Misjudged and thus treated with hostility: plastic packaging

International life cycle analyses prove environmental advantages of plastics as packaging material

Alternative materials increase negative environmental impact and cost to society

Unbiased and ideology-free life-cycle studies have repeatedly highlighted the advantages of plastic packaging compared to other materials. Contrary to some preconceived notions, substitution analyses all over the world have concluded that plastic packaging is a very efficient choice when it comes to energy consumption, global warming and various other environmental issues – including the cost to society. Against this background, it is surprising that plastic packaging is repeatedly being placed in a kind of environmental-policy pillory or used as an excuse to justify actions that have other aims in mind. The European Commission, for example, is planning to plug the gap in the Community budget left by Brexit by introducing a levy on plastics. Experts are issuing strong warnings that by not having any specific earmarking of the proposed plastics tax in order that it can be implemented at all would deprive the intended circular economy for plastic packaging of urgently needed investment funds and thus be detrimental to environmental protection and the prevention of climate change.

If one looks at the scientific studies published worldwide in recent years, it is striking how pronounced the misperception of plastic packaging is from an environmental point of view – especially with regard to energy consumption, global warming and last but not least the cost to society. For example, the consulting firm Denkstatt, which specialises in environmental and sustainability issues, concludes in its study ‘The effects of plastics on energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in Europe’ that more energy resources would be consumed and more greenhouse gases would be emitted if plastic packaging were to be replaced by alternative materials.

The experts even note that plastic packaging allows energy savings to be made during its use phase, although no comparison is made with other materials. To substantiate this, they point out that such packaging reduces food spoilage or helps prevent damage to consumer goods. The authors of the study admit that this is also true to a certain extent for other packaging materials, but in their view it is particularly true for plastic packaging.

Savings equivalent to the CO2 emissions for the whole of Denmark

In concrete terms, the Denkstatt study shows that on average the packaging mass would be 3.6 times greater if plastic packaging were to be replaced by other materials. According to the experts, the energy consumption would also increase: by a factor of 2.2 or 1240 million gigajoules a year. This corresponds to 27 million tonnes of crude oil or the energy needed to heat around 20 million households for a year. In addition, greenhouse gas emissions would increase by a factor of 2.7 or 61 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents a year. The consultants emphasise that this corresponds to 21 million more cars on the road or the total CO2 emissions of a country like Denmark.

The Denkstatt study sees the main reasons for the ecological benefits of plastic packaging in the fact that it generally performs the same function with significantly less mass per functional unit than alternative packaging materials. According to the authors of the study, this leads in most cases to lower energy consumption during production and lower greenhouse gas emissions per functional unit than for the mix of alternative materials considered. They also point to the benefits of plastic packaging in the use phase, such as the avoidance of food loss and less energy being required for transport, and this also contributes to plastics coming out well on top in the packaging category. 

The environmental and sustainability experts also consider it important to emphasise that the ‘net benefit’ of the recycling and recovery of plastic packaging is often greater than that for alternative materials because in the case of the latter most of the benefits of recycling have already been included in their data sets in the form of the fractions of recycled material used in production. And last but not least, they also point out that if only 10 per cent less food spoils, the greenhouse gas benefits resulting from avoiding food loss are on average five times higher than those used to produce the packaging for fresh food.

All in all, Denkstatt’s environmental and sustainability experts conclude that the importance of packaging for the environment is generally overestimated. Only 1.7 per cent of the total climate footprint of European consumers results from the consumption of packaging materials in households and businesses. According to this study, plastic packaging only accounts for 0.6 per cent of the average climate footprint of a European consumer.

International studies come to identical conclusion

Other international scientific studies of this issue have come to an identical conclusion. Comparable substitution studies by the US consultants Franklin Associates, for example, showed that in the USA the use of plastic packaging with the same functions as alternative packaging materials would lead to annual savings of

  • more than 64 million tonnes of packaging material
  • 67.1 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions
  • 1196 billion megajoules of energy.

For Canada, the experts calculated the annual savings to be equivalent to

  • 5.5 million tonnes of packaging material
  • 8.66 million tonnes of CO2
  • 121 billion megajoules of energy.

Besides the above-mentioned negative effects that replacing plastic packaging with alternative materials would have on global warming, the scientific studies by Franklin Associates as well as by others show that the alternatives to plastic packaging would have significantly higher undesirable effects when it comes to water consumption, solid waste (in weight and volume), acidification potential, eutrophication of waters, creation of smog and ozone depletion. According to the Franklin Associates study, for example, water consumption in the USA would be six times higher if plastic packaging were to be replaced by alternative materials. For Canada, the water consumption would be four times higher. Moreover, the same study found that the solid packaging waste from plastic packaging would be 4.9 times lighter than with the alternatives in the USA and 3.9 times lighter in the case of Canada.

Substituting plastic packaging would increase environmental costs fourfold

The authors of this and other studies have also converted the environmental benefits associated with the use of plastic packaging into so-called environmental costs by monetising the environmental impact of the various packaging materials. In simple terms, a price is set for pollution and the consumption of resources in order to make a comprehensible comparison between the effects of the different materials. The result shows that replacing a large proportion of the plastics used in the consumer goods sector with a mix of alternative materials that fulfil the same function would increase the environmental costs by a factor of four, to over 533 billion US dollars a year.

In summary, a review of international studies on the evaluation of plastic packaging makes it clear that scientific life cycle analyses refute the widespread misperception of plastic materials because plastics actually result in a lower environmental impact and lower cost to society both overall and in detail than alternative packaging materials when used for the same purposes.

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