R as REAL. Do you REALLY want to know the truth about plastics?

Chris DeArmitt is a consultant, based in USA. He offers polymers & plastics consulting services and, through websites and blogs, he explains how most of the information placed on the market regarding plastics is incorrect or partially false.

Today we focus on some topics inspired by his articles.

Let’s start with the easiest question: are plastics bad for the environment and should we ban them?

“No! According to a huge number of LCA reports and scientific studies, plastics are usually the greenest option. They are better for the environment than metal, glass, cotton and usually paper, so replacing plastic harms the environment. Plus, getting rid of plastics would be terrible – no internet, no cell phones, no computers, no medical devices, no electricity to our homes” and no possibility of storing food for several days and transporting it to different places, we add.

Should we replace PET bottles with aluminum cans or glass bottles?

No. Studies show that PET is far greener than aluminium cans or glass bottles. Replacing PET would harm the environment – more energy & waste plus the release of far more carbon dioxide. 

Let’s analyze some data:
Lifecycle analysis is the only internationally accepted standard to determine what is good and bad for the environment. It includes everything from cradle to grave including all the “inputs” (raw materials and energy), and “outputs” (emissions to the air and water, by-products and wastes disposal) for making a product. There are many studies about “LCA plastic bag” and they come all to the same conclusions. Some exemples:

Clemson University Study: “paper bags are much worse for the environment and that the best two choices were reusable polypropylene bags or single-use polyethylene bags”.
UK Study: “plastics designed to degrade were worse for the environment. Non-woven, reusable polypropylene bags have least environmental impact if people actually reuse them several times but in reality, people forget to do so”.
Franklin Study: “the standard polyethylene grocery has significantly lower environmental impacts than a 30% recycled content paper bag and a compostable plastic bag.”
Danish EPA Study: “In general, LDPE carrier bags, which are the bags that are always available for purchase in Danish supermarkets, are the carriers providing the overall lowest environmental impacts when not considering reuse. In particular, between the types of available carrier bags, LDPE carrier bags with rigid handle are the most preferable. Effects of littering for this type of bag were considered negligible for Denmark”.

In conclusion:
LCA analyses are done by government agencies in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and Denmark. They all agree that the single-use polyethylene bags we use today have much lower environmental impact than potential replacements such as bioplastics, paper, unbleached paper, cotton or organic cotton. The other leading green solution is reusable PP bags (think of the iconic blue Ikea bags). Those are actually the best option, as long as they are reused several times.
To replace plastic bags with paper bags requires 2.7x more energy, 1.6x more carbon dioxide emissions and 17x more water usage. It has also been estimated that replacing the plastic bags in the EU would require cutting down an astonishing 2.2 million more trees per year and require 60 000 Olympic swimming pools more water.
“From all 24 reports and reviews assessed, the actual LCA analyses on grocery bags overwhelmingly point to plastic (HDPE) as the material with least environmental impact, both at single use level and multi-purpose” concludes Neil Shackelton, Founder Medoola.

So, why are they being banned? 

First of all we have to stop parroting the same old sound-bites and headlines from articles written by people who did not spend the time to check the veracity of their words.

Let’s talk about what concerns us more closely, as producers of packaging films

A leaflet called Preventing Food Waste from the American Chemistry Council shows that plastics are incredibly good at protecting our food and preventing waste. 

The food is protected during transportation and then it helps prevent spoilage. 
Cucumbers last 11 days longer, bananas last 21 days longer and beef 26 days longer. They showed that good packaging can save many billions of dollars and millions of tons of food.

Here’s a statement from the conclusions of a detailed report called Plastics & Sustainability published by the American Chemistry Council.

