WASHINGTON-The use of plastic packaging and disposable products in the United States in 1990 saved energy equal to 65 million barrels of oil when compared to alternative materials, according to a newly released industry study. Environmentalists and competing industries criticized the study, conducted for the American Plastics Council of Washington by the consulting firm Franklin Associates Ltd. of Prairie Village, Kan.
Release of the APC report marks the fourth instance this year of highly publicized comparisons of packaging materials.
Aluminum and paperboard producers both aired advertisements that said their containers are better than plastics. The glass industry released a study that said glass containers are more environmentally sound than plastics.
APC officials, however, said they deliberately avoided direct product comparisons in releasing the report.
APC's study compared energy consumption required for production and transportation of products and packaging made with the seven common packaging resins against their most reasonable alternative products made with materials such as glass, metal and paper.
The study shows that in 1990 the use of plastics saved 376 trillion British thermal units of energy.
Plastic packaging saved the most energy: 336.4 trillion Btu. Film packaging by itself saved 262.3 trillion Btu. Blow molded containers saved 52.8 trillion Btu and injection molded containers saved 12.7 trillion Btu, according to the study.
Disposable products, such as foam food-service items and trash and grocery bags, saved 39.4 trillion Btu, the study said.
Disposable items saved less energy because they were compared to reusable products as well as other kinds of disposables. Production energy for reusable products must be divided by the number of uses to make a fair comparison, the study said.
As a result, plastic tumblers, glasses, flatware and cutlery required more energy than nonplastic alternatives.
Plastic drinking straws and coatings on other packages also required more energy than the alternatives - wax-coated paper and wax coating, respectively.
To publicize the results, APC will distribute a brochure detailing the study to callers to the group's toll-free number.
Bob Rowatt, chairman of APC's product benefits committee, said the study, which the group has worked on for more than two years, is an early attempt to show that plastics have a positive effect on the environment.
The energy study was not peer reviewed, nor does it include such environmental effects as waste emissions that are typical of life-cycle inventories that evaluate broader environmental effects, Rowatt said.
To support such a broad inventory, APC now is gathering energy consumption and emissions data for eight resins from oil extraction through pellet extrusion.
But Rowatt said the first energy study still is important.
``This study points out that plastics have earned their place in the economy,'' said Rowatt, manager of solid waste issues for Chevron Chemical Co. in Houston.
``This came early in the game for the plastics industry. We had a good idea about life-cycle analysis, but now we have a much better idea.''
But the study did not escape criticism. Scientists for a paper industry organization and an environmental group said the report is flawed.
Michael Levy, a former Franklin Associates vice president who now is energy and materials policy director for the American Forest and Paper Association, said the study did not take into account the paper industry's use of wood waste to fuel plant operations.
He said the study should have done a better job of recognizing such energy production from renewable resources.
``Lumping paper in there is really a mismatch,'' Levy said.
Richard Denison, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, criticized the study because it did not take into account energy used in disposal of disposable products when comparing them to reusable products.
He also said such studies should be used to lessen products' environmental impacts, not as competitive tools.
``What we have here is yet another egregious case of misuse of life-cycle information,'' Denison said. ``I didn't find one word about what the industry could do to improve its energy profile. It blows my mind, the willingness of APC to material-bash and pretend that they're not.''
Some other competing industries agreed that the study escalates material warfare.
Natalie Roy, director of recycling and legislative affairs for the Glass Packaging Institute in Washington, faulted the study for its lack of peer review.
``We would never have put something like this out without peer review,'' Roy said. ``We didn't hide anything in Kansas,'' where the consulting firm is based. ``I think the study takes packaging wars to a new low.''
Bill Heenan, president of the Steel Recycling Institute in Pittsburgh, said APC could spend its money elsewhere.
``Studies like this waste money that could be used to build infrastructure,'' Heenan said. ``The question is, why couldn't we have taken that money to tell people to recycle more?''
Heenan, echoing some of Denison's objections, also questioned APC's use of aggregated energy savings, which compares how much energy was saved in such categories as blow molded containers against alternatives.
``There could be one alternative that is really extremely intensive in energy utilization that is not offset by the others,'' Heenan said.