Environment

Life Cycle Assessments: How Plastics’ Reduced Emissions Support Sustainability Goals

Plastics are the most environmentally beneficial material because they reduce emissions and are ideal for helping reach sustainability goals.

Share:

Compared to alternative materials through life cycle assessments, plastics are the most environmentally beneficial material. Because they have reduced emissions, both single-use and durable plastics are ideal for helping reach sustainability goals, like the U.S. goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Single-use plastic products reduce emissions

Life cycle assessments (LCAs) find that single-use plastic products have environmental advantages, including emissions reductions at every step of their life cycle, compared to those made with alternative materials. One study found that the standard plastic straw, for example, has over 60% less global warming potential and uses 50% less energy than alternative materials like paper during production.

In terms of transportation, plastics also reduce fuel and energy needs because they are significantly lighter than alternatives like glass and aluminum. One study finds that replacing plastics with alternative materials like glass, aluminum, and paper would result in environmental costs that are four times higher. While the average plastic soft drink bottle in the United States weighs about 30 grams, that same bottle weighs up to 141 grams when made of glass. Heavier materials demand significantly more fuel for transport, exacerbating emissions concerns. By using more plastics, emissions reductions goals are attainable.

Not only do single-use plastics produce fewer emissions during production and transport when compared to alternatives, but post-use recycling processes are also more environmentally friendly. Advanced recycling technologies, like pyrolysis, can recycle single-use plastics and reduce CO2 emissions by up to 50% to ensure that these valuable products stay in the economy and out of the environment.

Research through LCAs shows that plastics are the answer to reaching environmental and emissions reductions goals. Legislation banning or regulating this vital material can actually be more detrimental than beneficial to the environment. A 2020 University of Michigan study finds that by banning essential plastic items, consumers are forced to use more environmentally degrative materials that require more energy, more resources, and more water to produce. This market distortion creates further negative environmental impacts.

Meeting Sustainability Goals with Plastics through Industry Investment and Innovation

The wide array of plastics’ environmental benefits make them an ideal material for achieving sustainability and climate goals, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 52% by 2030 in the United States. In addition to creating low-emitting, sustainable products, plastic waste offers new opportunities to produce lower-carbon energy sources. Investment in advanced recycling technologies, like chemical recycling and pyrolysis, which convert hard-to-recycle plastics into hydrogen or other types of fuel that burn cleaner than traditional fuel sources, reduce emissions and keep plastics in our economy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, hydrogen can be harnessed as a clean energy source to power highly efficient fuel cell electric vehicles (EVs), supporting the U.S. goals to put more EVs on the road. Furthermore, through the increased use of carbon-fiber reinforced plastics in EV development, plastics components are helping make EVs more efficient. Investment in these innovative technologies push the United States even closer to climate goals.

In just the last four years, industry invested $5.5 billion in innovative technologies, like advanced recycling technologies, to help keep plastics out of the environment and inside the economy. Investment has focused on both mechanical and advanced recycling systems, which are proven solutions to reducing plastic waste. According to Closed Loop Partners, a firm that invests in critical circular economy infrastructure, advanced recycling innovations could produce upwards of $120 billion in potential revenue, creating sustainable, circular systems. Industry already understands that we must leverage all technologies and funds available to reach a truly circular economy built on sustainability.

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a non-profit coalition of companies from the plastics and consumer goods value chain, recently launched a grant program requesting proposals for projects related to advanced recycling technologies and business models, awarding up to $20 million for eligible projects. Plastics will continue to be the sustainable choice with increased investment and support for new technology development.

Conclusion

Through valuable life cycle assessment research, plastics are the best choice to help meet sustainability and climate change goals. By replacing more materials with plastic, we can continue to reduce emissions across sectors and boost energy efficiency, reduce water usage, and streamline material sourcing.

Want to do more?

Still have questions?