Washington — There isn't a single person in the plastics industry who hasn't been regularly bombarded with concerns from all sides about the environmental costs of plastic production and use.
But a new study takes some of the sting out, finding the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than replacing plastics with alternative materials.
Trucost's latest study, “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” builds on a 2014 study the research company did for the United Nations Environment Program, using the same methodology and “natural capital accounting” metrics.
Trucost estimates that swapping plastic for alternatives such as glass, tin or aluminum would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion — that's taking into account ocean damage, end-of-life management, transportation, production and material and energy recovery costs and impact.
In most cases, the study says, the per-kilogram cost of alternative materials is less than the cost of a kilo of plastic. “However, on average over four times more alternative material is needed [by weight] to perform the same function,” according to the report. For example, a plastic drink bottle made of 30 grams of plastic would require 141 grams of glass or aluminum.
The scale of the environmental cost difference came as a bit of a surprise to the American Chemistry Council, which commissioned the new report.
“That is it almost four times higher was a surprise,” said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for ACC. “It was also a surprise how complicated it is to do this work. But it wasn't a surprise that plastics would turn out to be such an efficient material.”