In many ways, plastics are a more sustainable option when compared to alternative materials. Studies done across the world have confirmed this to be true. Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs), which evaluate the emissions costs of a product from sourcing to end-of-life, are a key tool that enables industries to better understand how their products impact the environment.
Learnings from LCAs that compare plastics to their alternatives are vital to industry’s efforts to innovate and transition to the most sustainable products. The results of these studies show that by using more plastics, not less, Canada can reach ambitious climate goals, including slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent to 50 percent by the end of the decade.
In the case of many industries, including packaging, automobiles, aircraft, and infrastructure, plastics are more durable, lightweight, affordable, and environmentally friendly compared to alternatives. Plastics’ cleaner life cycle, from raw material sourcing to post-use recycling options, make them the perfect option as Canada works to meet emissions reduction targets and accelerate its pathway to a net-zero future.
Reports have found that when plastics are used as replacements for other materials, emissions are reduced and the end product can be more easily recycled into a new product. An LCA by the Imperial College of London found that plastic is a more environmentally friendly option compared to glass for the production of bottles. In fact, according to the LCA, if you were to replace all plastic water bottles with glass, the additional resulting CO2 emissions would be equivalent to adding about 22 large coal-fired power plants.
Another study by the American Chemistry Council and TruCost found that replacing plastic in consumer products and packaging with alternatives would have nearly four times the negative environmental impact on a full life cycle basis. Meanwhile, replacement of other materials with plastic will continue to help Canada reduce emissions and keep the country move toward a circular economy.
These studies, and other LCAs, show that using plastic in place of other materials can significantly cut down on emissions output – not only during production but during transport between and on worksites. Plastics are lighter and more compact, allowing more products to be packed into fewer trucks, rail cars, or airplanes and reducing transportation emissions and costs. This creates additional efficiencies on work sites as well because less energy is required to move products from point to point.
Plastics in the food industry also reduces emissions and keeps food out of the trash. Better packaging reduces food waste and the methane emissions this creates. Research has shown that innovative plastic packaging keeps food safer during transport, extends expiry dates (shelf life), and keeps food fresher than other packaging alternatives.
Although plastics are a better option for reaching climate goals, it is still important that no piece of plastic ends up in the environment – which is why industry is leading the way to collaborate and pursue partnerships to ensure that innovative recycling solutions have the support they need to keep plastic in the economy, contributing to Canada’s climate goals.