In this guide, we outline some of the more notable pros and cons of plastic in terms of how we use it as a material in society, and the potential impact it may have.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Plastic
Plastic is a polarising material because of the stark benefits and drawbacks it presents, and the multiple ways it can impact humans, wild life, the environment, and the economy.
There’s no denying that synthetic plastic is made from non renewable fossil fuel feedstock, that some plastic contains BPAs and other potentially harmful chemicals, fillers and additives, that plastic usually has a high waste rate amongst disposable packaging materials, or the extent of plastic pollution on beaches, in rivers and lakes, in the ocean and on land (although some effort is being made by organisations to clean that up).
Additionally, microplastics seem to be everywhere (in our food and water, in the soil, in fresh water, and in the ocean, and more), plastic tends to have a lower recycling rate than other materials, and plastic can take thousands of years to fully degrade … just to name a few more drawbacks.
It generally cheap (making things more affordable, particularly to lower income earners), and being a synthetic material means we can design and manufacture it to be and do things we otherwise can’t with natural materials.
Plastic can help minimise food waste, keep food hygienic and safe, keep medical instruments and items sterile and safe, help save fuel in vehicles by making vehicles lighter, is used in renewable energy equipment and systems like solar panel set ups, and is responsible for a lot of key plumbing piping and electrical conduits and cabling world wide (just to name a few key benefits).
There’s also many other common uses for plastic, and we use it across many key sectors/industries in society. Something that surprises some people is that plastic also benefits the environment across multiple sustainability indicators by helping us save resources and reduce emissions at different stages across a material or product’s life cycle.
Several life cycle assessment reports and case studies of items like bottles, bags, and packaging support this.
Going forward …
Instead of demonising plastic altogether, we might look at how we can extract maximum and value benefits out of plastic, whilst minimising the downsides as much as practically possible (and identifying, as well as maintaining awareness of plastics that may be the most problematic).
A lot of this might come down to how we choose to use it, and what we use it for.
Redesigning plastic products, developing new plastic chemistries (and new plastics), using more plastic alternatives and substitutes where beneficial, reducing plastic use and waste rates where possible, re-using, re-purposing and recycling plastic where possible, along with upgrading and improving plastic waste management systems, technology and facilities, are all potential places to start.
Solving plastic problems whilst maintaining the benefits and value of plastic is something that needs to be looked at on a case by case basis (by item, product, company, city, etc.), and will require all parties across the plastic life cycle to analyse and improve their behavior (suppliers, manufacturers, consumers, sellers, waste management collectors and processors, governments, and so on).
Pros Of Plastic
A summary of some of the potential pros:
Some Plastics Have A Long Lifespan – not all plastics are the single use or disposable type of plastic. PVC piping for example may last 50 to 100 years, and construction plastic has a mean lifetime of 35 years.
Plastic with a longer lifespan has a lower waste rate than plastics that become waste in a matter of seconds or minutes.
The Production Of Plastic Compares Favorably To The Production Of Other Materials In Some Ways – although the production of plastic is energy and resource intensive in some ways, other materials can be less eco friendly in their production process.
One example is a metal like aluminum (unless it’s recycled) that is generally energy intensive to manufacture. Another might be bamboo, which despite being a semi natural fibre, can lead to environmental pollution from the chemical bamboo viscose process.
Plastic Takes Up Less Space In Landfills – Plastic might take up less space/volume in landfill (bankrate.com) than other materials (some sources say plastic take up 7 times less space than paper).
Plastic Doesn’t Emit Methane When Breaking Down – unlike organic materials, plastic doesn’t emit methane when it breaks down
Plastic Can Be Used To Get Water To Those Who Need It Quickly & Affordably – plastic bottled water is an affordable and quick way to get water to populations of people who need it, and may not have access to safe and clean water, or any water at all.
Examples may include cities experiencing a water shortage, regions that have been damaged by a natural event, and places that don’t have working water infrastructure at all.
There’s Different Ways To Manage Plastic Waste With Heat, Other Than Traditional Burning – other plastic waste management options exist that use heat, such as gasification and pyrolysis. These options can process plastic with minimal emissions or pollution (but, admittedly, both have other issues with cost, scaling etc.)
Plastic Is One Of The Most Energy Dense Materials To Burn/Incinerate – plastic has a high energy output for incineration or cement kilns because of the petroleum that makes it up. Additionally, plastic can be a direct replacement sometimes for burning fossil fuels, and there are other potential benefits to incinerating plastic.
