet, according to the EPA. As food production increases to meet the demands of a growing global population, plastics will be a critical component of food preservation and GHG reduction.

Plastics impact every facet of food production, packaging, transportation, and consumption. While it might be argued that paper and glass can address all these uses, as they have in the past, improvements are constantly evolving across the food production spectrum that make plastics utilization a priority.

An untapped source of circularity

Getting a handle on the problem of plastics pollution is no small challenge. But consider how much worse off our fair Earth would be if plastics didn’t exist. Would our landfills, lakes, streams, and oceans not be overrun with glass, metal, or wood? Evidence suggests they would, much to the detriment of the virgin resources required to produce them.

So, Birkenstocks or not, let us all celebrate plastic this Earth Day. The good news is the vast volume of plastic waste we are currently struggling to deal with is an untapped source of circularity yet to be leveraged.

As technology, manufacturing, industry methods, and public awareness continue to grow and improve, Mother Earth will surely be smiling as we demand less of her through our growing use of plastics.

About the Author(s)

Hal Partenheimer

Hal Partenheimer is a freelance writer based in Dallas, TX. His passion for the environment, energy, the folly of "catastrophic" climate change, and new technologies that address them all take him to wildly exciting places. Writing about them keeps him in a state of happy harangue. Hal has a B.S. in biology and geology and has spent more than enough time in the oil patch of the Permian Basin. He can be reached at linkedin.com/in/hpartenheimer.

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