In this guide, we discuss whether plastic is sustainable across a range of measures and areas.
Summary – Is Plastic Sustainable?
Plastic can surprisingly be sustainable in some ways, but not so surprisingly, lack sustainability in other ways
How sustainable plastic is depends on the type of plastic, and also the plastic product or item that is being assessed
But, there are also general sustainability trends that might apply to all types of conventional plastics
The production footprint (energy used, emissions, etc) of plastic can be more sustainable than other materials in several ways (metals and paper, just to name two).
The transport and delivery footprint (cost, fuel used, packing space efficiency, etc) of plastic also tends to be good compared to other materials because of the light weight and properties of plastic.
There are numerous studies that show plastic as having a better eco footprint than other alternative materials for packaging, and consumer items like drink bottles and bags (just to name a few products)
But, the fact that conventional plastic comes from fossil fuel feedstock, it often contains non natural additives and synthetic chemicals, it has a low recycling rate in some major countries, it is a commonly littered and polluted material in some countries, it can break down into microplastics, it takes a long time to degrade in general (and some studies indicate we might not actually know how long it takes to break down), and the range of other potential effects plastic can have on humans, wild life and the environment, makes it unsustainable in a number of ways
The sustainability of plastic may change over time with variables like new plastic chemistry and designs being developed, better ways to dispose of and manage or re-use plastic waste, and so on.
But, there may also be some hard limitations of how sustainable plastic can ultimately become as well
The reality with plastic is that it is everywhere around us, we use it for some really important applications in society, it has some features and characteristics that allow us to do beneficial things that other materials can’t or can only do at an extreme cost or with extreme difficulty, and it is likely to be a part of our short and long term future in some way, shape or form (read more about the general pros and cons of plastic in this guide).
So, we may need to look at how we can best manage our use of existing plastics, and new plastics, rather than trying to get rid of plastic altogether
How We Might Measure Or Define ‘Sustainable’ In This Context
Sustainable usually refers to something which doesn’t degrade the environment, and doesn’t deplete natural resources (it may also mean that the resources that are used to make something can be renewed quickly enough without being depleted over the long term).
But, plastic has the ability to impact humans, wildlife and the economy too.
So, we should look at the use of plastic and it’s sustainability across all of these areas, and not just environmentally, or in terms of natural resource depletion (even though these aspects might be important considerations).
There Are Different Types Of Plastic, & Many Ways To Categorise Plastic
It would be easy to generalise and say plastic is or isn’t sustainable in a certain way.
But, the reality is that there are different types of plastic, and plastic can be categorised in many different ways.
With this being the case – it’s far more accurate to look at the sustainability of a specific type of plastic, or a category of plastic.
Examples of different types of plastic, or categories of plastic, are:
- LDPE vs HDPE vs PET vs another type of plastic
- A fully plastic bag vs a fully plastic bottle vs a product that only partially contains plastic
- Single use plastic/high waste rate plastics vs long life/low waste rate plastics
- Macro plastics vs micro plastics
- Recyclable plastics vs non recyclable plastics
Just as one example of comparing the different types of plastic … recycling rates may differ in different countries for the different types of plastic.
Some of the highest rates are PET bottles and jars at 29.9%, and HDPE natural bottles at 30.3% [in the US … which is far higher than the average for all plastics] (en.wikipedia.org).
Read more about the different types of plastic and categories of plastic in these guides:
That being said, there are still some common sustainability takeaways from plastic in general. They might be …
Main Ways Plastic Might Not Be Sustainable
Plastic originates from petrochemical/fossil fuel feedstock such as crude oil and natural gas, which require mining, refining, and are also non renewable resources. Right now, around 4% of the oil and natural gas we use go towards plastics
Plastic as a material does still have a decent sized carbon footprint … from gas leaks at the wellheads, to leaks at the pipelines, to the lengthy chemical process of turning oil or gas into raw plastic resin, to the energy to fashion the plastic into packaging or car parts or textiles … burning plastic waste also emits GHGs (npr.org)
Common plastic like PET and HDPE are made from petroleum via the process of Polymerization – which can be energy intensive (desjardin.fr)
Not all plastics are recyclable, and recycling rates for plastic tend to be low compared to some other materials. In addition, plastic loses it’s quality and integrity each time it is recycled, so plastic is eventually downcycled, or set to landfill, or incinerated (as it can only be recycled a certain amount of time). These issues are a problem where recycling plastic can be a more eco friendly disposal option than landfill or incineration. These issues also support the use of ‘open loop’ materials that can’t or won’t be recycled into their original form and re-used again (as opposed to closed loop materials like metal that can be recycled and reused endlessly, and are more circular)
Plastic breaks down into micro plastics, and micro plastics are being found in rivers, on soil, in the ocean, on beaches, and in humans and wild life.
