Environment

Life Cycle Assessments: Measuring Plastics’ Benefits Through Sustainability

Life cycle assessments provide an objective analysis of plastics and alternative materials to help understand the environmental benefits and drawbacks of each material. These assessments tend to show that plastics are the best choice given their environmental footprint from production through transportation and recycling.

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What are Life Cycle Assessments?

Life cycle assessments (LCAs) are scientific studies that assess the potential environmental impact of a product from its sourcing to its end-of-life process. LCAs consider metrics like greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption, allowing companies and consumers to better understand how they can choose products that align with environmental goals. With climate goals at the top of the agenda in the White House, it is important to highlight that using more plastics, not fewer, can ensure that the United States reaches these goals. Through several LCAs, it becomes clear that plastics are often the better environmental choice. Plastics use fewer resources, less energy, and less water to produce and can be recycled so that polymers can be reused infinitely. This is why plastics are the best choice to reach climate change goals without sacrificing affordability or convenience. 

Why Plastics are Consistently the Environmentally Smart Choice  

Plastics allow industries to reduce emissions and reach environmental goals. In the case of food packaging, one LCA published in the Journal of Polymers and the Environment found that plastic has environmental advantages over more traditional packaging like glass or aluminum, in terms of both the consumption of natural resources and emissions. Additionally, a study from Imperial College found that replacing all plastic water bottles used globally with glass would increase emissions equivalent to adding 22 coal fired power plants. Plastics not only reduce emissions during production, but also reduce fuel and energy needed to transport products to commercial locations and to homes from grocery stores because they are lighter than alternatives

Lighter materials also allow more products to be transported in fewer shipments, further reducing fuel demand. Winpak, a Canadian plastic manufacturer, recently designed a line of sustainable flexible plastic packaging (FPP) that is easily recycled and helps prolong the shelf life of perishable foods and beverages. Not only does FPP require fewer resources and energy to produce than normal plastic, but it is also made from recycled products and its composition makes it easier to recycle through existing recycling systems. Imaginative innovation like this is exactly why plastics are so important to sustainability goals. 

Not only are plastics the better choice from a production performance standpoint, but they are also instrumental in innovation efforts across several industries. According to the Department of Energy, a 10% reduction in vehicle weight can lead to a 6-8% increase in fuel efficiency. This can be achieved by replacing traditional materials like cast iron and steel with versatile and durable plastics. Reduced weight can also reduce fuel consumption in the United States by five billion gallons annually if implemented in at least one quarter of vehicles by 2030. Weight reductions enable automobile makers and designers to innovate in other areas, like electric batteries and smart technologies, which are possible without risking higher emissions and heavier vehicles. 

Not only are plastics supporting innovation in the food and beverage and transportation sectors, but they are also helping reduce waste. All plastic is recyclable, meaning that plastics can be broken down using both mechanical and advanced recycling systems to be reused again and again. Particularly, increased investment and innovation in advanced recycling technologies (ARTs) are helping industries and consumers reach environmental goals. 

Factoring Recycling into a Life Cycle Assessment

Advanced recycling technologies (ARTs) use heat or chemicals to break down hard-to-recycle plastics into their original building blocks. Plastics recycled through ARTs can be transformed into completely new plastic products, helping to sustain circular economies and ensuring that products remain in our economy and out of the environment. ARTs also emit fewer greenhouse gasses than traditional recycling methods. A study by the Argonne National Laboratory finds that producing ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel from used plastics can reduce the consumption of water by 58% and energy consumption by 96% as opposed to producing it with traditional materials. 

Plastics benefit sectors throughout our economy and help stimulate growth. This vital material spurs innovation in industries important to consumers, including food packaging safety and transportation. We already know that plastics are the best choice, but LCAs are making it clear to companies and consumers that continued investment and innovation in plastics will enhance environmental benefits. 

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