It’s an increasingly common misconception that plastic packaging, alone, is at fault when it comes to pollution and it’s negative effects on the environment. The media is oftentimes the instigator in these cases, molding public opinion to side with feelings, rather than factual data backed up by research and study.
Whether confronting accusations of wasting energy, or relinquishing intolerable amounts of greenhouse gasses among the masses, plastic packaging companies routinely get bludgeoned by the public press. Despite research indicating that if uninformed environmental activists were to have their way, and do away with plastic packaging altogether as has been the ongoing debate, plastic alternatives would actually increase energy waste on a an exponential level.
In a 2014 plastic packaging study conducted by Franklin Associates, A Division of Eastern Research Group (ERG), the well renowned research firm compared plastic packaging requirements to alternative packaging methods in the U.S. and Canada in order to determine which was more efficient in terms of overall cost as well as energy output.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Within the study, cumulative energy demands for current U.S. plastic packaging and substitutes were analyzed using 6 categories: caps and closures, carrier bags, stretch and shrink film, beverage containers, other rigid packaging, and other flexible packaging.
Plastic materials that were tested in the study were low density polyethylene (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), expanded polystyrene (EPS), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Plastic alternatives that were tested were tinplate/steel, aluminum, glass, paper, cork, rubber, textile, and wood.
To the amazement of skeptics, the findings suggested that if plastic packaging were to all of a sudden come to a halt in mass scale over night, there would be substantial accumulated waste and decreases in overall productivity using current substitutes.
By closely analyzing both methods of production over time, it was concluded that increases in weight, energy use, and global warming were all consistent with substitute packaging alternatives.
In terms of weight, Americans are already generating a whopping 250 million tons of waste per year, according to the study’s statistics. On the flip side, if substitute packaging methods were to replace this current model, waste would increase by over 20%, adding an additional 55 million tons of overall waste generation in the U.S. alone. Not exactly the ideal solution in the least.
Based on figures in the study going back to 2010, if plastic packaging was replaced by current market alternatives, the industry would need nearly an 80% increase in cumulative energy demand to be as efficient as plastic packaging. From 14.4 million metric tons of plastic packaging to an equivalent 64 million metric tons of current substitute packaging methods, it’s hard to understand why any company, let alone anyone, would want to utilize alternative packaging methods based on these numbers.
On top of needing a massive increase in energy demand just to break even, plastic substitute packaging would result in 130% more global warming effects, shown by heightened levels of CO2 emissions, compared to traditional plastic packaging methods.
Canadian Plastic Packaging Study Showed Similar Findings
Using the same time frame as the American study, Canadian plastic packaging use accounted for nearly 1.6 million metric tons of waste compared to 7.1 million metric tons that would be needed if alternative packaging materials were needed. Besides numbers showing that Canada is a much cleaner place to live than the U.S., conclusions are also made regarding packaging methods in relation to waste.
In terms of wasteful energy output measured in the study, substitute packaging methods would require as much as twice the amount needed compared to plastic packaging. Adding to the conclusion that plastic packaging is more efficient, potential global warming impacts were also analyzed, showing that more than twice the amount of plastic packaging impacts would effect the environment if alternative packaging was used as a replacement.
Based on the findings from both studies, the argument for substitute packaging methods as legitimate alternatives to plastic packaging methods stands null and void. Contrary to public opinion, current plastic packaging substitutes have not evolved to the point that their production costs and effects on the environment, can compete with plastic packaging efficiency. If skeptics can learn anything from this study, they should realize that science is always a better lie detector than humans.