How plastics help the environment

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In late July, the American Chemistry Council released one of the most important studies that I can remember related to plastics.

But I’m afraid that the one thing people will remember is that plastics packaging is great for sirloin steak.

The report is called “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” and it was prepared by a London-based firm called Trucost.

Trucost is a data-driven organization that specializes in estimating the hidden costs of the unsustainable use of natural resources. The firm did a high-profile study for the United Nations Environment Program in 2014.

The study for ACC uses the same methodology and natural capital accounting metrics as the UN report. This isn’t your typical lifecycle analysis that you remember with from the 1990s, where it seemed like the criteria could be adjusted to amplify the benefits of any material and denigrate the competition.

This is respected work, that’s worth citing — and repeating.

The study for ACC concluded that the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than replacing plastics with alternative materials. More specifically: Trucost estimates that if all the plastic packaging and consumer products could somehow be replaced with “traditional materials” — like glass, tin or aluminum — that would actually increase the environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion.

Those costs take into account ocean damage, end-of-life management, transportation, and production and material and energy recovery costs.

The study also gave specific recommendations for the industry to further reduce its overall environmental costs, by as much as $41 billion.

These included saving $7.6 billion by using more wind, solar and hydro-electric power, $7.3 billion from reducing the materials used in the certain food, soft drink and ice packaging by 30 percent, and $10.6 billion by using more fuel-efficient vehicles to transport resin and plastics products.

Where’s the beef?

The Trucost study also looked at benefits plastics offer in reducing food waste. Food wrapped in plastics last longer — that’s why you might see cucumbers, potatoes and lettuce wrapped in plastics at the local grocery.

We highlighted one example in Plastics News last week, in a sidebar to our main story on the Trucost report. The sidebar highlighted how the advanced plastics wrap that some groceries use help reduce the amount of sirloin steak that spoils before people have a chance to eat it. Sirloin steak is a good product to highlight because it’s expensive, both to consumers and in terms of all the environmental costs of raising cattle.

According to the study, for every additional 1 percent of sirloin steak that gets packaged in the advanced plastics wraps instead of conventional plastics, we can expect environmental savings of more than $2.2 million.

I noticed that more readers on clicked on our sirloin steak story than on our main story on the overall Trucost report. Maybe readers were surfing the web at lunchtime. Perhaps they were drawn in by the appetizing photo of beef.

I know that in a debate between data and lunch … well, lunch wins.

But processors who are faced with arguments and challenges about the sustainability of plastics — from customers, competitors and even their smart-aleck cousin at Thanksgiving dinner — should read and become acquainted with the entire Trucost report.

Some people may feel like if plastics didn’t exist, our environment would be better off. Well, plastics have their share of environmental issues, but other materials do too.

A return to the good old days — with heavy televisions and appliances, gas-guzzling cars and trucks, and lots more food waste from inefficient packaging — would have a major impact on the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. And now there’s some data to back it up.

Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.