Plastics have long been accused of irrevocably damaging the environment, primarily because of its non-biodegradable characteristics which enable it to linger in the environment for long periods of time. While it is an established fact that plastics, which are non-biodegradable are harmful to nature and need to be replaced by biodegradable ones or recycled, a new study by True Cost looks at the problem from another perspective and the results are astonishing.
Plastics and Sustainability
A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for the Continuous Improvement published by the American Chemistry Council suggest that plastics are actually beneficial to the environment. Before you jump the gun and call the report propaganda by the plastics manufacturing industry, we implore you to have a look at the key findings of the study and then decide if it’s a complete hogwash or there’s some truth in their findings.
The report has found that the environmental cost of using plastic in consumer goods and packaging is $139 Billion and the cost for them to be replaced by their alternatives like glass, aluminum, tin etc. is $533 Billion. That’s a staggering fourfold increase!! The study uses natural capital accounting method to arrive at the above conclusion. In this method, impacts due to greenhouse gas emissions, land, water and air pollution; and other costs in the plastics value chain are measured so that a holistic view can be obtained on the effects to the environment. The environmental costs of using plastics are no doubt high but the cost of using alternatives is even higher. The fundamental reason for that is the increase in a quantity of alternative material required to provide the same functionality that plastics provide. The environmental cost of per Kg alternative material is less than that of plastic no doubt but the higher quantity would lead to higher production cost & logistic cost.
Let’s take an example of the soft drink bottle. A typical bottle requires 30gm of plastic, replacing it with its alternative would require 141gm of glass. Tin or aluminum cannot be used due to the acidic nature of the beverage. Thus the production cost would increase and the increase in weight would increase the transportation costs as well – which in turn will increase the total manufacturing and product cost!
The report doesn’t imply that manufacturers should stop the pursuit of developing sustainable plastics. On the contrary, it suggests modifications in the current procurement methods to make plastics more sustainable. As can be seen above, if we adopt more sustainable plastics then the costs can be further reduced to $98 Billion.
Production of plastic products and their transportation are the largest sources of environmental costs. The total environmental costs of producing plastics were over $60 Billion in 2015 and their transportation a further $53 Billion in environmental cost. These transportation costs can be further reduced by $23 Billion by adopting the following measures.
- $7.6 billion reduction if the global plastics industry doubled the use of electricity from renewable sources like solar, wind and water.
- $7.3 billion reduction if more efficient food and soft drinks packaging is developed that requires 30% less plastic.
- $10.6 billion reduction by using vehicle fleet that is 20% more fuel efficient.
Automobiles with plastic components are lighter. This has increased their fuel efficiency. Food wastage has also reduced by the use of plastic packaging. Plastics increase the shelf life of your products. The case of sirloin stake in USA is the perfect example of plastics coming to the rescue. It has cut the food wastage of sirloin steak by half. Plastics have found acceptance in aerospace, healthcare and numerous other industries as well.
To sum it all up, plastic has become an integral part of our civilization. Sure it has its disadvantages but the advantages far outweigh them. Replacing it with other alternatives at this point of time will only increase our carbon foot print. The focus therefore should be towards making plastic more sustainable.