“Plastic packaging has many properties that are vitally important for packaging applications, including lightweight, flexibility, durability, cushioning, and barrier properties, to name a few. This substitution analysis demonstrates that plastic packaging is also an efficient choice in terms of environmental impacts.”
“For the six packaging categories analyzed – caps and closures, beverage containers, stretch and shrink film, carrier bags, other rigid packaging, and other flexible packaging –14.4 million metric tonnes of plastic packaging were used in the US in 2010. If other types of packaging were used to substitute US plastic packaging, more than 64 million metric tonnes of packaging would be required. The substitute packaging would result in significantly higher impacts for all results categories evaluated: total energy demand, expended energy, water consumption, solid waste by weight and by volume, global warming potential, acidification, eutrophication, he explainsmog formation, and ozone depletion, as shown previously…”

Plastic packaging is by far the best solution for our environment. 

Plastic packaging leads to enormous reductions in CO2 emissions 

They help food stay fresh longer: food production is a major cause of carbon dioxide production and plastic packaging greatly reduces CO2 even accounting for the carbon dioxide from plastic production.
Let’s compare, in the following table, PET, alluminium and glass. 









What about the relation between litter and plastics?

The EPA in the US have collected extensive data on all waste since the 1960s. 
What we see is that plastics waste grew rapidly at first, because it was new material. However, in the last couple of decades, the growth of plastic waste has slowed and now follows population growth. Population growth rate passed through a maximum many years ago and has been decelerating ever since. We can expect a waste generation to follow that trend.
“A comparison of waste generation rates for each material category found in MSW reveals that plastics increased by nearly 84 times from 1960 to 2013 while total MSW increased only 2.9 times. The increase in plastic waste generation coincides with a decrease in glass and metal found in the MSW stream. In addition, calculating the material substitution rates for glass, metal and other materials with plastics in packaging and containers demonstrates an overall reduction by weight and by volume in MSW generation of approximately 58% over the same time period.”

EPA concluded that plastic dramatically reduced the amount of municipal solid waste (msw)
This is in line with the other studies that found replacing plastics would lead to far more material usage, waste and environmental burden.


90% of plastic waste has never been recycled. 9% of plastic in the US is recycled compared to 5% of food waste, 34% of metal, 16% of wood, 15% of textiles, 67% of paper and 26% of glass. 
Why was only plastics mentioned in the post as though plastics were of special cause for concern?
Why are people obsessed with <0.5% of our waste and disinterested in the rest? 
much of the common plastic floats, so we can see it on the surface of the water. In contrast, metal and glass both sink. There are many sunken ships. it is common to intentionally scuttle ships in order to make for good diving sites. 17 000 tons was intentionally scuttled for divers. 
Why is it that metal is treated as a delight to nature and plastics are vilified? 
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean) weighs 80 000 tons. The patch is in the news all the time but the ships are not.
Litter is primarily the result of individual behaviors.
About 85% of littering is the result of individual attitudes. Changing individual behavior is key to preventing litter.
Nearly one in five, or 17%, of all disposals observed in public spaces were littering. The remainder (83%) was properly discarded in a trash or recycling receptacle.
Most littering behavior—81%–occurred with notable intent. This included dropping (54%), flick/fling of the item (20%), and other littering with notable intent (7%).
What does this mean? The conclusion is clear. People are responsible for dropping the litter and 81% of the time, it’s intentional. 
As mentioned elsewhere, replacing plastics with other materials does about 4x more harm than the plastic does and creates 4x more litter as well.
Plastics are 13% of solid municipal waste. It has also been pointed out that building rubble is a huge contributor to solid waste but is not included in municipal waste numbers. The book Rubbish! states that paper, cardboard and rubble account for 50% of all solids in a landfill. This means that plastics are about 10% of the solids in a landfill. 

The municipal waste is about 3% of all waste whereas industrial waste accounts for the other 97%. This means that plastic waste is less than 0.5% of all waste. Why are we focusing 100% of our attention and money on plastics? While reducing waste is a worthy goal, we will not make any real impact as long as we keep ignoring the other 99% of the problem! 









Sources: Plastics Paradox By Chris DeArmitt