The global plastics industry is leading the way to ensure that consumers and companies understand the true impacts of the products they use through the use of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs). These studies map the impact of the production, use and disposal of a given product, and the results of these studies play an essential role in ensuring companies and organizations across industries reach sustainability goals.
In Canada, plastic producers recognize that feedstock choices have the power to lower emissions and contribute to a circular economy. Collectively, these companies and the entire industry are dedicated to ensuring that their products environmentally outperform when compared to alternatives. By identifying the impacts of available alternatives, LCAs are also helping companies across sectors choose the most sustainable and environmentally friendly options.
As supported time and time again by numerous studies globally, plastic is, in fact, a more environmentally friendly option than its alternative material counterparts for a number of industries, even in the single-use context. According to an LCA study by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, single-use plastics used for packaging in the food and beverage industry have a “better environmental performance than alternative materials.” The study focuses particularly on the use of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) plastic for bottles in comparison to other beverage containers and found that plastics have lower impacts at every step of the life cycle.
Another LCA prepared by Boustead Consulting & Associates Ltd. for the Progressive Bag Alliance found that when compared to other single-use materials, plastic grocery bags “require less energy, fewer inputs, and less water to produce. Plastic grocery bags also emit fewer greenhouse gases than their counterparts.” Furthermore, plastics are a more affordable option that alleviates cost concerns on small business owners as well as larger chain groceries and convenience stores.
Although plastics in many cases are the most sustainable choices, industry realizes the need for stronger end-of-life options to ensure that no piece of plastic ends up in the environment. That is why companies like NOVA Chemicals and Merlin Plastics are teaming up to expand the use of recycled plastics in British Columbia by increasing the quantity and quality of post-consumer resins.
Manitoba-based Winpak, meanwhile, is working to expand the shelf life of food products through sustainable packaging options that use less water and energy during manufacture than other types of materials. With innovations like these partnerships and efforts that ensure that all plastics are recovered, reprocessed, and reintroduced into the economy, plastics are the obvious best choice for all industries.
While processing single-use plastics after they are used is incredibly important to creating a circular economy, these efforts and new technologies also support more sustainable end-of-life processes for other plastics products. The automotive and aviation industries, for example, rely increasingly on plastic materials for parts that are more durable and more affordable. Without plastics, these industries would be forced to turn to heavier, more environmentally impactful materials that contribute to higher emissions both during transport and during use inside automobiles and aircraft.
Industry is working to create better and more sustainable end-of-life options to ensure that plastic is always reintroduced into the economy and stays out of the environment. When it comes to solutions to tackle plastic waste, we should employ a holistic approach that includes life-cycle thinking to improve the understanding of plastics’ benefits and to enable more informed decisions.