New Plastic Types & Plastic Chemistries Are Being Researched & Developed – one example is PDK plastic, that is being developed to be able to be recycled over and over.
Plastic Bottles Are In Some Ways More Eco Friendly Than Other Material Substitutes – plastic as a material performs better across some environmental indicators than other material substitutes for bottles.
Plastic Bags Are In Some Ways More Eco Friendly Than Other Material Substitutes – plastic as a material performs better across some environmental indicators than other material substitutes for shopping type bags.
Plastic Straws May In Some Ways Be More Eco Friendly Than Other Material Substitutes – plastic as a material performs better across some environmental indicators than other material substitutes for drinking straws.
Plastic Packaging Is In Some Ways More Eco Friendly Than Other Material Substitutes – plastic as a material performs better across some environmental indicators than other material substitutes for packaging (such as carrier bags, caps and closures, beverage containers, stretch and shrink film, other rigid packaging and other flexible packaging)
Plastic Is In Several Ways More Sustainable Than Paper – for example, paper mills are traditionally known to be some of the biggest polluters on Earth. Additionally, in the UK, the paper products sector used almost as much energy as the rubber and plastics sectors combined in 2016 (although, this is just a total – and not per capita of plastic and paper output)
Chemical Makeup & Properties Can Be Modified To Suit Use – as a synthetic material, plastic’s chemistry can be modified to provide more beneficial properties for it’s end use – making it softer or harder, more malleable, more durable, and so on. This is illustrated with the different types of plastic that each have different properties and are used in different products and items.
Plastic Is Worth A lot To The Economy & Employs A lot Of People – the global plastic products market is worth about 1.1 trillion, and in the US is employs about 1.76 million people
Affordable Material – plastic is cheap and easy to make/produce.
Protects Our Health & Safety, & Promotes Hygiene In Some Ways – when it comes to food safety (via plastic packaging, wrapping, trays etc.), and when it comes to sterilised and sealed medical instruments – just as two general examples.
Preserves Food & Prevents Food Waste – prevents food from spoiling and going to waste with sealed plastic packaging and wrapping. Less food waste means less deforestation, land clearing and agricultural chemical inputs as well.
Is Important For Infrastructure & Construction – plastic is used for plumbing pipes, as well as electrical cable conduits. It’s also used in construction inside buildings and households.
Important For Transportation – The light weight of plastic helps save fuel when used in vehicles (where heavier materials would be less fuel efficient), and also makes up important parts in various vehicles.
Performs Many Other Critical & Convenient Uses In Society – there’s many other critical uses for plastic in society, including both everyday (textiles is a common one) and specialized type uses.
Makes Delivery/Transport Of Products Cheaper & Easier – leads to cheaper and more efficient transport when plastic is used in packaging compared to traditionally heavier and space inefficient materials like glass.
Not Fragile Or Prone To Breakage – when compared to a material like glass.
Can Be Repurposed, Or Downcycled For Secondary Use Applications – plastic fill is one example of downcycling. One example of repurposing is using plastic bottles for recycled fibre clothing. Different plastic types can be repurposed for different secondary uses.
The Water Footprint Of Plastic May Not Be As Bad When Compared To Other Materials & Resources – it takes about 22 gallons to make one pound of plastic (which can make roughly 45 PET water bottles). In comparison, one sheet of paper requires about 3 gallons of water to make, and one hamburger requires about 634 gallons.
The Carbon Footprint Of Plastic May Not Be As Bad When Compared To Other Materials & Resources – some estimates show that producing 1kg of aluminum emits roughly 2.5 times the carbon emissions of 1kg of plastic.
In addition, even when plastic as a material might produce more carbon emissions than another material by weight – plastic products can be lighter, and this can equalize total final emissions in a comparable product … this can be the case with similar sized glass and plastic bottles.
In addition, some sources indicate that synthetic plastic fibre textiles like nylon and synthetic fleece have a comparable or lesser carbon footprint at the point of purchase compared to wool and cotton.
There’s Still A Lot Of Potential To Better Use Or Reduce Plastic, & Manage Plastic Waste – in some ways, society hasn’t tapped into the potential to use plastic much more wisely and efficiently (such as redesigning products to be more plastic efficient, as well as reducing our individual plastic packaging footprints), nor have we reached the potential to manage plastic waste better (via redesigning products to make them more recyclable, and investing in better waste collection and sorting systems, along with upgraded plastic waste management facilities, technology and infrastructure).