Plastic can be ingested by wild life, as well as them getting tangled up in it
Plastic can leach additives and chemicals, as well as collect organic pollutants when it is out in the environment
The advantages of using plastic compared to other materials shrinks as other materials are re-used more (npr.org)
There is a cost to clean up plastic litter and pollution, and address plastic waste problems (especially noteworthy in the case of single use plastics)
Main Ways Plastic Might Be Sustainable
What many people may not be aware of is that common disposable plastic items like bottles and bags can actually outperform bottles and bags made of other materials in some ways and across some environmental indicators/measurables. We put together a couple of guides that outline these findings:
- Plastic vs Paper vs Cotton vs Other Reusable Bags: Comparison, & Which Is Best?
- Plastic vs Glass vs Metal (Stainless Steel & Aluminum) Bottles & Water Bottles: Comparison, & Which Is Best?
As a brief summary:
The production process of plastic tends not to use as much energy, be as intensive with things like emissions, or be as expensive as some other materials such as metals (like aluminum and stainless steel bottles). Plastic even comes out ahead of paper, canvas or glass in several sustainability metrics like climate and energy impact (npr.org). Even though plastic production has some very negative production requirements, when compared to the production of tin and aluminum containers it only uses a fraction of the energy … When the production process for each is compared it is found that 1 kg of Polyethylene plastics produce around 4 kg CO2 and 1 kg aluminum produces 10.63 kg CO2 (desjardin.fr)
Transporting and delivering plastic tends to be less intensive, use less fuel, and cheaper in some instances because of how light plastic is compared to some other materials like glass, and the fact that it is generally space efficient, and doesn’t have fragility issues like glass might have (in the case of plastic vs glass bottles). Packaginginsights.com mentions – ‘… properties such as lightweight, durability, flexibility, cushioning and barrier properties make plastic packaging well suited for efficiently containing and protecting many types of products during shipment and delivery to customers without leaks, spoilage, or other damage’
Waste Management – Plastics have no decomposition, meaning no associated methane releases when landfilled [compared to organic material] (packaginginsights.com)
What we see in the case of plastic bags vs other types of bags like paper, cotton, organic cotton, composite etc., is that other materials need to be re-used many more times in order to make up for their much larger production footprint compared to thin plastic LDPE bags. Surprisingly, these LDPE plastic bags have a lower eco impact/better eco performance than some other bag materials across several eco and human toxicity measurables. And it’s not only bags … metal and glass bottles also need to be used more times than single use or disposable plastic bottles to average out their production footprint.
Plastic Packaging (carrier bags, caps and closures, beverage containers, stretch and shrink film, other rigid packaging and other flexible packaging) – ‘plastic … is more sustainable than the material alternatives in terms of energy use, water consumption, solid waste, greenhouse gas emissions, ozone depletion, eutrophication and acidification … and, replacing plastics with alternative materials such as paper and paperboard, glass, steel, aluminum, textiles, rubber and cork would result in significant net negative environmental impacts’ (packaginginsights.com)
It’s worth reading the above guides for more context and detail on these trends and this data
Additionally, when considering the sustainability of plastic:
Would cars, public transport, planes and other modes of transport be as light or be as fuel efficient without plastic components and materials?
Would plumbing and waste infrastructure be as effective and affordable for major cities without plastic piping?
Would building, construction and insulation be as affordable and effective without plastic wiring, cables and materials?
There are many of these types of questions to consider.
Is Plastic Environmentally Friendly?
As we can see from the above information:
In some ways plastic is more eco friendly than other materials like paper, metals, glass, silicone, cotton, composites, and so on – specifically when it comes to production and delivering plastic where it needs to get to
But, in many other ways plastic damages the environment – specifically with mismanaged plastic (inadequately disposed of, and littered plastic), plastic that is incinerated without the proper air pollution or carbon capture controls, and the impact plastic can have as a macro or micro plastic in rivers and waterways, in soil, on beaches and in the ocean. Read more about Plastic In The Ocean, and Plastic On Land in these guides
Does Plastic Contribute To Depletion Of Natural Resources, Or Use Non Renewable Resources?
Conventional plastic uses fossil fuels like crude oil and natural gas as feedstock, both of which are considered as non renewable resources.
Bioplastics are a newer type of plastic that use renewable biomass as feedstock instead of fossil fuels (but bioplastics still have their own pros and cons to consider).
Potential Short & Long Term Impact Of Plastic On Humans, Wild Life and The Economy
Read more in these guides about the
- 21 Potential Harmful Effects Of Plastic
- Potential Impact Of Plastic On The Economy
- Potential Impact Of Plastic On Humans and Human Health
- Potential Impact Of Plastic On Animals And Marine Life
- Environmental Impact Of Plastic
How We Might Better Manage Our Relationship With Plastic In The Future As A Society
Considering the potential problems that plastic poses, this guide looks at major points we might consider in managing our relationship with plastic going into the future.