In this guide, we discuss the sustainability of plastic across a range of sustainability indicators.
We discuss plastic as a material, but we also look at the sustainability of various plastic products such as bottles, bags and straws.
This guide compliments our separate guides comparing the sustainability of plastic as a material to other materials such as as aluminum, stainless steel, metals in general, glass, silicone, paper, cardboard, wood, and bamboo.
Summary – Is Plastic Sustainable?
Is Plastic Sustainable?
Plastic can be sustainable across some sustainability indicators, and not so sustainable across other indicators
How sustainable plastic is depends on the type of plastic, and also the plastic product or item that is being assessed
To illustrate those points:
– The sustainability of single use, high waste rate plastic might be different to the sustainability of reusable or long life, lower waste rate plastic
– The sustainability of different plastic products such as plastic bottles, plastic bags and plastic straws might have different considerations to each other, and to bottles, bags and straws made from other materials
… So, there can be different variables to the sustainability of plastic to consider
But, there are also general sustainability trends that might apply to all types of conventional plastics
Some Of The Ways Plastic May Be Sustainable
A few examples include, but aren’t limited to:
– The production footprint of plastic can be more sustainable than when comparing plastic to metals, or plastic to paper
In the case of metals, plastic may have a lower energy consumption and emissions footprint than some metals.
In the case of paper, some plastic production may not be as polluting as what some paper mills are.
– The transport and delivery footprint of plastic may be more sustainable than some materials like glass for example
Some plastics can be lightweight, flexible, and easier to pack compared to some glass which can be heavier, less flexible, and less efficient to pack
There can be fuel and packing efficiency savings for plastic (which leads to more efficient use of resources)
– Certain plastic products may be more sustainable that the same products made from different materials in some circumstances
There are numerous studies that show plastic as having a better eco footprint in some aspects than other alternative materials for packaging (with plastic vs aluminum being one examples), and also consumer items like drink bottles and bags
Some Of The Ways Plastic Might Not Be Sustainable
A few examples include but aren’t limited to:
– Conventional plastic comes from fossil fuel feedstock such as petroleum
– It often contains non-natural additives and synthetic chemicals
– It has a low recycling rate in some major countries
– It is a commonly littered and polluted material in some countries
– It can break down into microplastics
– It takes a long time to degrade in general (and some reports indicate we might not actually know how long it takes to break down)
– It may be responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions across it’s lifecycle than what was first thought
– And, the range of other potential effects plastic can have on humans, wild life and the environment
We outline some other potential unsustainable aspects of plastic in this guide
The Sustainability Of Plastic May Differ Between Cities
Some cities have different and/or more effective waste management systems and infrastructure compared to others, and this may impact the overall sustainability footprint of plastic in a particular area.
For example, some cities may have much lower levels of mismanaged plastic and littered plastic than others, and this may impact plastic pollution in that area.
The Sustainability Of Plastic May Change In The Future
The sustainability footprint of plastic as a material may change in the future if new plastic chemistries are developed, if plastic product designs and features are changed, or as waste management for plastic becomes more effective and sustainable.
These things are important to keep track of.
Potential Limitations On How Sustainable Plastic Can Become
There may be some hard limitations of how sustainable plastic can ultimately become.
For example, the biodegradability of plastic may not be anything like some papers or cottons anytime soon unless new developments or technologies are become available.
How We Might Measure Or Define ‘Sustainable’ In This Context
Sustainable in an environmental sense usually refers to something which doesn’t degrade the environment, and doesn’t deplete natural resources
It may also mean that the resources that are used to make something can be renewed quickly enough without being depleted over the long term.
But, plastic has the ability to impact humans, wildlife and the economy too.
So, we should look at the sustainability of plastic across social, economic, wildlife and practical indicators too, and not just the environmental and resource depletion aspect.
There Are Different Types Of Plastic, & Many Ways To Categorise Plastic
It would be easy to generalise and say plastic is or isn’t sustainable in a certain way.
But, the reality is that there are different types of plastic, and plastic can be categorised in many different ways.
