A pro-plastic argument under the green hood!

Pratima H

THOS160227635E who live on venison and those who would rather go hungry but just won’t kill an ant. Those who love to be in the 21st century with all its comforts and instant-conveniences and those who feel guilty on every drop of oil consumed. The world, more often than not, seems to be divided in two factions today – plastic guzzlers and plastic haters.

But swallow your words the next time you are about to chide your careless friend when s/he picks up a plastic bottle next picnic. The days of gloating need to pause, till a rejoinder to some hard-to-chew findings is battered out.

So far this friend of yours must have non-chalantly replied – “What’s the big deal!” or “It’s just one bottle dude, how much harm can it really cause?” or “My habit, my business.”

You may have yawned at these reactions but the next time your ears may open wide instead when this so-labelled environmentally-irresponsible friend spurts – what I am using is actually good for environment. In fact, better than your green-packaging. Period”

Yes, brace up for this new study that showcases six categories of plastic packaging that in comparison to packaging alternatives made with other materials actually have been assessed to (seat belts checked?) help in significantly reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions!

Reports in Greener Package mention this work conducted for The American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Canadian and Plastics Industry Association (CPIA) titled, “Impact of Plastics Packaging on Life Cycle Energy Consumption & Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States and Canada.” Done by Franklin Associates for the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Canadian Plastics Industry Association) and using life-cycle assessment (LCA) methodology this is a probe into comparing current amounts of various plastic packaging products to packaging made with alternative materials.

The conclusion is bold enough – replacing all plastic packaging with non-plastic alternatives for six types of packaging in the U.S. would require 4.5 times as much packaging material by weight, increasing the amount of packaging used in the U.S. by nearly 55 million tons (110 billion lb), increase energy use by 80 %—equivalent to the energy from 91 oil supertankers and result in 130 % more global warming potential—equivalent to adding 15.7 million more cars to our roads.

Continue using plastic. Is that what we hear?

If you are still trying to make sense of this weird-sounding assertion, you might take a walk to calm your nerves. Grab a chair (a wooden one may be) if you stumble at Plastipedia on British Plastics Federation, where you can be enlightened that for many plastics processing sites, energy costs are approaching the cost of direct labour and energy costs are almost always higher than the actual profits of the site.

Now this is where it gets worrisome – for typical sites, where little action has been taken in the past, over 30% of the energy use is ‘discretionary’ – this means that the cost is incurred because the site management has either decided to take no action or because it has not recognised the opportunities for improvement. In most cases, energy use and costs can be reduced by over 30% and these savings add directly to the site profits.

It informs a lot further about bio-based plastics here and the site affirms that with the UK government poised to implement a greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target of 80% from 1995 levels by 2050, it is becoming important to source materials and fuels from renewable resources to reduce our environmental impact.

Did you know that bio-based plastics have been used in medicine for years and were also considered for automotive parts in the days of Henry Ford? The climate-change-triggered interest in them is only reminding manufacturers, retailers and consumers about this option that existed before.

479484115There is no dearth of applications, even if just in theory, as some may contend. They can replace petroleum-based plastics (petroplastics) at many places, and in the UK these materials are currently used to manufacture refuse and carrier bags as well as food and consumer goods packaging but possibilities extend as far as electronics and automotive parts.

Their sourcing hops back to renewable plant materials such as starch, cellulose, oils (e.g. rapeseed oil), lignin (wood), proteins (e.g. maize zein) and polysaccharides (e.g. xylans) and even organic waste materials and petroplastics (e.g. PET) that can be morphed into synthetic bio-based plastics (such as polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHAs) thanks to technology’s lateral shifts.

However, the repository also reminds that in order for a product or material to be truly described as sustainable it must be environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. These aspects have become known as the Three Pillars of Sustainability. Plastics, as surprisingly asserted here, make a positive contribution to all three pillars of sustainability.

Read: “Plastics make an immense contribution to the environmental sustainability through their energy saving potential and intrinsic recyclability and energy recovery options.

Only 4% of the world’s oil production is used for plastics and much less energy is used to produce it compared to other materials. Plastics are durable yet lightweight and thus save weight in cars, aircraft, packaging and pipework.”

Plastics have a very good environmental profile. We repeat: Plastics have a very good environmental profile , if BPF’s view is anything to go by.

As irreverent and out-of-normal-view-on-green-consciousness as it may look, Plastics packaging has been cited to reduce waste since on average, ten times more energy goes into the production of the food or goods packaging contains than the packaging itself.

BPF also outlines that food waste in UK is 2% compared to between 40 and 50% in developing world. This is due, in no small part, to plastics packaging systems. Plus, plastics packaging is lightweight and resource efficient. If plastics were not used in packaging and other materials were used instead, then waste and energy consumption would double, and weight and costs would quadruple.

Here’s another number-streak to keep the argument going: Between 1991 and 2000 the average weight of plastics film (g/m2) decreased by 36% whilst the average weight or bottles and containers decreased by 21%. Plastics packaging is recyclable and 21.8% of plastics packaging placed on the market in 2005 was 479727171recycled. In 2006, 6499 tonnes of EPS packaging was recycled in the UK. This represents 42% of EPS packaging manufactured in the UK.

Ironically indeed, plastics have been highlighted to play a huge role when it comes to sustainable construction, whether it be PVC windows, plastic foam insulation or plastic water pipes.

There is a suggestion up ahead here that an alternative to recycling is to recover plastics thermal content through energy from waste incineration, providing an alternative source of energy. “The average value for polymers is 38 mega joules per kilogram (MJ/kg), which compares favourably to the equivalent value of 31 MJ/kg for coal. This represents a valuable resource raising the overall calorific value of domestic waste which can then be recovered through controlled combustion and re-used in the form of heat and steam to power electricity generators.” BPF noted.

On the other side of the table is an estimate that the global market for sustainable packaging is forecast to reach $244 billion by 2018, according to a market report from Smithers Pira.

Hard to ignore then when Paul Jenkins reflects on the Pack Hub blog that: “There has been a number of packaging innovation launches in recent times that have added value and/or delivered an unmet consumer need. That is what packaging innovation should be all about. These innovations often make the consumer experience easier, more straightforward and more convenient. …This is even more refreshing in the light that too often packaging change is about reducing complexity and cutting cost out of the product and by definition eking a little bit more quality out of the product. ….The trouble with some packaging innovations is that in some cases we then expect the consumer to pay more for the privilege, Jenkins has nailed it well.

Enough stuff to keep you tongue-tied in case your friend has already read on this new emerging and opposite line of equation between plastics and environment.

By the way the Franklin Associates’ study also confronted the assumptions the research was done under like:
In some types of substitute packaging, some use of plastic is still required for functionality, e.g., plastic coatings on gable-top cartons for liquids, laminated plastic coatings on aseptic cartons, and plastic liners used inside of rigid paper-based containers used with liquid contents. In all cases, the plastic content in substitute packaging is less than half of its mass.

Keep these assumption-asterisks (and the names of who backed this study to start with) handy till we try to find out a good answer for your plastic tiffs.

Offer stands only for those not-so-easily-malleable-minds who haven’t changed sides already. For others, it’s always good to have a refreshing debate.

See you soon, sans bottles.



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