There isn't a single person in the plastics industry who hasn't been regularly bombarded with concerns from all sides about the environmental costs of plastic production and use.
But a new study takes some of the sting out, finding the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than replacing plastics with alternative materials.
Trucost's latest study, “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” builds on a 2014 study the research company did for the United Nations Environment Program, using the same methodology and “natural capital accounting” metrics.
Trucost estimates that swapping plastic for alternatives such as glass, tin or aluminum would increase environmental costs from $139bn (€125bn) to $533bn (€480bn) — that's taking into account ocean damage, end-of-life management, transportation, production and material and energy recovery costs and impact.
In most cases, the study says, the per-kilogram cost of alternative materials is less than the cost of a kilo of plastic. “However, on average over four times more alternative material is needed [by weight] to perform the same function,” according to the report. For example, a plastic drink bottle made of 30 grams of plastic would require 141 grams of glass or aluminum.
The scale of the environmental cost difference came as a bit of a surprise to the American Chemistry Council, which commissioned the new report.
“That is it almost four times higher was a surprise,” said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for ACC. “It was also a surprise how complicated it is to do this work. But it wasn't a surprise that plastics would turn out to be such an efficient material.”
Russell said the study was admittedly “risky,” but it provides a new lens into the industry's ongoing sustainability discussion.
“Even though the plastics industry is probably a little bit uncomfortable with a dollar value being assigned to the environmental consequences of production, the more we can make better decisions to improve our business, the better,” he said. “As more and more companies … start looking at the consequences of their decisions, they need good information on which to base those decisions.”
In addition, the report recommends steps to help further reduce plastics' overall environmental costs by as much as $41bn (€37bn) industry-wide, including suggestions such as:
• A potential $7.6bn (€6.8bn) in overall cost savings from increasing the use of wind, solar and hydro-electric power sources in plastics production.
• A possible $7.3bn (€6.5bn) in environmental costs savings from a 30% reduction in materials used in the food, soft drink and ice packaging sectors alone.
• A potential $10.6bn (€9.55bn) savings if the industry committed to a 20% improvement in fuel efficiency for the fleets of vehicles used to transport plastic and plastic products.
While consumers are accustomed to only looking at their piece of the puzzle — the end of a piece of plastic's life, usually as they hold it in their hand — manufacturers and policy makers must see things more broadly, and the study puts more data into perspective for them than ever before, say Trucost and ACC.
“Plastics makers are used to hearing about the downsides of our products. And this study is disruptive of conventional wisdom that says plastics are bad for the environment or that we should use other materials,” Russell said. “But all of the pieces weighed together need to be considered if we want to make the best decision for the planet and the environment. That's why this study is important…. Not just the end-of-life piece, the full lifecycle.”