With this being the case – it’s far more accurate to look at the sustainability of a specific type of plastic, or a category of plastic i.e. consider the individual variables of a plastic type and plastic product (also ideally taking into consideration consumer behavior and waste management available in a local area)
Examples of different types of plastic, or categories of plastic, may include:
– LDPE vs HDPE vs PET vs another type of plastic
– A fully plastic bag vs a fully plastic bottle vs a product that only partially contains plastic
– Single use plastic/high waste rate plastics vs long life/low waste rate plastics
– Macro plastics vs micro plastics
– Recyclable plastics vs non recyclable plastics
Just as one example of comparing the different types of plastic … recycling rates may differ in different countries for the different types of plastic.
Some of the highest rates are PET bottles and jars at 29.9%, and HDPE natural bottles at 30.3% [in the US … which is far higher than the average for all plastics] (en.wikipedia.org).
Read more about the different types of plastic and categories of plastic in these guides:
The Different Types Of Plastic
Most Problematic & Harmful Types Of Plastic
That being said, there are still some common sustainability takeaways from plastic in general.
They might be …
Main Ways Plastic Might Not Be Sustainable
– Use Of Fossil Fuels
Traditional plastic originates from petrochemical/fossil fuel feedstock such as petroleum and sometimes methane, which require mining, refining, and are also non renewable resources.
Right now, around 4% of the oil and natural gas we use go towards plastics
– Carbon Footprint
Plastic as a material does still have a decent sized carbon footprint … from gas leaks at the wellheads, to leaks at the pipelines, to the lengthy chemical process of turning oil or gas into raw plastic resin, to the energy to fashion the plastic into packaging or car parts or textiles … burning plastic waste also emits GHGs (npr.org)
– Energy Footprint
Common plastic like PET and HDPE are made from petroleum via the process of Polymerization – which can be energy intensive (desjardin.fr)
Not all plastics are recyclable, and the recycling rates for plastic tend to be low compared to some other materials.
In addition, some plastics can lose their quality and integrity each time they are recycled, so the plastic is eventually downcycled, or sent to landfill, or incinerated (as it can only be recycled a certain amount of times).
Other materials and products, like aluminum cans in some countries, might be considered to be more ‘closed loop’, and most of the material might be able to be kept in circulation
The advantages of using plastic compared to other materials shrinks as other materials are re-used more (npr.org)
It can also be cheaper in some instances for companies to produce new single use plastic bottles rather than recycle used ones.
– Repurposing & Re-Use
Plastic has a number of repurposing and re-use applications
Plastic items are some of the most littered items and most common items found on beach, river and land cleanups
Plastic takes a long time to decompose both in landfill and in the environment
Plastic breaks down into micro plastics, and micro plastics are being found in rivers, on soil, in the ocean, on beaches, and in humans and wild life.
Plastic can be ingested by wild life, as well as them getting tangled up in it
Plastic can leach additives and chemicals, as well as collect organic pollutants when it is out in the environment
– Economic Cost Of Plastic Pollution
There is a cost to clean up plastic litter and pollution, and address plastic waste problems (especially noteworthy in the case of single use plastics)
– Overall Negative Impact Of Plastic
Read more about the potential harmful effects of plastic that may contribute to it’s lack of sustainability in this guide
Main Ways Plastic Might Be Sustainable
What many people may not be aware of is that common disposable plastic items like bottles and bags can actually outperform bottles and bags made of other materials in some ways and across some environmental indicators/measurables.
We put together a couple of guides that outline these findings:
Plastic vs Paper vs Cotton vs Other Reusable Bags: Comparison, & Which Is Best?
Plastic vs Glass vs Metal (Stainless Steel & Aluminum) Bottles & Water Bottles: Comparison, & Which Is Best?
As a brief summary:
The production process of plastic may not to use as much energy, emit as much greenhouse gases, or be as expensive as some other materials such as metals
Aluminum and stainless steel bottles are one product based example of this
Plastic even comes out ahead of paper, canvas or glass in several sustainability metrics like climate and energy impact (npr.org).
Even though plastic production has some negative aspects to it’s production, when compared to the production of tin and aluminum containers, it might only use a fraction of the energy: ‘… When the production process for each is compared it is found that 1 kg of Polyethylene plastics produce around 4 kg CO2 and 1 kg aluminum produces 10.63 kg CO2′ (desjardin.fr)
– Transport & Delivery
Transporting and delivering plastic tends to be less intensive, use less fuel, and cheaper in some instances because of how light plastic is compared to some other materials like glass
It may also be more space efficient, and not have the fragility issues of glass either (in the case of plastic vs glass bottles).
