It’s clear there are some real downsides and negative impacts to the use of plastic – no one is debating that.
But, something that is not often outlined is the way in which plastic benefits society, the environment and the economy.
In this guide, we outline some of the ways plastic helps us.
Summary – How Plastic Benefits Society, The Environment & The Economy
Plastic benefits society in many ways by being a highly versatile material that comes in different types, and can be molded into different shapes and sizes.
Environmentally, plastic is actually a more eco friendly option than other packaging material options in several ways. By being so light – it also helps by reducing the amount of vehicles that need to help with transporting goods, and also helps increase fuel efficiency and decrease emissions in vehicles. Reducing food waste (and the environmental impact associated with food waste) is another way plastic helps save the environment. Some case studies in some countries also show that single use plastic bags can beat some reusable bags across some environmental indicators.
Economically, plastic is so cheap to produce compared to other alternatives, and it also helps reduce the cost for food producers, transport companies and manufacturers and other parties.
Socially, plastic is key when it comes to safety and hygiene of food, but also in the health field with sterilisation, and also protecting us from hazardous materials.
Even with the above benefits in mind – the way in which we use plastic needs to be continually improved, as well as the way we reduce, re-use, recycling, dispose of and burn it for energy.
The Benefits Of Plastic In Society, The Economy, & To The Environment
- Plastic can be an environmentally friendly, low-cost alternative to other products. … plastic grocery bags … take up one-seventh of the space paper bags do in landfills and don’t produce toxic fumes when incinerated
- … incinerated plastic helps the waste mix burn more efficiently.
- Only 9 percent of waste in landfills is plastic
- Plastic automobile parts have made lighter cars that consume less fossil fuel
- We aren’t doing enough when it comes to plastic recycling though
- We need to keep more reusable plastic out of landfills
- If there was no plastics packaging available and other materials were used, the overall packaging consumption of packaging mass, energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would increase
- Plastic is light and strong – this means we use fewer vehicles and less fuel to transport it (means less usage of fossil fuels and less vehicle emissions).
- Plastic packaging makes a positive contribution to saving resources and reducing emissions.
- [Plastic contributes to food freshness, food hygiene and safety, food protection, and reduces food waste]
- [there is actually a higher environmental cost in using plastic alternatives for consumer products and packaging – the more sustainable use of plastics is the answer to reducing plastic packaging waste]
- Plastic packaging production uses about half as much energy as alternative materials
- Plastic helps us do more with less
- We can deliver more beverage with less resources than other materials
- Plastic is continuously re-engineered to become lighter and more efficient – so it’s likely plastic in the future will help us save more resources
- Plastic helps us minimise packaging, and decrease waste
- Plastic decreases transport energy
- Plastic is highly reusable
- The ways in which we can recycle plastic are always improving
- Plastic saves a huge food waste footprint by helping us waste less food (via food packaging)
- Food waste has a huge environmental footprint in CO2, water and land use – think about how many resources agriculture and manufacturing uses
- Plastic itself may not be bad – it’s what we do with it and how we manage it
- [Less food waste by using plastic means less] deforestation, fertiliser use or vehicle emissions)
- Pre-packed fruit and vegetables enable some disabled people to access fresh food
- Single-use plastic is a complex issue – in some cases it is very useful, in others just the opposite
- Plastic waste can be incinerated for energy (but there are air pollution concerns with some waste to energy plants/facilities)
- Plastic waste can be used as a fuel in cement kilns
- … plastic reduces a products’ weight, and provides an inexpensive alternative to natural materials like cellulose or cotton
- Polyethylene can be produced using relatively inexpensive natural gas … and is so light in density, and resists damage by water, air, grease, cleaning solvents. But, is robust enough that packaging made from them won’t deform in a delivery truck sitting in the sun all day.
- Polyurethanes, an entire family of related polymers, are widely used in foam insulation for homes and appliances, as well as in architectural coatings.
- … the automotive sector uses increasing amounts of thermoplastics, primarily to reduce weight and hence achieve greater fuel efficiency standards.
- Over 70 million tons of thermoplastics per year are used in textiles, mostly clothing and carpeting. This saves land and other natural resources and inputs compared to using cotton and wool.
- The synthetic fiber industry [which includes plastic based fibres] has seen dramatic growth for clothing and carpeting, thanks to interest in special properties like stretch, moisture-wicking and breathability
- Although other materials in landfills can break down and generate greenhouse gases like methane and CO2, plastic does not contribute to these emissions [as it is not an organic material]
Farmers [in some countries like India are being encouraged] to collect tomatoes in plastic crates instead of big sacks; they squish and rot less – yet another example of plastic preserving food quality and preventing food waste
Farmers can use plastic sheets for drip irrigation, which allows better control over soil nutrients and moisture [however, much of this plastic ends up in land fill, contributes to pesticide run off into freshwater sources, and has other plastic related issues]
Condoms are critical for contraception and the prevention of STDs, and they contain polyurethane (a type of plastic)
Something else that people may not be aware of is – if you support renewable energy, you support the use of plastics. Solar panels in particular are made with plastic as a main material, or with various smaller plastic parts that make up part of the solar energy system.
According to new research – ‘Polymer plastic solar cells can be more efficient and have more stability … [and, they are] light weight, [flexible, and cost effective] (futurity.org)
There are numerous economic benefits to plastic as well:
Important Uses Of Plastic
Practically, plastic benefits us in society with the sheer number of uses we can get out of it (and how important some of these uses are).
Above, we’ve mentioned how for example plastic packaging is used to keep food fresh and hygienic.
Industries That Produce The Most Plastic, & Produce The Most Plastic Waste
Apart from using plastic for important activities and across important applications, major industries rely on the use of plastic.