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Environmental Pariah No More? Study Says Plastics Reduce Environmental Costs

ACC Trucost plastics studyPlastics — and ways to recycle them or make them more sustainable — are a heavily debated topic.

Companies including IBM, Ford and Dell are developing plant-based and other materials for use in products and packaging. And some recent reports have suggested traditional plastics should be replaced with such alternative materials, which would be better from an environmental perspective.

In May a plastics initiative to increase recycling and reuse as well as bioplastics launched with the backing of major companies including Amcor, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical and Mars. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation organized the New Plastics Economy and kicked off the initiative following a report it released that said an industry-wide expansion of sustainable plastic initiatives could deliver $3.5 billion in environmental savings.

Just yesterday IBM researchers said they have found a way to create cheaper, biodegradable plastics from plants that can be used to make a range of products, from eating utensils to medical devices. This follows a plastics recycling process IBM researchers announced in late June.

Now a new report by Trucost says maybe using plastics in products and packaging is better for the environment that using alternatives. This isn’t to say that plastics don’t have an environmental cost — the report puts it at $139 billion. Nor does it mean that there isn’t room for improvement and that manufacturers shouldn’t take steps to make plastics more sustainable. It does, however, indicate that there are some environmental benefits to using plastics.

Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement, finds the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than it would be if plastics were replaced with alternative materials such as glass, tin, aluminum and paper.

The study, funded by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), is based on natural capital accounting methods. These methods, highlighted in the recently released Natural Capital Protocol, measure and value environmental impacts such as consumption of natural water and emissions to air, land and water, which are not typically factored into traditional financial accounting.

Previous reports, such as Trucost’s 2014 Valuing Plastics study and the World Economic Forum/Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics, published earlier this year, only examined the environmental costs of using plastics.

Trucost says the funding received from ACC, an industry group whose plastics division represents major represents plastics manufacturers, didn’t influence the study.

“As an independent research firm, Trucost’s aim is to identify more sustainable business models and we are agnostic as to what those business models are or what materials or technologies they involve,” Trucost senior VP Libby Bernick told Environmental Leader. “This new study for ACC and the previous study for UNEP and Ocean Recovery Alliance both identified a high environmental cost of plastic, that has not changed.  What’s different in this most recent study is that Trucost analyzed a path forward for more sustainable plastic use in consumer products. Trucost found there are environmental benefits to using plastic in consumer products, the environmental costs of alternatives are about four times higher, and there are also high environmental costs of plastic that need to be reduced.”

The new study will help “advance an informed discussion about plastics and sustainability,” said Steve Russell, ACC vice president of plastics.

Russell told Environmental Leader that Trucost’s 2014 study “was a good first step to show what valuing natural capital costs can do, but it left some important questions unanswered. The American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division asked Trucost to use the same methodology and extend that natural capital cost assessment in three key ways.

“As a result, the new study provides a more complete picture of the life cycle impacts of consumer goods and packaging by adding transportation and use phases to the evaluation, compares the environmental costs of using plastics to the costs of substituting plastics with alternative materials, and identifies solutions to further reduce the environmental costs associated with using plastics.”

The new study compares the environmental costs of using plastics to alternative materials and identifies opportunities to help lower the environmental costs of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging. It finds replacing plastics in consumer products and packaging with a mix of alternative materials that provide the same function would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion annually.

On average more than four times more alternative material is needed (by weight) to perform the same function, the report says. And while the environmental costs of alternative materials can be lower per ton of production, they are greater in aggregate because of the much larger quantities of material needed to fulfill the same purposes as plastics.

The report also recommends steps to help further reduce plastics’ overall environmental costs, such as by increasing the use of lower-carbon electricity in plastics production, adopting lower-emission transport modes, developing even more efficient plastic packaging, and increasing recycling and energy conversion of post-use plastics to help curb ocean litter and conserve resources.

The production of plastics and their transport are the largest environmental costs, totaling more than $60 billion and $53 billion, respectively, in 2015. Trucost estimates that the industry could achieve upwards of $41 billion in environmental cost savings by making manufacturing and transportation more sustainable.

If the sector doubled its use of renewable energy, it could save $7.6 billion in environmental costs, for example. Upping that to 100 percent clean energy boosts savings to $15.2 billion.

Developing packaging designs that use 30 percent less plastic could save another $7.3 billion and improving vehicle fleet efficiency by 20 percent could add an additional $10.6 billion in environmental savings.

Additionally, moving to a circular economy would reduce waste collection and management costs — and provide economic gains from the recovered value of plastics — to the tune of about $7.9 billion. And expanding recycling and recovery to keep plastics out of oceans and conserve resources could save another $2.1 billion.

Bernick says the take-away for plastics manufactures is that they need to step up their efforts to reduce the environmental costs of plastics.

“Plastic provides considerable environmental benefits — for example, by creating lighter weight products that use less energy to transport — but the industry needs to go further, faster,” she said. “Incremental efforts by all plastic businesses really add up. For example, almost $41 billion in environmental costs could be avoided if every plastic manufacturer adopted relatively modest gains in using low carbon energy, improving logistics and increasing recyclability.”

Russell says the plastics industry is working on these recommendations.

“Consumer goods companies can be confident that plastics help lower environmental impacts compared to alternatives and that plastics makers are working to further improve plastics’ environmental performance through enhancements to manufacturing, design and post-use recycling and recovery,” he said.

Consumer product companies have a role to play, too.

“Consumer product companies and their brand managers need to be asking: What is the environmental cost of my product, and how can I reduce it?” Bernick said. “Environmental benefit analysis provides the visibility managers need to understand the return of different sustainability strategies and where to direct investments. Putting a monetary value on environmental impacts enables brand managers to take real action, quantify avoided risks and make a difference.”

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