In this guide, we outline some of the more notable pros and cons of plastic.
These pros and cons cover things such as how we use plastic as a material in society, and the potential impact it may have.
We also consider the management and use of plastic as a material going forward into the future.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Plastic
Plastic is a polarising material because of the stark benefits and drawbacks it presents, and the multiple ways it can impact humans, wild life, the environment, and the economy.
There’s no denying that synthetic plastic is made from non renewable fossil fuel feedstock, that some plastic contains BPAs and other potentially harmful chemicals, fillers and additives, that plastic usually has a high waste rate amongst disposable packaging materials, or the extent of plastic pollution on beaches, in rivers and lakes, in the ocean and on land (although some effort is being made by organisations to clean that up).
Additionally, microplastics seem to be everywhere (in our food and water, in the soil, in fresh water, and in the ocean, and more), plastic tends to have a lower recycling rate than other materials, and plastic can take thousands of years to fully degrade … just to name a few more drawbacks.
It generally cheap (making things more affordable, particularly to lower income earners), and being a synthetic material means we can design and manufacture it to be and do things we otherwise can’t with natural materials.
Plastic can help minimise food waste, keep food hygienic and safe, keep medical instruments and items sterile and safe, help save fuel in vehicles by making vehicles lighter, is used in renewable energy equipment and systems like solar panel set ups, and is responsible for a lot of key plumbing piping and electrical conduits and cabling world wide (just to name a few key benefits).
Something that surprises some people is that plastic also benefits the environment across multiple sustainability indicators by helping us save resources and reduce emissions at different stages across a material or product’s life cycle.
Several life cycle assessment reports and case studies of items like bottles, bags, and packaging support this.
Going forward …
Instead of demonising plastic altogether, we might look at how we can extract maximum and value benefits out of plastic, whilst minimising the downsides as much as practically possible (and identifying, as well as maintaining awareness of plastics that may be the most problematic).
A lot of this might come down to how we choose to use it, and what we use it for.
Redesigning plastic products, developing new plastic chemistries (and new plastics), using more plastic alternatives and substitutes where beneficial, reducing plastic use and waste rates where possible, re-using, re-purposing and recycling plastic where possible, along with upgrading and improving plastic waste management systems, technology and facilities … are all potential places to start.
Solving plastic problems whilst maintaining the benefits and value of plastic is something that needs to be looked at on a case by case basis (by item, product, company, city, etc.), and will require all parties across the plastic life cycle to analyse and improve their behavior (suppliers, manufacturers, consumers, sellers, waste management collectors and processors, governments, and so on).
Pros Of Plastic
A summary of some of the potential pros:
Some Plastics Have A Long Lifespan
Not all plastics are the single use or disposable type of plastic.
PVC piping for example may last 50 to 100 years, and construction plastic has a mean lifetime of 35 years.
Plastic with a longer lifespan has a lower waste rate than plastics that become waste in a matter of seconds or minutes.
The Production Of Plastic Compares Favorably To The Production Of Other Materials In Some Ways
Although the production of plastic is energy and resource intensive in some ways, other materials can be less eco friendly in their production process.
One example is a metal like aluminum (unless it’s recycled) that is generally energy intensive to manufacture. Another might be bamboo, which despite being a semi natural fibre, can lead to environmental pollution from the chemical bamboo viscose process.
Plastic Takes Up Less Space In Landfills
Plastic might take up less space/volume in landfill (bankrate.com) than other materials (some sources say plastic take up 7 times less space than paper).
Plastic Doesn’t Emit Methane When Breaking Down
Plastic Can Be Used To Get Water To Those Who Need It Quickly & Affordably
Plastic bottled water is an affordable and quick way to get water to populations of people who need it, and may not have access to safe and clean water, or any water at all.
Examples may include cities experiencing a water shortage, regions that have been damaged by a natural event, and places that don’t have working water infrastructure at all.
There’s Different Ways To Manage Plastic Waste With Heat, Other Than Traditional Burning
These options can process plastic with minimal emissions or pollution (but, admittedly, both have other issues with cost, scaling etc.)
Plastic Is One Of The Most Energy Dense Materials To Burn/Incinerate
New Plastic Types & Plastic Chemistries Are Being Researched & Developed
Plastic Bottles Are In Some Ways More Eco Friendly Than Other Material Substitutes
Plastic Bags Are In Some Ways More Eco Friendly Than Other Material Substitutes
Plastic Straws May In Some Ways Be More Eco Friendly Than Other Material Substitutes
Plastic Packaging Is In Some Ways More Eco Friendly Than Other Material Substitutes
Plastic as a material performs better across some environmental indicators than other material substitutes for packaging (such as carrier bags, caps and closures, beverage containers, stretch and shrink film, other rigid packaging and other flexible packaging)
Plastic Is In Several Ways More Sustainable Than Paper
Additionally, in the UK, the paper products sector used almost as much energy as the rubber and plastics sectors combined in 2016 (although, this is just a total – and not per capita of plastic and paper output)
Chemical Makeup & Properties Can Be Modified To Suit Use
As a synthetic material, plastic’s chemistry can be modified to provide more beneficial properties for it’s end use – making it softer or harder, more malleable, more durable, and so on.
