The report discusses the greenhouse gas (GHG) contribution of plastics and alternatives. It evaluated the materials in five main sectors: packaging, building and construction, consumer goods, automotive and textiles.
"We were upfront in the first couple paragraphs of the report that we were intentionally narrow in this activity, focusing only on GHG impact, not because the others aren't important, but because we wanted to define the exercise narrowly enough that we could do it in a fact-based and concrete way," Wallach said.
The report includes data comparing plastic and alternative materials in different applications, including grocery bags.
McKinsey focused on GHGs because, according to Wallach, the idea of circularity and leakage already have a lot of attention and McKinsey wanted to bring new information and representation.
"If you want to have kind of a holistic sense of plastic compared to alternatives, it's important to also remember things like frozen food packaging and cheese and meat packaging and cereal packaging and automotive interior and appliances and things where just as a society, we don't even have any alternatives to plastic," Wallach said.
Reacting to the report, Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council, said the GHG savings that plastics provide "must be considered in any plastics-related policy, from the international level all the way down to the local level."
"The McKinsey study on plastics confirms what researchers have known for years: Use of plastics can help reduce carbon emissions by displacing materials with higher greenhouse gas emissions," Baca said.
Wallach said McKinsey learned the most when it analyzed the impact of using plastics vs. other materials in the future.
"In economies that have very circular, very decarbonized grids, other materials — like, for example, aluminum — wind up coming out sort of on par with plastics because the electricity that you're using to make it [aluminum] is itself decarbonized," Wallach said.
McKinsey will consider revising the report in a few years, or if the grid decarbonizes quicker than currently expected.