Plastics have been saving the planet since before there was Earth Day, an annual event supporting environmental conservation. Today, plastic is as important as ever to protecting the environment.
In 1869, using natural cellulose from cotton, John Wesley Hyatt created a substitute for ivory, preventing the slaughter of elephants for their tusks. Hyatt’s new material also replaced tortoise shell for jewelry, hair combs, picture frames, and many more household items.
The reality is that, far from its reputation, plastic has likely saved many species from extinction, while also expanding access to helpful products for working and middle-class people.
Plastics quickly replaced other materials harmful to the environment. In the 20th century, plastics began to replace paper, natural rubber, and even silk, helping to prevent deforestation. Plastic tree shelters protect young saplings.
Plastics have also replaced more energy-intensive iron and steel in auto manufacturing and construction. In automobiles, plastics have been instrumental to safety features. Seat belts, air bags, crumple zones, and laminated safety glass use plastics. Plastics’ light weight increases fuel efficiency.
Plastics save water and energy, too. Corroding metallic pipes result in an annual loss of approximately 17% of all water pumped in the United States and more than $50 billion a year in maintenance and replacement costs. Plastic piping can last more than a century. Plastic insulation saves 40 times the energy required to make it.
Plastics benefit developing nations
Its many benefits are why markets for plastics will continue to expand, especially in developing nations, where plastics are important to delivering fresh food, water, and medicine, things we often take for granted in the United States.
Plastic is important to virtually every human activity today, including environmental conservation. While activists seek to ban useful materials and products, our industry is focused on solutions to waste management and recycling to continue society’s progress.
The same spirit of innovation that created environmentally responsible replacements for ivory and tortoise shell today is developing new materials, designs, and recycling methods to conserve resources and reclaim the value of discarded plastic.
Recycling innovations include optical sorting, light-reflection technology to identify a variety of difficult-to-sort recyclable materials. Advanced recycling is an environmentally safe process that returns plastic to its basic chemical building blocks for reuse.
And it might sound like science fiction, but enzymatic recycling — bacterial compounds that “eat” plastic waste, producing new plastic — could become a reality.
Let's focus on what works, not empty rhetoric
The Plastic Industry Association’s Re|focus Sustainability and Innovation Awards showcase breakthrough companies, such as Tarkett, transforming windshield safety glass into new carpets, and PureCycle Technologies, removing contaminants, odors, and colors from recycled material to produce near-virgin-quality resin.
Our New End Market Opportunities projects demonstrate new uses for recycled plastic. LyondellBassell recently paved its parking lot with the equivalent of 71,000 plastic bags.
Did you know plastic bags require 70% less energy and 96% less water to manufacture than paper bags? And you can’t pave a parking lot with paper bags.
Constant innovation is why we should never ban plastic materials or products that conserve resources and protect the environment — important to remember on Earth Day.
There is legislation in Congress that would eliminate plastic manufacturing and more than a million jobs it supports. There are, however, practical, bipartisan alternatives. The RECOVER Act would improve collection and sorting of recyclable materials. The RECYCLE Act would fund public awareness of recycling options. The Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act would develop new recycling technologies.
When activists seek to ban or severely restrict the usage of plastic, it’s important to consider what materials would serve as replacements. More often than not, plastic actually replaced these other materials decades ago due, in part, to being more environmentally friendly. Let’s embrace innovation and build upon what works, not get caught up in empty political rhetoric.
About the author
Tony Radoszewski has served as President and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) since September 2019 and has over 40 years of experience within the plastics industry.