When Plastic Is The Greenest Choice: The Environmental Merits of Plastic

When Plastic Is The Greenest Choice: The Environmental Merits of Plastic

In this post, we'll discuss the positive aspects of plastic, highlighting its potential as a sustainable material when managed responsibly.

We've all heard myths about plastic at some point in our lives: "Plastic takes 1,000 years to break down" or, "Plastic is bad for the environment and should be replaced with other materials." However, the ubiquity of phrases like these doesn't make them true.

While the mismanagement of plastic can pose challenges to the environment, plastic in itself is not a bad thing. In fact, in many cases, plastic is actually the more environmentally friendly choice! For example, Coca-Cola cut its carbon footprint by switching from aluminum to plastic bottles in 2019.

In this post, we'll discuss the positive aspects of plastic, highlighting its potential as a sustainable material when managed responsibly.

1. Resource Efficiency

Plastic is known for its lightweight nature, which enables it to optimize resource consumption. Compared to other materials such as glass, metal, or paper, plastic requires fewer raw materials to produce the same volume of goods. This reduced resource demand leads to lower energy consumption, water usage, and carbon emissions during the manufacturing process.

2. Durability And Longevity

One of the significant advantages of plastic is its durability and longevity. Plastic products, when designed and manufactured properly, can have a long lifespan. This characteristic makes plastic suitable for various applications, including the medical, packaging, construction, and automotive industries. Plus, plastic packaging helps prevent food spoilage. By extending the shelf life of products and reducing food waste — a significant contributor to environmental degradation — plastics actually help preserve the environment.

3. Lightweighting

Plastics are typically a much greener option for any application that requires transportation. First, they allow for increased shipping capacity of the intended product, resulting in reduced packaging and less spoilage. Second, they can be used as a substitute for metals such as steel or aluminum. Thanks to their decreased material weight, lightweight solutions allow for efficient transportation, reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions during shipping. Lighter materials also support "lightweighting," the practice of reducing vehicles’ overall weight and payload to improve fuel efficiency and reduce maintenance costs.

At Spartech, we offer a variety of products that help decrease material weight, including:

By decreasing vehicles' overall weight, these products create lighter, safer, more fuel efficient, and environmentally friendly mobility solutions.

4. Renewable Energy Generation

Certain types of plastic are integral to the renewable energy sector. Thin-film solar panels, made from flexible plastic materials, are lightweight, affordable, and easier to install compared to traditional solar panels. These advancements in plastic technology contribute to the widespread adoption of solar energy, which then reduces reliance on fossil fuels and mitigates climate change.

5. Waste-to-Energy Conversion

Plastic waste can be converted into energy through advanced waste management techniques. In fact, even non-recyclable plastic waste can be melted or gasified into fuel for both commercial and industrial applications. These technologies offer a promising solution to reduce plastic waste accumulation in landfills, while simultaneously generating clean energy. Even if plastics aren't converted into energy, most common forms of plastic degrade outdoors within a few years.

6. Improved Recycling Technologies

Continual advancements in recycling technologies are transforming the way we manage plastic waste. Innovations such as chemical recycling and mechanical recycling enable the recovery of valuable materials from plastic products, diverting them from landfills or incineration. By implementing effective recycling systems, we can harness the inherent value of plastic and close the loop, reducing the demand for raw materials.

While plastic has undoubtedly contributed to environmental challenges, it is essential to recognize the potential merits it offers from a sustainability perspective. As Dr. Chris DeArmitt, PhD, FIMMM, FRSC, CChem says in his book, "The Plastics Paradox":

"Early adopters of electricity had accidents, but we didn't ban electricity despite the clear danger it can pose. Similarly, early use of x-rays caused accidents, but now they are used safely on a routine basis. Every new technology, including plastics, has initial problems, but the solution is not to ban the technology. Progress is made by embracing the best solutions and then creating the framework so that they can be used responsibly." —Dr. Chris DeArmitt, PhD, FIMMM, FRSC, Cchem

By leveraging the lightweight, durable, and recyclable properties of plastic, we can foster resource efficiency, reduce waste, and promote renewable energy. To maximize these merits, it is crucial to prioritize responsible plastic management, invest in innovative technologies, and promote a circular economy that minimizes plastic waste generation. In doing so, we can unlock the true potential of plastic as a sustainable material and work towards a more environmentally friendly future.

For further and more technical reading on this topic, download "The Plastics Paradox," a free e-book written by Dr. Chris DeArmitt, PhD, FIMMM, FRSC, CChem. Or, get the summary here.

June 08, 2023

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