How to think about plastics in 2020

Since 1950, approximately 8.3 billion metric tons of virgin plastics have been produced worldwide, the equivalent of 176 million big rigs.

Less than 20% of that plastic has been recycled or incinerated, leaving nearly 80% to accumulate in landfills or as litter in our natural environment. Despite its significant contributions to innovation, the plastics industry has garnered increasing criticism over the years for its environmental impact. In a poll conducted by market research firm Morning Consult in 2018, a majority of people (55%) reported that they did not believe corporations were doing enough to reduce waste that could make it into the environment, and two-thirds of individuals (66%) reported that they would view companies more favorably if they implemented policies to reduce plastic waste.

So, why do we continue to use plastics in the first place?

Alex Hoffer, VP, Hoffer Plastics Corp.
The argument to remove plastics from our way of life entirely is not a feasible option for Alex Hoffer, Vice President of Sales and Operations at Hoffer Plastics Corp.

The technical answer is that plastic has a high strength-to-weight ratio and can be easily shaped into a wide variety of forms that are impermeable to liquids and are highly resistant to physical and chemical degradation. These materials can be produced at a relatively low cost, making it easier for companies to sell, scale, save and so forth. The primary challenge is that the proliferation of plastics in everyday use in combination with poor end-of-life waste management has resulted in widespread and persistent plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is present in all of the world’s major ocean basins, including remote islands, the poles and the deep seas. An additional 5 to 13 million metric tons are introduced every year.

However, consider for a moment the possibility that the plastics industry is doing more good than harm, and that the environmental issues the industry faces have more to do with recycling than production.

Here is how we should be thinking about plastics in 2020.

Plastics and the environment

Austrian environmental consultancy Denkstatt recently conducted a study to determine the impact of farmers, retailers and consumers using recyclable products (wood, tins, glass bottles and jars, and cardboard) to package their goods rather than plastic. What they found was that the mass of packaging would increase by a whopping 3.6 times, and would take more than double the energy to make, thereby increasing greenhouse gases by an astounding 2.7 times.

One common proposal for replacing plastics with different materials is to replace plastic bags with paper ones in grocery stores. While this may sound like a more sustainable solution, the data does not support it. By volume, paper takes up more room in landfills and does not disintegrate as rapidly as plastic. Because of this, plastic bags leave half the carbon footprint of cotton and paper bags.

Plastics and hunger

In my visits to the Northern Illinois Food Bank, I’ve had the honor to serve those in need of access to nutritious food. While helping stock the pantry or pass out holiday baskets, I couldn’t help but notice how food packaging alone impacts visitors’ perceptions. Most of the food at the food bank is canned or jarred, yet it is the plastic-wrapped food that always looks fresher and a little less dangerous.

Now, consider the properties of plastic that make it so attractive: It is durable, flexible, does not shatter, can breathe (or not) and is extremely lightweight. As a result, food and drink are protected from damage and preserved for previously unimaginable lengths of time.

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