Environment

Paper on Plastics Sustainability Examines Carbon Footprint of Materials and Viability of Recycling

A new paper from Kenneth Green looks at life cycle assessments to determine the sustainability of plastics.

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A new paper from Kenneth Green, published by the Plastics Industry Association, looks at life cycle assessments to determine the sustainability of plastics.

The benefits of plastics, especially in terms of contributing to societal well-being, are numerous. Plastics make industries across the economy more sustainable and environmentally friendly by reducing emissions for automobiles and aircraft due to their lightweight qualities, reducing food waste and food insecurity by making products last longer, and keeping homes and commercial structures safer during extreme weather events due to their durable properties.

Yet plastic waste remains an important issue to weigh against the sustainability benefits of plastics. In a new white paper, environmental scientist and Fraser Institute senior fellow Kenneth Green provides an examination of plastics’ sustainability. In his approach, he shares the following key findings:

  • Assessing the sustainability of plastics requires both holistic and historic perspective, as well as the consideration of environmental, economic, and societal impacts of alternatives.
  • Current Recycling Systems are economically inefficient, yet fully reclaiming plastic monomers would bring society’s use of plastic materials closer to current conceptions of environmental sustainability.
  • Scientific life cycle assessments of plastics and alternative materials find that plastics tend to have lower carbon footprints, making them the more sustainable option.
  • Life cycle assessments also suggest that substituting other materials for plastics would create negative environmental tradeoffs.
  • Plastics have become critical to sustaining prosperous and technological societies. Discontinuing the use of plastic would be detrimental to both human and environmental well-being.

In his paper, Green explains that society hasn’t yet reaped the full sustainability properties of plastics given their relatively short history of use around the world.

As Green writes:

“As with other vital materials humans use: wood, metal, water, minerals, fossil fuels, wind, sunlight, plant-derivatives, and animal-derivatives, plastics use can be made sustainable, and indeed it must be. The value proposition of plastics use as with the other critical materials used in the sustenance of prosperous, technological societies is simply too high to surrender without sending humanity plunging backwards in developmental well-being.”

Green’s paper, published by the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), discusses the importance of using life cycle assessments (LCAs) to evaluate the benefits of different materials. Green showcases several LCAs that find that plastics, in single-use applications or in long-term use, are a better choice than alternatives. Plastics lower carbon emissions on a full life cycle, and reduce reliance on energy and water during production when compared to alternatives.

Plastics have already proven to be a versatile material that are commonplace across sectors. Because plastics are still such a new material, less than 100 years old, it is important that we continue to invest in innovative recycling technologies to fully understand and obtain the full value of them.

Bans and other regulations that reduce access to plastics will only hurt consumers and reduce our abilities to meet environmental goals, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, by using more plastics and encouraging partnerships between industry, government, and consumers to recover, reuse, and recycle more plastic, we can work towards circular economy goals.

Green’s paper showcases these opportunities and how we must continue to use plastics and encourage investment in this vital material to understand and reach its full potential.

Read the full paper.

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