Packaginginsights.com mentions – ‘… properties such as lightweight, durability, flexibility, cushioning and barrier properties make plastic packaging well suited for efficiently containing and protecting many types of products during shipment and delivery to customers without leaks, spoilage, or other damage’
– Waste Management
Plastics have no decomposition, meaning no associated methane releases when landfilled [compared to organic material] (packaginginsights.com)
What we may see with plastic bags vs other types of bags like paper, cotton, organic cotton, composite etc., is that other materials need to be re-used many more times in order to make up for their much larger production footprint compared to thin plastic LDPE bags.
Surprisingly, these LDPE plastic bags have a lower eco impact/better eco performance than some other bag materials across several eco and human toxicity measurables.
And it’s not only bags … metal and glass bottles also need to be used more times than single use or disposable plastic bottles to average out their production footprint.
In terms of plastic packaging (like carrier bags, caps and closures, beverage containers, stretch and shrink film, other rigid packaging and other flexible packaging):
‘… plastic … is more sustainable than the material alternatives in terms of energy use, water consumption, solid waste, greenhouse gas emissions, ozone depletion, eutrophication and acidification … and, replacing plastics with alternative materials such as paper and paperboard, glass, steel, aluminum, textiles, rubber and cork would result in significant net negative environmental impacts’ (packaginginsights.com)
It’s worth reading the above guides for more context and detail on these trends and this data
– Practicality Of Living With & Without Plastic
When assessing the sustainability of plastic, the practicality of plastic might be considered.
We covered these points in our guides about whether we could live without plastic, the uses of plastic and the benefits of plastic, but, these points outline some of the ways we plastic impacts society in a practical way where other materials might not be able to:
Would cars, public transport, planes and other modes of transport be as light or be as fuel efficient without plastic components and materials?
Would plumbing and waste infrastructure be as effective and affordable for major cities without plastic piping?
Would building, construction and insulation be as affordable and effective without plastic wiring, cables and materials?
… there are many of these types of questions to consider.
Is Plastic Environmentally Friendly?
As we can see from the above information:
In some ways plastic is more eco friendly than other materials like paper, metals, glass, silicone, cotton, composites, and so on – specifically when it comes to production and delivering plastic where it needs to get to.
But, in other ways plastic can damage the environment – specifically with mismanaged plastic (inadequately disposed of, and littered plastic), plastic that is incinerated without the proper air pollution or carbon capture controls, and the impact plastic can have as a macro or micro plastic in rivers and waterways, in soil, on beaches and in the ocean.
Read more about plastic in the ocean, and plastic on land in these guides
Does Plastic Contribute To Depletion Of Natural Resources, Or The Use Of Non Renewable Resources?
Conventional plastic uses fossil fuels like crude oil and natural gas as feedstock, both of which are considered as non renewable resources.
There’s discussion on how much fossil fuels we may have left, and whether fossil fuels are a scarce resource.
Beyond that, some plastics can’t be recycled at all, and of the ones that can be recycled, they might only be able to be recycled a certain amount of times before they have to be sent to land fill or incineration. This may place limits on how circular they can be compared to some metals.
Having said that, bioplastics are a newer type of plastic that use renewable biomass as feedstock instead of fossil fuels, and may be able to biodegrade under specific conditions.
But, bioplastics are not without their own issues to consider.
Potential Short & Long Term Impact Of Plastic On Humans, Wild Life and The Economy
Read more in these guides about the
21 Potential Harmful Effects Of Plastic
Potential Impact Of Plastic On The Economy
Potential Impact Of Plastic On Human Health, The Environment & Wildlife
How We Might Better Manage Our Relationship With Plastic In The Future As A Society
The reality with plastic is that it is everywhere around us, we use it for some really important applications in society, it has some features and characteristics that allow us to do beneficial things that other materials can’t or can only do at an extreme cost or with extreme difficulty, and it is likely to be a part of our short and long term future in some way, shape or form.
Read more about the general pros and cons of plastic in this guide for a comprehensive list of it’s benefits and disadvantages.
We may need to look at how we can best manage our use of existing plastics, and new plastics, rather than trying to get rid of plastic altogether
Considering the potential problems that plastic poses, this guide looks at major points we might consider in managing our relationship with plastic going into the future.