Energy. Greenhouse Gases. Waste. Recycling. Litter. Consumers, companies, and countries grow more interested in these issues every day. Today’s focus is on sustainability, described by the United Nations as meeting today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. As efforts to improve sustainability increase, all sorts of packaging are under scrutiny, including plastics.
From the field or factory to the front door, plastics make possible the latest innovations in sustainable packaging design. Plastics often enable companies to ship more products with less packaging material. Plastic packaging extends freshness, minimizes spoilage and breakage, saves energy, and reduces waste. And it’s never been easier to recycle plastic bottles, caps, bags, and containers at many locations and in many programs across the country.
When looking at the entire “life-cycle” of various packaging materials, plastics often compare favorably to other materials in areas such as energy and water use, air and greenhouse gas emissions and solid waste. In fact, a new study, “Impact of Plastics Packaging on Life Cycle Energy Consumption & Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States and Canada,” has determined that six major categories of plastic packaging help to significantly reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions compared to packaging alternatives made with other materials.
Light-weighting (source reduction)
How does plastic packaging help with sustainability? Simply put, it can help do more with less. Plastic packaging often is more energy efficient to make than other materials. It can take less lightweight plastic to package many products than alternatives. For example, only two pounds of plastics can deliver roughly 10 gallons of beverages...compared to three pounds of aluminum, eight pounds of steel or more than 40 pounds of glass. Lighter packaging means less fuel is used in shipping. For example, plastic bags require less total energy to produce than paper bags and conserve fuel in shipping (one truckload for plastic bags versus seven for paper).
Replacing plastic packaging1 with non-plastic alternatives for these six types of packaging in the United States 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 pounds);
Increase energy use by 80 percent—equivalent to the energy from 91 oil supertankers; and
Result in 130 percent more global warming potential—equivalent to adding 15.7 million more cars to our roads.
And plastics engineers continually work to do even more with less—this process of light-weighting can help boost the environmental and economic efficiency of consumer product packaging. Since 1977, the two-liter plastic soft drink bottle has gone from 68 grams to 47 grams, representing a 31 percent reduction per bottle. This saved more than 180 million pounds of packaging in 2006—just for two-liter soft drink bottles alone. The one-gallon plastic milk jug has gone on a similar diet, weighing 30 percent less today than 20 years ago. » learn more on light-weighting
Next to light-weighting (or source reduction), the U.S. EPA identifies “reuse” of packaging as the next highest priority in managing waste. Plastics packaging’s durability enables reusability in storage bins, sealable food containers and refillable sports bottles. And 90 percent of Americans report that they reuse plastic bags.
American Chemistry Council is a proud sponsor of Keep America Beautiful’s “I Want To Be Recycled” campaign. Check out the below PSA video which shows Americans how to recycle bathroom plastics—like HDPE, PE and PP bottles, jugs and jars.
Plastic packaging is valuable and should be recycled where possible. By doing more with less, plastic packaging helps improve sustainability—and then in many cases, recycling can further enhance its sustainability.
Recycling varies from place to place, but most community curbside programs recycle plastic bottles—and many now recycle other plastic containers. Most large grocery stores—and many large retail chains—today offer bins to collect plastics bags and wraps for recycling. And there is a growing number of innovative plastic foodservice recycling programs across the country.
What about those numbers and arrows on the bottom of plastic packaging? Plastics Make It Possible® has some answers to help everyone recycle more plastic packaging. And here’s an overview on plastics recycling in the United States...or dig deeper to learn about recycling rates and what happens to recycled plastics.
So how much plastic gets recycled? ACC tracks this information annually for three categories of plastics.
Recycling By the Numbers
In 2014 plastic bottle recycling grew 97 million pounds, increasing 3.3 percent, to top 3 billion pounds for the year. The recycling rate for plastic bottles climbed 1.0 percent to 31.8 percent for the year. The collection of high-density polyethylene (HDPE, #2) bottles—a category that includes milk jugs and bottles for household cleaners and detergents—rose to nearly 1.1 billion pounds, a gain of over 62 million pounds from 2013. The recycling rate for HDPE bottles rose to 33.6 percent (full report here).