Plastic Is Worth A lot To The Economy & Employs A lot Of People
Plastic is cheap and easy to make/produce.
Protects Our Health & Safety, & Promotes Hygiene In Some Ways
When it comes to food safety (via plastic packaging, wrapping, trays etc.), and when it comes to sterilised and sealed medical instruments – just as two general examples.
Preserves Food & Prevents Food Waste
Prevents food from spoiling and going to waste with sealed plastic packaging and wrapping.
Less food waste means less deforestation, land clearing and agricultural chemical inputs as well.
Is Important For Infrastructure & Construction
Plastic is used for plumbing pipes, as well as electrical cable conduits.
It’s also used in construction inside buildings and households.
Important For Transportation
The light weight of plastic helps save fuel when used in vehicles (where heavier materials would be less fuel efficient), and also makes up important parts in various vehicles.
Performs Many Other Critical & Convenient Uses In Society
There’s many other critical uses for plastic in society, including both everyday (textiles is a common one) and specialized type uses.
Makes Delivery/Transport Of Products Cheaper & Easier
Not Fragile Or Prone To Breakage
When compared to a material like glass.
Can Be Repurposed, Or Downcycled For Secondary Use Applications
Plastic fill is one example of downcycling.
One example of repurposing is using plastic bottles for recycled fibre clothing.
The Water Footprint Of Plastic May Not Be As Bad When Compared To Other Materials & Resources
It takes about 22 gallons to make one pound of plastic (which can make roughly 45 PET water bottles). In comparison, one sheet of paper requires about 3 gallons of water to make, and one hamburger requires about 634 gallons.
The Carbon Footprint Of Plastic May Not Be As Bad When Compared To Other Materials & Resources
In addition, even when plastic as a material might produce more carbon emissions than another material by weight – plastic products can be lighter, and this can equalize total final emissions in a comparable product … this can be the case with similar sized glass and plastic bottles.
In addition, some sources indicate that synthetic plastic fibre textiles like nylon and synthetic fleece have a comparable or lesser carbon footprint at the point of purchase compared to wool and cotton.
There’s Still A Lot Of Potential To Better Use Or Reduce Plastic, & Manage Plastic Waste
In some ways, society hasn’t tapped into the potential to use plastic much more wisely and efficiently (such as redesigning products to be more plastic efficient, as well as reducing our individual plastic packaging footprints), nor have we reached the potential to manage plastic waste better (via redesigning products to make them more recyclable, and investing in better waste collection and sorting systems, along with upgraded plastic waste management facilities, technology and infrastructure).
Cons Of Plastic
A summary of some of the potential cons:
Plastic Comes From A Non-Renewable Resource
Plastic is produced from fossil fuel feedstock – usually petroleum or natural gas.
Comparatively, plastic substitutes such as bamboo and wood comes from renewable (and natural) resources.
Plastic Is One Of The Most Common Debris/Waste Materials Found In The Ocean
Ocean Plastic Pollution Is A Problem
Plastic Is One Of The Most Common Waste Materials Found On Beaches, Land & In Rivers
Plastic waste/litter found on land, on beaches, and in fresh water sources like rivers may be littered, or inadequately managed at open and uncontained dumping sites (where it leaks into the environment).
Plastic Pollution On Land Is A Problem
Plastic Pollution Costs Money To Address & Clean Up
As just one example, removing plastic from ocean surface water is usually not profitable when considering the re-sell or re-use value of one kilogram of plastic (about 30 cents), compared to what it costs to remove it (about $5).
Plastic Pollution Can Lead To Other Economic Losses
Additionally, some estimates indicate that plastic packaging alone represents an $80 billion loss to the global economy every year
Plastic Can Cause Human Health Concerns
There’s a concern plastic food containers leach BPA into our food, and plastic drink bottles leaches it into our water.
BPA is found in polycarbonate plastic in baby bottles, sippy cups, and reusable water bottles.
Other chemicals that give plastic their rigidity or flexibility (flame retardants, bisphenols, & other chemicals) can have toxicity concerns when they potentially leach out from the product that contains them.
