Environment

Every Day is Earth Day With the Help of Plastics

Here are just a few ways in which plastics, and the industry behind this ubiquitous material, focus on the environment every day.

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Individual efforts to care for the environment—like recycling more and cleaning up the beach—are valiant efforts to reduce waste. Yet on Earth Day, having a bolder and bigger vision is necessary to create a circular sustainable economy. The plastics industry has made this vision a reality by investing in infrastructure and innovative recycling technologies that make recycling easier.

Here are just a few ways in which plastics, and the industry behind this ubiquitous material, are focusing on our environment every day by increasing recycling capacity, reducing emissions to meet sustainability goals and contributing to efficiency across industries.

Industry Investments are Helping to Increase Recycling Capacity

In less than four years,  the plastics industry has invested $5.5 billion to improve recycling and waste management infrastructure both in the United States and abroad in developing countries. These investments went towards projects that made traditionally hard-to-recycle plastics recyclable.  On its own, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a group comprised of nearly 50 major global companies, has  committed over $1 billion, with a goal of investing $1.5 billion over the next five years into waste management and recycling systems.

While millions of tons of plastic are placed in recycling bins each year, only a small percentage of them are actually recycled. Patchwork recycling regulations and lack of recycling information can take part of the blame, but low recycling levels are mostly due to the low capacity available to deal with increasing recycling and waste flows. According to Sibele Cestari, a Research Fellow in Polymeric Materials at Queen’s University Belfast, all plastics are recyclable, even hard-to-recycle products, like polystyrene and tires.

Advanced recycling technologies (ARTs), including pyrolysis and chemical recycling, allow traditionally hard-to-recycle plastics to be broken down into their original polymers and reused indefinitely or turned into fuel products. This industry innovation also has environmental benefits and contributes to a more sustainable circular economy by making it possible for us to infinitely recycle and repurpose plastics. Governments must be careful not to implement restrictive policies that could impede these new technologies. Without these innovations, or the increased capacity to recycle, our recycling rates will not improve, and landfills will only get fuller.

Industry is Already Investing in Technologies that Boost Sustainability

Solutions like ARTs, are reducing the carbon footprint of waste management and recycling. A Life Cycle Assessment study by Sphera, a consulting company specializing in environment, health, safety and sustainability, found that chemical recycling of mixed plastic waste, which would otherwise be landfilled, emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide than incineration.

In addition to innovation in recycling technologies, the plastics industry provides a material that is less environmentally degrative than traditional alternatives. A study by the Imperial College of London found that if all plastic bottles were instead made with glass, carbon dioxide emissions would be equivalent to 22 new large coal power plants. In fact, a Life Cycle Assessment study found that plastic materials have the lowest environmental impact on global warming and total energy use when compared to other materials like glass and paper. Lower emissions and higher recyclability due to industry investment means a more circular economy with more sustainability goals met. These are the solutions that Earth Day is about, ones that actually solve our plastic waste challenges in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

Plastics enable more efficient industries

Finally, innovative plastics solutions and recycling technologies have beneficial cascading effects on several industries. Lightweight plastic alternatives to traditional materials like metal and glass increase fuel efficiency in automobiles, aircraft, and spacecraft and significantly improve packaging options.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, every 10 percent weight reduction in a vehicle can increase fuel economy by 8 percent and additional weight reductions through the use of the next generation of carbon fiber reinforced plastics could improve fuel efficiency by 35 percent. For aircraft, a one-pound weight reduction saves $1,000 in fuel life over the life of an airplane, according to CraftTech Industries, Inc. Increased fuel efficiency and reduced emissions would not be possible without the use of lightweight, durable, and more affordable plastic parts.

Plastics are also revolutionizing the packaging industry. According to a study by the Corporation for Comprehensive Analysis in Austria, switching to plastic from traditional alternatives, allows for a 50 percent reduction in energy use. This reduces the carbon footprint of the service, hospitality, and food transport industries significantly. From 1991 to 2000, the average weight of bottles and containers decreased by over 20 percent, increasing cargo capacity and further benefiting the environment.

Conclusion

Plastics and the plastic industry are working to make every day Earth Day by investing in advanced recycling solutions that make even traditionally hard-to-recycle plastics recyclable. Instead of pushing back on these limitless innovations, government and environmental groups should partner with industry to make more of these opportunities a reality and work together to make a more sustainable circular economy.

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