A recent national report found that 94 percent of Americans can recycle plastic bottles in their community (full report here).
At least 1.02 billion pounds of “rigid” plastics including rigid containers—the category of plastics that includes things like yogurt cups, dairy tubs and lids—were recycled in 2012, triple the amount for 2007. A recent study also found that access to recycling of many types of these rigid containers (HDPE, PP, PET, LDPE) now exceeds 60 percent of the population—the level which the Federal Trade Commission has set for unqualified claims of recyclability.
Bags and Film
In 2013 a minimum of 1.14 billion pounds of postconsumer film (which includes plastic bags and packaging) was recovered for recycling, an increase of 74 percent since 2005. (see full report).
Energy recovery is a process that converts wastes into new feedstocks (raw materials) or renewable energy. Energy recovery today powers homes and businesses.
The hydrocarbons that make up most plastic packaging are a source of energy. For example, common plastic foodservice products supply more than 16,000 BTUs (similar to the big burner on a stove) per pound in a “waste-to-energy” facility. That’s approximately twice as much energy per pound as coal. Rather than burying this stored energy in landfills, communities can recapture it. Here’s an overview of how plastics’ stored energy powers homes and businesses...or dig deeper.
Landfills and biodegradability
Few concepts cause as much confusion as biodegradability (or degradability). Popular culture has led many to believe that burying the nation’s waste in landfills is sort of like creating big compost heaps, and eventually all the waste will just go away. In fact, modern landfills are designed to minimize the breakdown of waste. So contrary to popular belief, most garbage does not readily biodegrade in them. Instead, a large plot of land is filled with a community’s waste (except construction debris and hazardous materials)—once filled, the space is covered and often utilized as an airport, a park, or another function.
Many plastics do not biodegrade to any significant degree, while some do so very slowly if exposed to air, water and light—these are best recycled or used for their stored energy. Some plastics have been engineered to biodegrade reasonably quickly in a large composting facility that intentionally accelerates biodegradation in a highly controlled environment using copious air, water and light. These plastics also will break down eventually if left alone in the environment—but much more slowly since the environment does not “intentionally accelerate” biodegradation. However, similar to other biodegradable materials, they likely will not break down in modern landfills. » learn more
Litter is a disgusting blight on our landscape, caused primarily by irresponsible behavior. Keep America Beautiful (KAB), the nation's largest volunteer-based community action and education organization, has cited real progress in addressing litter: KAB reported in 2009 that overall litter has decreased 61% since 1969.
Too often litter makes its way onto beaches and into rivers and oceans. Marine litter has no geographic or political boundaries, so solutions must involve international partnerships and be global in scope. Solutions are focused on preventing all types of litter from entering our waterways and oceans. » learn more
Although marine litter is made up of all sorts of materials and products, relatively lightweight plastics often float, making some plastics more visible than other types of marine debris. Photographs of the ocean floor identify other problems, such as bottles, cans and all sorts of marine equipment and other refuse. As much as 70 percent of marine debris sinks to the ocean floor, according to the United Nations Environmental Program.
Some people have suggested that non-biodegradable litter should be specially targeted. However, behavioral studies suggest that litterers may feel less concerned about carelessly tossing “degradable” packaging, assuming that it just “goes away.” Litter studies find large numbers of biodegradable materials (newspapers, snack wrappers, tissues) that do not simply go away. » learn more about packaging and litter
To measure sustainability, scientists and others often use a “life-cycle” approach that inventories and analyzes the various results of making and using products, including packaging. For example, a life-cycle inventory of plastic packaging may identify energy use, air and greenhouse gas emissions, water use and emissions, solid waste production, environmental and human health factors and more—and then compare these to other types of packaging. A life-cycle analysis takes this further and weighs the actual impacts on the environment and human health—and then may make a comparison.
1 The study. “Impact of Plastics Packaging on Life Cycle Energy Consumption & Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States and Canada,” assessed the energy requirements and greenhouse gas emissions of six general categories of plastic packaging produced and sold in the United States and Canada. These include caps and closures, beverage containers, other rigid containers, carrier bags, stretch/shrink wrap, and other flexible packaging. Learn more here.