Cons Of Plastic
A summary of some of the potential cons:
Plastic Comes From A Non-Renewable Resource – plastic is produced from fossil fuel feedstock – usually petroleum or natural gas. Right now, around 4% of the oil and natural gas we use go towards plastics. Even more fossil fuels get burned in the refining process, and with plastic production expected to increase in the future, plastic production could account for 20% of global annual oil consumption.
Comparatively, plastic substitutes such as bamboo and wood comes from renewable (and natural) resources.
Plastic Is One Of The Most Common Debris/Waste Materials Found In The Ocean About 60-80% of all marine debris is plastic.
Ocean Plastic Pollution Is A Problem – plastic pollution in the ocean comes from both land and marine sources.
Plastic Is One Of The Most Common Waste Materials Found On Beaches, Land & In Rivers – Plastic waste/litter found on land, on beaches, and in fresh water sources like rivers may be littered, or inadequately managed at open and uncontained dumping sites (where it leaks into the environment). Some of the most commonly littered and polluted items are plastic bottles, straws and stirrers, lids, food wrappers and food packaging, amongst others.
Plastic Pollution On Land Is A Problem – there’s many different causes of plastic pollution on land, and there is perhaps not enough research into the full impact it might be having.
Plastic Pollution Costs Money To Address & Clean Up – as just one example, removing plastic from ocean surface water is usually not profitable when considering the re-sell or re-use value of one kilogram of plastic (about 30 cents), compared to what it costs to remove it (about $5).
Plastic Pollution Can Lead To Other Economic Losses – for the economy as a whole, and for individual industries and sectors. Additionally, some estimates indicate that plastic packaging alone represents an $80 billion loss to the global economy every year
Plastic Can Cause Human Health Concerns – because of the BPA, phthalates and other chemicals, additives and fillers that may be present in some plastics. There’s a concern plastic food containers leach BPA into our food, and plastic drink bottles leaches it into our water. BPA is found in polycarbonate plastic in baby bottles, sippy cups, and reusable water bottles.
Other chemicals that give plastic their rigidity or flexibility (flame retardants, bisphenols, & other chemicals) can have toxicity concerns when they potentially leach out from the product that contains them.
BPA Free Plastic Products Might Not Be A Fully Human Safe Solution – a common BPA substitute is BPS … however, some research shows that BPS could possess similar safety concerns to BPA.
Plastic Impacts Wild Life & Marine Life – for example, ingestion of plastic and entanglement in plastic are two problems for wild life.
Plastic Has A Low Recycling Rate In Some Countries – some plastic items are recycled at a higher rate than others. But, plastic as a whole has a low recycling rate of 9% in the US, just as one example. The global average is roughly 14%, China is at around 22%, and India is at about 60%
Plastic Can’t Be Recycled Infinitely – unlike metals for example, plastic can’t be recycled over and over, infinitely. Plastic can only be recycled a certain number of times before it loses it’s integrity and quality, and has to be downcycled, or sent to landfill or incineration.
Some Plastics Can’t Be Recycled At All – some plastics and plastic products can be recycled, whilst others can’t at all.
Plastic Recycling Has Numerous Challenges – ‘dirty’ plastics or plastics that have been cross contaminated with other plastics are examples of challenges that make plastic recycling less efficient, or less effective.
Another is that some products contain several types of different plastic (such as some sport drink bottles), or different materials – which makes recycling inefficient or not possible. Another is that some recycling processing and re-sell chains can be long and inefficient (i.e. one piece of plastic may change hands and travel long distances in order to be recycled and re-used or repurposed)
Plastic Recycling Isn’t Always Feasible Or Profitable – Recycling some types of plastic isn’t economically viable (because of the market value of that plastic, or how plastic value can be tied to oil prices, or a number of other problems with collecting and sorting/processing plastic)
Some Plastics Have A High Waste Rate – single use and disposable plastics like plastic packaging for example become waste quickly and frequently, compared to some other types of plastic. The high waste rate of some plastics likely is linked to the litter and pollution rates of plastic. Plastic is also one of the most common material found in municipal waste and landfills.
Plastic Is Not Biodegradable – unlike organic materials like 100% natural untreated wood or bamboo for example, plastic is not a biodegradable material
Plastic Takes A Long Time To Break Down – compared to other materials, plastic takes a very long time to break down and degrade. On top of that, different plastic products/items take longer to break down than others, such as plastic fishing line which can take up to 600 years to break down according to some estimates.
