Thursday, December 17th, 2015

Less is Less – The Battle to Wrap It Up in Plastic

By Michael Taylor, Vice President International Affairs and Trade

When it comes to packaging – plastic is the environmental material of choice.

Plastic products are environmentally-friendly, and manufacturers who produce these versatile products take pride in their efforts to implement sensible green policies and procedures.

And, to quote David Tyler, a chemistry professor at the University of Oregon, “Plastic bags are greener than paper bags, disposable plastic cups have fewer impacts than reusable ceramic mugs, and owning a dog is worse than driving an SUV.” fish bottles

When you consider the entire “life-cycle” of packaging materials, plastics compare favorably to other materials in areas like energy and water use, air and greenhouse gas emissions and solid waste. It has been demonstrated that plastic packaging helps reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions compared to alternative materials.

How does plastic packaging help with sustainability? Simply put, plastic does more with less. It is more energy efficient to make plastic as opposed to other packaging materials, and it takes less lightweight plastic to package a product.

For example, two pounds of plastics can deliver roughly 10 gallons of beverages as compared to three pounds of aluminum, eight pounds of steel or more than 40 pounds of glass. Lighter packaging means less fuel is used in shipping. That is, plastic bags require less total energy to produce than paper bags,  and they conserve fuel in shipping (ie., one truckload for plastic bags versus seven for paper).

Replacing plastic packaging with non-plastic alternatives in the United States would:

  • Require 4.5 times as much packaging material by weight, increasing the amount of packaging used in the U.S. by nearly 55 million tons (110 billion pounds);
  • Increase energy use by 80 percent—equivalent to the energy from 91 oil supertankers; and
  • Result in 130 percent more global warming potential—equivalent to adding 15.7 million more cars to our roads.

And plastics engineers continually work to do even more with less—this process of light-weighting can help boost the environmental and economic efficiency of consumer product packaging. Since 1977, the two-liter plastic soft drink bottle shrunk from 68 grams to 47 grams, representing a 31 percent reduction per bottle. This saved more than 180 million pounds of packaging in 2006—just for two-liter soft drink bottles alone. The one-gallon plastic milk jug succeeded on a similar diet, weighing 30 percent less today than 20 years ago.

Next to lightweight (or source reduction), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identifies “reuse” of packaging as the next highest priority in managing waste. Plastics packaging’s durability enables reusability in storage bins, sealable food containers and refillable sports bottles. And 90 percent of Americans report that they reuse plastic bags.

In summary, plastic is the smart material of choice because it’s light, inexpensive, versatile – and recyclable.

To learn more about plastic packaging, please view SPI’s latest Market Watch report,  “Packaging Market Watch: Plastics Wraps it Up”. It may be accessed by visiting SPI’s website at http://www.plasticsindustry.org/.

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