When it comes to understanding the environmental impact of a material like plastic, it’s best to go straight to the source. Scientists.
There have been many scientific studies comparing the environmental impact of plastic bags, bottles, and packages with alternatives. What much of the science says about plastics may surprise you, even if you work in manufacturing, packaging or consumer goods.
Studies that analyze the same products made from glass, paper, metal, and fabric almost always conclude that plastics are substantially better for the environment. These results are often based on Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) that analyze every stage of a product from the raw materials to manufacturing, distribution, use, and recycling or disposal.
Plastic bottles: the clear winner.
A study by the Department of Industrial Engineering (DIIN) at the University of Salerno in Italy
A more recent LCA study of PET vs glass bottles for mineral water in Italy is another example of plastic providing the most sustainable packaging system for non-sparkling water, and that the PET bottle could be made more sustainable by including recycled PET within the production of the bottle.
Plastic bags are best.
A study by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency
This study from the Danish Environmental Protection Agency presents an LCA that they conducted on 13 different types of bags, including typical plastic bags (i.e., bags made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE)) bioplastic bags, paper bags, and cotton bags. They found that LDPE bags have the least environmental impact.
typical use of a plastic bag
43 uses of a paper bag
7,100 uses of a cotton bag
Plastic prevents food waste.
‘Role of Packaging in LCA of Food Products’ based on Finnish research, as published by Springer.
Packaging often represents a much smaller source of environmental impacts than the items it protects. This article explores how plastic packaging prevents food waste and mitigates environmental impacts. Alternative packaging is more likely to lead to food waste and would significantly increase the total environmental impacts over the product-packaging-chain.
This is also demonstrated by this life cycle assessment study of cucumbers, that showed that the plastic wrapping has a very low environmental impact (only about 1%) in comparison to the total environmental impacts of the fruit from grower to grocer. They found that plastic wrapping protects the environment more by saving more cucumbers from spoilage than it harms the environment by the additional use of plastic. Currently, in the example import supply chain used, the use of plastic wrapping lowers the cucumber losses at retail by an estimated 4.8%, resulting in a significant net environmental benefit.
Shrivastava, C., Crenna, E., Schudel, S., Shoji, K., Onwude, D., Hischier, R., Defraeye, T., 2021. ‘To wrap or to not wrap cucumbers?’, Preprint.
See how VOID is making plastics even more sustainable.