Environment

Beyond Plastics calls for increased use of high emitting materials

Plastics are the most sustainable choice, particularly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, at every step of their life cycle.

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Calls to significantly reduce plastic production overlook a simple fact: plastics are the most sustainable choice in most applications when compared to current alternatives, particularly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, at every step of their life cycle. A new report from Beyond Plastics continues this misguided trend. In the organization’s attempts to smear plastics and support moves to stop innovative and traditional recycling technologies, the authors misrepresent plastics’ environmental footprint.

False narratives that target a material that is both vital to reducing emissions and supporting sustainability efforts and also increases accessibility and affordability, need to be met with facts.

Replacing plastics with alternatives would create higher emissions

According to Beyond Plastics president Judith Enck, who writes the forward in the new report, if plastics were a country, it would be the fifth largest global producer of emissions. Yet there is no measurement taken on a per metric ton basis. Plastics are the material of choice for so many applications because of their flexibility, affordability, and environmental footprint, meaning far more plastic is produced than many other alternatives. Whereas 368 million metric tons of plastics are produced annually, only 130 million metric tons of glass and less than 65 million metric tons of aluminum are produced annually.

If these materials replaced plastics, emissions would significantly increase. Aluminum, often touted as a plastics replacement by Beyond Plastics, produces nearly 30% more emissions than plastics. Iron, steel, and concrete also emit up to twice as many emissions during production as plastics, and have other environmental impacts like high water usage and lack of end-life opportunities. By transitioning away from plastics, Beyond Plastics is supporting an extreme increase in greenhouse gas emissions which will only cause environmental harm.

In her foreword, Enck also claims that “plastic produces greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of its life cycle,” but fails to consider the much higher emissions alternative materials create at every stage of their life cycles. According to a life cycle assessment (LCA), if all plastic bottles were replaced by glass the resulting CO2 emissions would be the equivalent of about 22 large coal-fired power plants. Instead, by using easily recycled PET plastic for bottles we can reduce emissions while also increasing accessibility. This is the superiority of plastics over alternatives.

Another LCA finds that plastics have significantly lower CO2 impacts and water usage levels than alternatives like glass, metal, and bioplastics. Plastics are also lighter and more durable meaning that more products can be packed into fewer shipments, further reducing energy and fuel needs. Transporting consumer products in glass packaging instead of plastic can require up to 40% more energy, producing more CO2. The best and clear choice is plastics – a material that reduces emissions at every step of its life cycle and an ideal partner to protect the environment and help countries and companies meet sustainability goals.

Calls to stop the use of plastic and return to reliance on environmentally degrative materials are out of touch and fail to account for the realistic impact of such a shift. Less plastic would move the United States further, not closer, to our climate goals.

Recycling is one of the best solutions we have to plastic waste

Not only do plastics perform better on a full life cycle basis, but they continue to reduce emissions in their post-consumer phases. Continued investment in recycling infrastructure and support for research in new technologies will also help ensure that more plastics are recycled. For example, advanced recycling technologies can recycle single-use plastics and reduce CO2 emissions by up to 50%. This is why industry is investing billions in recycling infrastructure.

All plastics are recyclable. By ignoring this, the Beyond Plastics report turns a blind eye to the vital recycling infrastructure that already processes many plastic products through the circular economy, and is our best weapon to fight plastic waste challenges. It is imperative that both traditional recycling and advanced recycling systems are used in tandem to recycle all plastic products.

Unfortunately, Beyond Plastics is out of touch when it comes to plastics and their relative sustainability benefits. Compared to other materials, plastics reduce emissions at every step of their life cycle, from sourcing to production to consumption and post-use processes. By supporting a return to alternative materials, Beyond Plastics is ignoring the many benefits that plastics provide every day, outside of reducing emissions and contributing to other environmental goals. The truth is simple: Plastics are vital to our economy and consumers, but plastic waste is never acceptable. That’s why industry is investing billions in recycling infrastructure to ensure that more plastic is recycled every day. Beyond Plastics’ report misses the mark and does not support the core values of environmental protection to which they subscribe.

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