Plastic Packaging vs. Alternatives: Comparing Environmental Impacts

Lower energy use and reduced greenhouse gas emissions are commonly recognized benefits of plastics. But a new report further expands the industry’s understanding of how plastics play a role in other critical environmental factors, such as water consumption, solid waste, acidification, eutrophication, and ozone depletion.
Alice Wilson, adapted by Plástico Brasil.

The study, Life Cycle Impacts of Plastic Packaging Compared to Substitutes In the United States and Canada: Theoretical Substitution Analysis,  concluded that replacing plastic with alternative materials in packaging throughout the United States would actually increase adverse environmental impacts in several key areas.

Energy use
Using plastics in packaging applications requires less energy from both renewable and non-renewable energy sources than substitute materials. Saves enough energy to fuel 18m passenger vehicles.

Solid waste
The life cycle of durable, lightweight plastic packaging, including post-consumer disposal, results in less solid waste. Saves the weight ok 290k jumbo jets worth of waste.

Water consumption
Production of plastic packaging consumes significantly less water than alternatives, including in the waste stream. Saves enough water to fill 461k olympic-size swimming pools.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
The production and use of plastic packaging doesn’t emit as much GHG as other materials. Saves enough greenhouse gas emissions as taking 8.5M passenger vehicles off the road.

Acidification
Emissions of acidifying substances contribute to the formation and deposit of acid rain on soil and water, which can cause serious harm to plant and animal life, including ocean acidification that damages coral reefs. Helps prevent the acidification potential of as much as 292K railcars of coal.

The unique nature of plastics, with its light weight, durability, flexibility, cushioning, and barrier properties allows plastic packaging to serve humankind more efficiently while helping to reduce a variety of environmental impacts. Despite these important benefits, America’s Plastics Makers® recognize that plastic waste in the environment is unacceptable. We’re working to build a more circular economy by using our plastics resources more efficiently, capturing and repurposing more post-use packaging, advancing recycling and recovery, and developing new transformative business models.

About the Study
The theoretical study uses life cycle assessment methodology to assess the environmental impacts of plastic packaging produced and sold in the U.S. and Canada relative to alternative packaging. Read the complete study here.

*Original content by Allyson Wilson for Plastic Packaging Facts site. Adapted by the Plástico Brasil team.