This Is Plastics: 9 Things You Didn’t Know About Plastics and Sustainability

Environment

9 Things You Didn’t Know About Plastics and Sustainability

Learn how plastics are central to unlocking a more sustainable future while maintaining high performance across a variety of applications.

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No. 1: Plastics require less energy during production compared to alternative materials.

Life cycle analyses (LCAs) have repeatedly found that plastics outperform alternative materials on environmental impacts many times over, requiring less resources, energy and water and producing fewer emissions during production and transport than alternative materials like paper, glass and aluminum.

No. 2: Plastics reduce the use of more environmentally harmful alternatives.

Plastics are a sustainable substitute for wood-derived products, like paper and timber, that are created by cutting down trees, driving carbon dioxide emissions. EcoPost, an alternative lumber manufacturing company, uses 100 percent recycled plastic to make aesthetically pleasing, high performing plastic lumber boards that can be used in a variety of construction products. POLYWOOD, a furniture manufacturing company, uses 100 percent recycled plastics instead of wood to build durable furniture, saving trees and reducing waste.

No. 3: Plastics help keep waste out of waterways.

Innovative engineering has allowed companies to use plastics to clean up waterways. Clearbot Neo, an AI-enabled robotic boat, autonomously picks up floating garbage from Hong Kong’s busy harbor. The boat depends on plastics to store and haul trash to the shore and protect its camera. Separately, Plastic Fischer’s TrashBoom is a plastic barrier designed to prevent between 400 and 1,000 kilograms of waste per week from entering the ocean from rivers. 

No. 4: Plastic products are often reused, reducing carbon emissions associated with production.

Single-use plastic bags are likely to be used for more than their single-use intention, such as liners for small trash cans or as pet waste bags, further reducing their carbon footprint compared to alternatives. Studies show that bans on plastic grocery bags lead consumers to purchase other types of heavier plastic bags, increasing overall emissions as demand shifts to products that require more energy and resources to produce.

No. 5: Plastics can be converted into sustainable products.

Advanced recycling uses heat or chemicals to break down complex plastics into their original building blocks, preparing them for innovative new uses—like recycled content for automobile bumpers and other durable plastic goods. Purification, one type of advanced recycling, uses solvents to separate plastic polymers from additives, coloring, odor and other resins from mixed plastic waste to produce virgin-like recycled plastic content that can be used in durable plastic goods like automotive parts.

No. 6: Plastics can be transformed into new fabrics.

Advanced recycling allows companies to repurpose plastic bottles and other post-consumer products into new, fashionable and sustainable materials. High-fashion brands, such as Gucci and Prada, use Econyl fabrics made from recycled plastic polymers like nylon and polyester to minimize waste and boost circularity in textile production. Sportswear brand Adidas transforms plastic bottles recovered from the ocean into sneakers, using about 11 bottles per pair and diverting over hundreds of millions of plastic bottles from the ocean.

No. 7: Plastics help farmers reduce food waste and resource usage, while making fresh produce more accessible to consumers.

Farmers use hoop houses made from plastic polymers and reusable plastic netting to grow crops in all climates. These innovations enable more efficient growing processes without impacting the surrounding environment. Further, new initiatives are researching methods to turn plastic grain bags and other farming plastics into garbage bags and plastic lumber, providing additional sustainability gains.

No. 8: Plastics allow for safe and sustainable construction infrastructure.

Experts recommend PVC pipes that are more energy efficient than alternatives to replace corrosive lead pipes throughout the country. In the home, innovations like PEX piping water systems (cross-linked polyethylene) reduce warm-up wait times and water waste, increasing energy efficiency. Additionally, foam insulation made from plastic polymers is more energy efficient. According to a study by the Society of Plastics Engineers, for every 40 British thermal units (BTUs) of energy saved using plastic insulation, only one BTU of energy is consumed to produce the material, making it a highly efficient product.

No. 9: Plastics improve vehicle performance and eco-friendliness.

Swapping metal or glass car parts with high-performance plastics allows automakers to decrease vehicles’ overall weight, increasing fuel efficiency and reducing emissions. In addition, electric vehicles (EVs) are heavily reliant on plastic polymers to reduce in-motion noise and vibration and protect battery packs, improving both rider experience and technical performance. Finally, innovative technologies help automakers improve circularity by recycling plastic car parts, like bumpers, to create new materials.

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