This Is Plastics: Edge of Equity Installment 3: Plastics Are Driving the Future of Public Transportation

Innovation

Edge of Equity Installment 3: Plastics Are Driving the Future of Public Transportation

In the third installment of the Edge of Equity series, learn how plastics are making public transportation systems more affordable, accessible and sustainable – all while advancing U.S. climate goals.

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To reach a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, the United States is making unprecedented investments to scale public transportation infrastructureacross the nation. The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates nearly $90 billion in much-needed funding to new and existing public transportation projects, the largest federal investment in public transit in history. This investment is critical to improving the United States’ public transportation system, which lags behind that of other developed nations around the globe.

Across the country, “transit deserts,” or areas without sufficient alternatives to car ownership, are a growing phenomenon. In the most severely affected areas, one in every eight residents lives in a transit desert, with underserved communities bearing a disproportionate share of the burden. White, highly educated, high-income people tend to have greater access to public transportation than their demographic counterparts. To bridge this gap, a public transit network must be simultaneously efficient, sustainable and, most importantly, affordable. Building these systems is no easy feat, but with the help of plastics, the United States can make strides to create more sustainable public transit systems that propel us into a low-carbon future. 

The future of sustainable mobility is in public transit

The future of urban planning in United States is rapidly moving towards a more decentralized city model that deemphasizes reliance on personal vehicles and increases use of public transit. Though many factors are driving this shift, lowering emissions is a high priority, as the transportation sector is responsible for the largest share (29%) of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The United States’ goal of reducing GHG emissions by 50-52% by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 underscores this point. Thus, positioning public or shared options as our primary mode of transportation is incredibly important, not only from a climate perspective but also to advance transportation equity. 

As communities of color are twice as likely to rely on public transportation, investments in efficiency and accessibility will ensure these communities can continue to successfully live, work and play a role in our transition to a more sustainable society. The future of mobility, indeed, lies in public transportation, but even these systems can be relatively energy intensive and expensive. Fortunately, with the rapid electrification of public transit vehicles and utilization of versatile plastic materials like thermoplastics to construct buses and trains, industry is proving that innovation is key to imagining tomorrow’s public transportation systems in a sustainable way. 

Plastics make the future of public transit possible

In recent years, electric buses have exploded, and they’re a key component of President Biden’s green agenda. Estimates indicate nearly 50% of the world’s bus fleet will be electric by 2025, as major metropolitan areas and school districts commit to an all-electric transition within the coming decades. Broad-scale electric bus adoption in the United States could eliminate over 2 million tons of GHG emissions annually. Beyond environmental benefits, human health has much to gain from this shift, too; electric buses cut down on noise pollution and fine particle pollution—both of which are linked to adverse health outcomes. 

Electric buses are impossible without plastics. For example, lithium-ion batteries, which power most electric buses, contain a variety of plastic applications. Plastics enable these batteries to be both high-performing, noncombustible and lightweight, the latter of which is especially critical for successful long-range electric transportation. Electric bus designsElectric bus designs also rely upon plastics in a number of applications, as the material is a durable, flexible, lightweight option. 

In Hungary, researchers designed the world’s first electric bus made from plastics, which boasts a total weight two metric tons less than conventional models made from metal, while also requiring less maintenance. In 2021, European bus company DANCER unveiled a new electric bus made from recycled plastic bottles, enabling a super-lightweight design capable of fully charging in just 6 minutes. Increasing plastic applications in electric bus designs not only facilitates long-range transportation—a necessary component of large-scale electric bus implementation—but also can help divert unnecessary plastic waste from landfills. 

Plastics increase the accessibility and affordability of public transit

Aside from design usefulness and environmental benefits, plastics can also help increase public transportation’s affordability, improving accessibility for the most in-need communities. Though an electric bus’s upfront cost exceeds that of a traditional bus by about $250,000, lifetime cost savings from averted fuel costs and less maintenance can amount to over $500,000. As more plastic applications are incorporated into electric bus designs, these cost savings will likely increase, as the affordability of plastics reduces design costs and their lightweight properties avert even more fuel costs. 

Transit authorities can also pass these cost savings onto passengers in the form of lower fares, which research has demonstrated improves transportation equity: with discounted transit, low-income households are more able to participate in job-seeking activity and access healthcare. 

Beyond buses, governments around the globe have embraced a creative solution to increase public transportation’s accessibility and economic circularity: paying for public transportation by recycling plastic bottles. Subway passengers in Rome, Istanbul and Beijing—among other cities—can insert plastic bottles into “reverse vending machines” that issue public transportation credits commensurate to the quality and number of inputted bottles. This innovative idea can provide many benefits: increasing public transportation usage, advancing plastics’ circularity and advancing equity through greater affordability and accessibility. 

As we seek to build a greener, more equitable future, plastics are a common denominator. From making today’s electric buses possible, to improving tomorrow’s electric buses, to helping build more affordable public transit systems and unique recycling systems that advance public access, plastics have a critical role to play in the future of equitable transportation. 

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