This Is Plastics: For a Sustainable Future, We Need More Plastic—Not Less


For a Sustainable Future, We Need More Plastic—Not Less

Plastic has been the backbone of building the modern world since the early 20th century. As COP26 concludes, world leaders have offered various solutions to climate change—many of which plastics underpin.


Today’s world is home to the most technologically advanced, globally connected, constantly innovative societies ever seen in human history. A common denominator for marvels of the modern world is plastic, a material that’s been the cornerstone of technological advancement and innovation since the early 20th century. From the cars we drive to the planes we board to the smartphones we carry—and more—plastics make life in today’s world possible. Now more than ever, stakeholders are also realizing the role plastics can play in building a more sustainable future. This trend was no better on display than at the United Nations’ recent climate change conference, where world leaders gathered to accelerate climate actions and chart actionable paths forward. 

How plastics will meet tomorrow’s sustainability and climate goals 

The modern world is not a stagnant one. Governments, businesses, and citizens alike are pushing for constant progress and innovation to build a better future, and in recent years, addressing the global climate crisis has been a top priority. Most recently, from October 31 to November 12, 2021, government leaders and officials from nearly 200 countries gathered in Glasgow at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26. Over the last two weeks, the global community emphasized various solutions and priorities to address climate impacts. For many of the COP26 goals—including reducing emissions, curbing deforestation, converting to electric vehicles, embracing renewable energy, and building climate-resilient communities—plastic has a critical role to play. 

Lowering Emissions

Curbing global warming was a top priority at COP26. This was made clear when, ahead of the conference, over 100 countries joined the United States and European Union in pledging to curb methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Leaders and scientists have emphasized the need to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C to avoid particularly deleterious climate impacts. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is critical to this effort, and plastic’s less energy-intensive production and lightweight nature make it an excellent tool for curbing emissions. 

Though alternative materials—like cotton, paper, and glass—are often depicted as more sustainable than plastic, life cycle assessments (LCAs) have found that plastic is the most environmentally beneficial option. For example, researchers have found that a standard plastic straw has over 60% less global warming potential and uses 50% less energy than alternative materials during production. In the transportation sector, plastic can also be used to substitute for heavier materials. Take the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, for instance: it’s made from three composite plastic sections, burns up to 20% less fuel than other plane models, and ultimately reduces air travel emissions.

Additionally, LCAs have demonstrated that advanced recycling like pyrolysis can recycle single-use and other plastics, reducing COemissions by up to 50% and creating a more circular economy. In a recent white paper, environmental scientist and Fraser Institute senior fellow Kenneth Green indicated that LCAs are vital for understanding materials’ environmental impact. Through this kind of analysis, we can better appreciate a material’s environmental impact across its full life cycle. In Green’s analysis, he found that plastics tend to have lower carbon footprints than alternative materials and that substituting other materials for plastics would create negative environmental tradeoffs—including higher emissions. 

Saving Forests with Plastic

Another major priority was curbing deforestation, which is a significant contributor to global carbon emissions. During COP26, about 100 nations pledged to end deforestation by 2030. 

Plastic applications can substitute for tree-derived products, like timber and paper, which are major deforestation drivers. For instance, companies like EcoPost are using 100% recycled plastic to make aesthetically pleasing, high-performing “lumber” boards that can be used in a variety of construction products. Other companies like POLYWOOD save trees by building traditionally wooden furniture—like Adirondack chairs and benches—from 100% recycled plastic. Since plastic or wood-plastic composite (WPC) lumber is less susceptible than traditional timber to weather, rotting, and insect damage, it’s more durable over time, reducing the need for additional re-construction timber.

Substituting wood and wood-derived products with plastic has additional environmental benefits beyond lessening deforestation. It also diverts waste from landfills, keeping more plastic in the economy and promoting circularity. Additionally, considering producing pulp and paper from trees is the third-largest source of industrial air pollution, saving trees with plastic helps further emissions reduction goals as well. 

Embracing Electric Vehicles

World leaders at COP26 also emphasized accelerating the global transition to electric vehicles (EVs), given the sustainable benefits posed over combustion engines. For example, Congress recently passed the infrastructure bill, which includes a $7.5 billion investment in EV charging infrastructure and aims to further the Biden administration’s goal that 50% of all new car sales will be electric by 2030. 

Plastic is critical for meeting increased EV market demand. For EVs to have the necessary battery range to be a realistic transportation option for consumers, they must be made from lightweight components like plastic. Already, most vehicles are about 50% volume by plastic but only 10% by weight. As EVs become more prevalent, increasing plastic applications to offset the weight of batteries and electric motors will help improve their performance and desirability for consumers. 

Plastics have a role to play in developing the necessary batteries and electric motors, too. Today’s EV’s largely contain heavy lithium-ion batteries, increasing a car’s weight by about 35%. Lightweight plastic components can replace heavier electric cell materials, like liquids or metals, improving batteries’ durability and charges’ longevity. 

For plastics’ role in addressing the challenges of climate change, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Plastic is a key component in wind turbines and other forms of renewable energy that will help countries meet their global climate commitments. For example, Dutch start-up Solarge is working to mass-produce lightweight solar panels and found that replacing the glass with plastics results in a 50% weight reduction – allowing more panels to be placed on a single roof. Furthermore, as communities continually adapt to be more resilient against climate change, plastic is essential to ensure infrastructure can withstand extreme weather events through waterproofing and constructing flexible, yet durable climate-resilient structures.  

A sustainable future with plastic

Plastic is the backbone of the world we live in and the world we’re building. On the heels of COP26, the present moment is ripe for serious sustainability commitments. Plastic serves as a multifaceted solution to many climate challenges. Ultimately, building a more sustainable tomorrow means unlocking plastic’s full potential as a versatile, sustainable material. 

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