The college started research after being contacted by the American Chemistry Council, a trade group, to explore the possibility of decoupling in the United States.
Emily Tipaldo, director of plastics packaging and consumer products at ACC, said her group saw this trend in Europe and wanted to support research to determine if this was also occurring in the United States.
While ACC provided partial funding to help conduct the research, Castaldi said the relationship was kept at arm's length to allow for independent findings.
"I think the main thing is that this study demonstrates the benefits of plastics and using plastics from a different angle, from the waste management generation angle," Tipaldo said. "And it's one that's not particularly intuitive, even for some of us who deal with plastics day in and day out."
The use of plastics has exploded over the past 50 years, and the material has pushed out paper, glass and metal in many applications.
"Although the benefits of plastic materials have been shown through numerous applications, the impact on waste generation has not been very clear," reads the report's conclusion.
Plastics use has increased by 83 times the amount since 1960, the researchers said.
But municipal solid waste (MSW) generation in the united states has only increased about threefold in those years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The study concludes that a decoupling between MSW generation rates and economic growth began in the late 1990s.
"Plastics play a role in the decoupling due to materials substitution that reduce the overall weight of MSW and downgauging that reduces the amount of material needed," the conclusion states. "Decoupling would still occur without plastics, but it would be delayed by an estimated 32 years. This indicates that other factors are influencing the decoupling as well and should be further understood."
Tilpado hit on the evolving design of plastic packaging as it relates to waste generation.
"I think that's really where you see, when you get into the details of the study, the shift toward designing better plastic packaging, designing lighter plastic packaging, more efficient plastic packaging. For instance, since 2000, plastic packaging was downgauged at about 3 percent per year," she said.
"It's an interesting angle to look at the data and how the use of plastic packaging has provided the benefit of society being able to use the products that we love and generate less waste by doing so," Tipaldo said. "That point is not intuitive to a lot of people."
Tsiamis said the study could help put plastics in a different light regarding overall waste management.
"I think the big takeaway for me is we do see a lot of attention, especially currently in the media, regarding to plastics pollution. And there is this movement in some ways to say, 'Oh, the way we solve our waste problem is by removing this type of material from our waste stream,'" Tsiamis said. "I think from doing this study what we saw from the data that we had is that that's not necessarily the case."
Castaldi said there is "not one silver problem that's going to solve everything."
"This was another way of getting the message out there that it's really going to take a concerted effort where we understand what the materials that we have to us are good for, what they are not good for and then how to best recycle, reuse and dispose of them," he said.