Monday, November 14th, 2011

Plastic packaging is the greenest choice, study says

What if, as environmental extremists would prefer, all plastic packaging was replaced by other materials? Would there be the ecological benefits that environmentalists imagine?

The Austrian consulting firm Denkstatt performed an in-depth theoretical study of European packaging, creating a model of what would happen if other materials were substituted for all plastic packaging. The results, which were published in 2010, show that plastic packaging is the greenest alternative.

Were all of Europe’s plastic packaging replaced by other materials, the study showed there would be a severe negative impact on the environment, as well as on the economy. The main results of substituting other materials for plastic packaging would include:

  • The mass of packaging would increase by a factor of 3.6.
  • Life-cycle energy demand would increase by a factor of 2.6, equivalent to the energy used to heat 20 million European homes.
  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Europe would increase by a factor of 2.7, or 61 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents, roughly the emissions from 21 million cars.

The study, which can be found in executive summary form on the Plastics Europe website, gives a number of reasons for these increases. For example, plastic packaging usually achieves its functionality with less mass than other materials. Also, in most cases less production energy is needed with plastics, and that means less GHG emissions than from production of the mix of alternative materials.

To create a model for the theoretical substitution of plastic in packaging, the market was split into seven sectors: small packaging, PET beverage bottles, other bottles, other rigid packaging, shrink and stretch

film, shopping bags, and other flexible packaging. Plastic showed an advantage over other materials in each of the seven categories, with the greatest advantage for plastic being in beverage bottles, shrink and stretch film, and other flexible packaging.

Polymers included were LDPE, LLDPE, HDPE, PP, PVC, PS, EPS, and PET. Alternative packaging materials were tin plate and steel, aluminum, glass, corrugated board, cardboard, cast paper and fiber, paper-based composites, and wood. Details of the substitution model were developed by the German market research institute GVM, based on 32 packaging categories and a database consisting of 26,000 data sets of packaging materials, sizes, volumes, and masses.

Although the study is based on Europe (EU27+2), which has a different recycling level than the U.S., the study concludes that even with no plastic recycling, plastic packaging would cause less GHG emissions than alternative materials. For reference, the study report notes that all packaging materials used in Europe correspond to only 1.7% of the total average consumer carbon footprint, and that plastic packaging is 0.6% of that footprint.

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