This Is Plastics: A Web of Wealth: The Economic Benefits of Plastics


A Web of Wealth: The Economic Benefits of Plastics

In the first installment of the Web of Wealth series, learn how plastics provide and sustain gainful employment for millions of Americans and their families.


Working 9 to 5…with plastics!

According to PLASTICS’ 2020 Size and Impact report, the U.S. plastics industry accounted for an estimated 1,000,000 jobs in 2019. The sheer size of the pre-COVID-19 plastics workforce surpasses employment figures for the entire domestic mining and utility sectors. Figures from 2019 indicate there were more workers in the plastic industry than mail carriers, accountants, and bus drivers; simply put, plastics are a powerhouse of the U.S. economy. 

At the state level, plastics are also the backbone of many local economies – perhaps more than people realize. In California, the plastics industry workforce was the largest at an estimated 79,700 workers in 2019. In Indiana and Michigan, there were approximately 16 plastics employees for every 1,000 non-farm workers.[1] In those communities and in others across the country, the plastics industry helps many families put food on the table. 

Like many industries within the manufacturing sector, COVID-19 hit plastics hard. Approximately 820,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs were lost due to the pandemic. PLASTICS’ 2021 Size and Impact report indicates the industry no longer directly employs over 1,000,000 people. However, the industry still has a significant economic impact in states like Indiana, where plastics accounted for 15.6 out of every 1,000 jobs in 2020, and Texas, where plastics employed over 70,500 people. Additionally, taking into account upstream industries supported by plastics, PLASTICS estimates place the industry’s full employment impact at supporting 1.55 million jobs, even with COVID-19’s impact. 

Despite the COVID-19 recession, the plastic industry’s real value still grew by 1.4% annually from 2010 to 2020. It’s a familiar story for the world of plastics; two of plastics’ best qualities—as both an industry and a material—are its adaptability and versatility. 

Where in the world is plastic? Hint: everywhere!

“Plastic is one of the most advanced and useful materials humanity ever created, contributing to longer, healthier and better lives for people around the globe,” Tony Radoszewski, President and CEO of PLASTICS once noted. “It’s also quite economically important to communities across our country.”

Plastic is an incredibly ubiquitous material and critical to the success of many industries, including packaging, construction, and automotive, to name a few.  Without plastic packaging, produce would spoil long before it reaches consumers’ fridges. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes are a critical building component that help conserve energy and water by being essentially leak-free and non-corrosive. In cars, plastics help improve fuel efficiency by making vehicles dramatically lighter. In total, 83.5% of consumer products rely on plastic in some way.

As a job creator, plastics’ ability to provide, sustain, and create gainful employment extends into recycling – providing an optimistic indication of where the industry’s employment footprint could be heading in a post-COVID world. A more labor-intensive process than landfilling or incineration, the recycling industry provides as many as 30 times more jobs than traditional waste disposal methods. And as breakthroughs like advanced recycling technologies increase the amount of recycled material, plastics’ ability to create jobs only increases, too. 

In fact, a 2011 report from the Tellus Institute found that if the national recycling rate—just under 35% in 2018—increased to 75%, over 1.5 million new jobs would be created. That’s more than a quarter of the 6 million jobs the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to see added to the U.S. economy from 2019-2029. Rather than wait on the sidelines for recycling rates to increase, the plastics industry is taking active strides to make recycling goals a reality. In May 2021, the Closed Loop Circular Plastics Fund was established to invest $25 million in domestic recycling infrastructure. Fully realized, the fund’s investments could support recycling over 500 million pounds of additional plastic

Thus, at every step of its life cycle, plastic produces tangible, sustainable benefits. COVID-19 might have disrupted plastics’ employment—as it did most everything—but this disruption was only temporary. Embracing plastic recycling and adopting a more circular approach can not only reduce waste and benefit the environment but also help transform the job opportunity landscape for American workers moving forward. 

When life gives you plastic, make…anything!

Recycling methods like advanced recycling technologies upcycle plastic to produce valuable outputs for a number of industries. For example, researchers at Washington State University have developed a method to transform polyethylene—typically used to make soda or water bottles—into jet fuel components. Aside from converting a common plastic into a sophisticated material, there’s an added bonus. Researchers see the potential to produce jet fuel from plastic using biomass and captured carbon technology. This could remove fuel production’s current reliance on emissions-heavy crude oil refining and replace it with a low-carbon, sustainable alternative. And it’s all thanks to plastic. 

Beyond upcycled jet fuel in macro industries like aerospace and defense, plastic also has vitality in the hospitality industry. IHG Hotels & Resorts, a multi-billion-dollar hospitality company that owns popular hotel brands like Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza (among 14 others), has partnered with The Fine Bedding Company to take plastics’ potential to the next level. In the group’s voco Hotels brand, IHG has rolled out a new recycled bedding initiative, which has already transformed over 3 million plastic bottles into plush, recycled filling for pillows and duvets. According to IHG, customers are raving about the new cushy resting spots, glad to both sleep comfortably and take part in an environmentally beneficial product. This anecdote matches consumer trends: according to 2020 IBM research, nearly 8 in 10 consumers find sustainability important. Using plastic to produce green bedding doesn’t only help the environment—it could increase business revenues, too. 

The takeaway on plastics’ economic benefits is this: they’re everywhere. From employing the neighbor across the street with a vital recycling job to one day fueling the flights home for the holidays and stuffing the pillow on a hotel bed during a work trip — plastics plays a part in not only running the world but also improving it in the process. 

[1] Nonfarm employment measures the number of American workers participating in the economy, excluding proprietors, private household employees, unpaid volunteers, farm employees, and the unincorporated self-employed. Nonfarm employment contains about 80% of the workers who contribute to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

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