Study Finds Plastics are More Sustainable than Alternative Materials

Nov 24, 2021

A recent study found that plastics may be more sustainable than some other materials in terms of the life cycle of the materials. This is an image of a woman holding a plastic bottle and a glass bottle.

We wouldn’t be doing what we do if we didn’t have faith in the power of plastics, and a recent study only reinforces our commitment to the industry.

The Plastics Industry Association recently published a report that says plastics may be more sustainable than other types of materials in terms of the life cycle of the materials.

The study examined life cycle assessments in regard to the sustainability of materials such as steel, aluminum, and glass, and the report notes that the sustainability of plastics can and should continue to improve over time.

Generally, Green says that alternative materials have their effects on the environment as well, possibly worse than that of plastics.

As noted in the study by environmental scientist Kenneth Green and reported by the Plastics Industry Association, eliminating plastics would be detrimental to sustainability efforts. The report discusses the importance of enhancing recycling systems.

A similar study through the University of Michigan, published in 2020, found that plastics had fewer environmental impacts than single-use glass.

Green’s study also notes that glass bottles are seen as particularly intensive producers of greenhouse gases over production, likely due to their weight, and that the transportation of mass is a highly greenhouse gas-intensive activity.

Aluminum cans, the production of which entails large amounts of energy, also produce higher levels of greenhouse gases during production than do either plastic or steel containers, Green notes. Two plastic and plastic-composite materials used for comparison in this study turn out to have the lightest climate change footprint of the available choices, he said.

Other Key Findings Reported in the Study

  • Assessing the sustainability of plastics requires both holistic and historic perspective, as well as the consideration of environmental, economic, and societal impacts of alternatives to, or avoidance of, plastics as a commonplace material in human society.
  • 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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