BPA Free Plastic Products Might Not Be A Fully Human Safe Solution
A common BPA substitute is BPS … however, some research shows that BPS could possess similar safety concerns to BPA.
Plastic Impacts Wild Life & Marine Life
Plastic Has A Low Recycling Rate In Some Countries
Some plastic items are recycled at a higher rate than others.
Plastic Can’t Be Recycled Infinitely
Plastic can only be recycled a certain number of times before it loses it’s integrity and quality, and has to be downcycled, or sent to landfill or incineration.
Some Plastics Can’t Be Recycled At All
Plastic Recycling Has Numerous Challenges
Another is that some products contain several types of different plastic (such as some sport drink bottles), or different materials – which makes recycling inefficient or not possible.
Another is that some recycling processing and re-sell chains can be long and inefficient (i.e. one piece of plastic may change hands and travel long distances in order to be recycled and re-used or repurposed)
Plastic Recycling Isn’t Always Feasible Or Profitable
Recycling some types of plastic isn’t economically viable (because of the market value of that plastic, or how plastic value can be tied to oil prices, or a number of other problems with collecting and sorting/processing plastic)
Some Plastics Have A High Waste Rate
Single use and disposable plastics like plastic packaging for example become waste quickly and frequently, compared to some other types of plastic.
The high waste rate of some plastics likely is linked to the litter and pollution rates of plastic.
Plastic Is Not Biodegradable
Unlike organic materials like 100% natural untreated wood or bamboo for example, plastic is not a biodegradable material
Plastic Takes A Long Time To Break Down
On top of that, different plastic products/items take longer to break down than others, such as plastic fishing line which can take up to 600 years to break down according to some estimates.
Some researches note that there is a chance plastic may never fully break down i.e. it may stay around forever in the form of micro or nano plastics
Incinerating Plastic Has It’s Own Problems & Challenges
Another might be ensuring a consistent supply of plastic.
The Best Way To Dispose Of Plastic Isn’t Always The Same Or Clear
Synthetic Fibres Containing Plastic Might Not Be As Eco Friendly As Natural Fibres In Some Ways
Synthetic textiles (like polyester, nylon, acrylic etc.) that contain plastic micro fibres, may require more embodied energy and have higher CO2 emissions per tonne of spun fiber than natural fibre textiles
Micro Plastic Fibres From Clothing & Textiles Are Being Observed All Across Society & The Environment
Plastic micro fibers from synthetic and natural-synthetic blend clothes and textiles are thought to be one of the biggest sources of micro plastics in our food and water supplies, soil, rivers and water ways, and the ocean.
This can happen especially when clothing is washed in our washing machines
The Long Term Effects Of Microplastics Are Still Not Fully Clear
Although initial studies suggests micro plastics aren’t impacting humans in any way, there is some impact on micro organisms.
Humans Inhale & Ingest Micro Plastic Fibres
Plastic In The Environment Can Soak Up Persistent Organic Pollutants
Bioplastics Still Have Their Own Issues & Problems
Bioplastics can rate worse than regular plastic across some environmental indicators.
Bioplastics can also be more expensive, as well as needing specific composting conditions to break down effectively.
Bioplastics are therefore not a complete solution against regular plastics, at least not at the moment.
VC in PVC is potentially the most toxic plastic for our health and environment.
Some sources indicate that no other plastic contains, or has the potential to release as many dangerous chemicals.
There can be issues incinerating PVC or sending it to some landfills because of the lead, mercury, phthalamites and chlorine involved in a PVC product’s creation.
Although, it should be noted that more economical and easier ways to recycle PVC are becoming available.
CPVC can also possess health and toxicity concerns (some leaching studies report that PVC nor CPVC should be used for drinking water).
Vinyl chloride ‘from older PVC piping and has been found in the drinking water of a small number of communities across [the US’ (nrdc.org)
Plastic May Account For More Greenhouse Gases Than First Thought
Other Material Substitutes Can Be More Sustainable Than Plastic The More They Are Re-used
For example, carrier bags and drink bottles made of substitute materials compare more favorably to plastic the more they are re-used.
Wood Is A More Sustainable Material Compared To Plastic Across Several Indicators
Metal Furniture May Be More Sustainable Than Plastic Furniture
High Quality Food Grade Silicone May Come Out Slightly Ahead When Compared To Plastic
Boxed/Carton Water Is In Some Ways More Sustainable Than A Plastic Water Bottle
Disposable Plastic Bottles Can Be A Waste Of Water
When including water in the supply chain (and not just the plastic bottle), that amount of water could be six or seven times what’s inside the bottle (npr.org).
When consumers are frequently using new disposable plastic bottles without a legitimate need to, this can be a waste of water.