Some researches note that there is a chance plastic may never fully break down i.e. it may stay around forever in the form of micro or nano plastics
Incinerating Plastic Has It’s Own Problems & Challenges – One of these is air pollution in the case that there isn’t contaminant capture technology installed. Another might be ensuring a consistent supply of plastic.
The Best Way To Dispose Of Plastic Isn’t Always The Same Or Clear – it can depend on location, technology, different types and products containing plastic, but also on environmental, economic and other assumptions being made about each disposal option.
Synthetic Fibres Containing Plastic Might Not Be As Eco Friendly As Natural Fibres In Some Ways – Synthetic textiles (like polyester, nylon, acrylic etc.) that contain plastic micro fibres, may require more embodied energy and have higher CO2 emissions per tonne of spun fiber than natural fibre textiles
Micro Plastic Fibres From Clothing & Textiles Are Being Observed All Across Society & The Environment – Plastic micro fibers from synthetic and natural-synthetic blend clothes and textiles are thought to be one of the biggest sources of micro plastics in our food and water supplies, soil, rivers and water ways, and the ocean. This can happen especially when clothing is washed in our washing machines
The Long Term Effects Of Microplastics Are Still Not Fully Clear – although initial studies suggests micro plastics aren’t impacting humans in any way, there is some impact on micro organisms. The full and long term impact of micro plastics on the environment, human and living organisms is still not 100% clear and definitive.
Humans Inhale & Ingest Micro Plastic Fibres – Humans can inhale and ingest micro plastics from bottled water, tap water, food supplies, indoors from plastic fibre clothing and textiles, as well as from plastic objects and furniture
Plastic In The Environment Can Soak Up Persistent Organic Pollutants – plastic can act like a sponge and soak up and transport around POPs like pesticides, solvents, pharmaceuticals, and industrial chemicals.
Bioplastics Still Have Their Own Issues & Problems – bioplastics can rate worse than regular plastic across some environmental indicators. Bioplastics can also be more expensive, as well as needing specific composting conditions to break down effectively. Bioplastics are therefore not a complete solution against regular plastics, at least not at the moment.
Potential Issues WIth Some Types Of Plastic Like PVC – VC in PVC is potentially the most toxic plastic for our health and environment. Some sources indicate that no other plastic contains, or has the potential to release as many dangerous chemicals. There can be issues incinerating PVC or sending it to some landfills because of the lead, mercury, phthalamites and chlorine involved in a PVC product’s creation. Although, it should be noted that more economical and easier ways to recycle PVC are becoming available. CPVC can also possess health and toxicity concerns (some leaching studies report that PVC nor CPVC should be used for drinking water). Vinyl chloride ‘from older PVC piping and has been found in the drinking water of a small number of communities across [the US’ (nrdc.org)
Plastic May Account For More Greenhouse Gases Than First Thought – new research suggests … plastics account for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions
Other Material Substitutes Can Be More Sustainable Than Plastic The More They Are Re-used – for example, carrier bags and drink bottles made of substitute materials compare more favorably to plastic the more they are re-used. A stainless steel drink bottle for example may be more sustainable than a plastic bottle when used 500 times of more according to one estimate.
Wood Is A More Sustainable Material Compared To Plastic Across Several Indicators – especially wood from sustainably managed wood stock, and when looking at various applications like building materials, furniture, TV units, window frames, and more.
Metal Furniture May Be More Sustainable Than Plastic Furniture – when measured by health, and lifecycle, reuse and recyclability indicators
High Quality Food Grade Silicone May Come Out Slightly Ahead When Compared To Plastic – although neither material is ideal from an eco or sustainability perspective, silicone might be better for a few different reasons when used for some food and beverage type applications.
Boxed/Carton Water Is In Some Ways More Sustainable Than A Plastic Water Bottle – although boxed water has it’s own drawbacks, some companies make recyclable cartons, and claim to have significantly lower carbon footprints and use less fossil fuels than plastic bottles.
Disposable Plastic Bottles Can Be A Waste Of Water – some estimates say it takes at least twice as much water to produce a plastic water bottle as the amount of water contained in the bottle. When including water in the supply chain (and not just the plastic bottle), that amount of water could be six or seven times what’s inside the bottle (npr.org).
When consumers are frequently using new disposable plastic bottles without a legitimate need to, this can be a waste of water.