In this guide, we outline some of the potential pros and cons of plastic.
These pros and cons cover things such as how we use plastic as a material in society, and also the potential impact it may have across different areas of society.
We also consider the management and use of plastic as a material going forward into the future.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Plastic
Plastic can be a polarising material because of the number of ways it can both positively and negatively impact different areas of society.
Traditional plastic comes from fossil fuels, contains additives and chemicals that have been linked to human health issues, and can result in plastic pollution and microplastics, amongst a number of other potentially negative effects of using plastic.
Plastic is used in construction, transport, textiles and clothing, and packaging.
Plastic also helps in protecting and preserving food, maintaining the safety of medical instruments, making freight and delivery of product easier, and generally making some things safer, cheaper, and more efficient (amongst other benefits). Part of this has to do with the affordability of plastic to manufacture, and also the traits and properties of plastic, such as being lightweight, waterproof, flexible, and more.
Something that surprises some people is that plastic can have sustainability benefits in some instances compared to some other materials
With this being the case, it might be accurate to say that we couldn’t live without plastic in modern societies, and plastic won’t be completely eliminated from use anytime soon.
Several reports indicate that finding ways to better manage plastic may be a key focus going forward (i.e. maximise the uses and benefits that plastic offers, and minimise the negative effects of plastic) instead of trying to eliminate plastic altogether.
There’s a range of ways we may try to better use plastic (i.e. how and what we use plastic for), manage plastic waste, manage plastic pollution, and generally address plastic related problems going into the future
In addition to considering the environmental impact of plastic, the human health, social, economic, and practical impact of plastic should be considered too.
Potential Pros Of Plastic
Some examples include:
Plastic is used for plumbing pipes, as well as electrical cable conduits.
It’s also used in construction inside buildings and households, such as for plastic based window frames.
Synthetic plastic based fibres like polyester are commonly used for a range of textiles.
Plastic is a material used for several different parts on modern vehicles.
The light weight of plastic also helps save fuel when used in vehicles (where heavier materials would be less fuel efficient)
– Renewable Energy
Plastic can be used in solar panels themselves, and solar panel setups.
We may not be able to get these benefits at all, or as easily or affordably from other materials.
Some examples include:
– Protects Our Health & Safety, & Helps Us Maintain Hygiene
Examples include food safety by preventing food contamination with plastic packaging, and maintaining the sterilisation of medical instruments with sealed plastic.
– Helps Prevent Food Waste & Food Loss, & Helps Preserve Food Too
Plastic can both protect food from being damaged before it gets to market, and also help food keep it’s freshness (and prevent it from spoiling) at the retail and consumer stages.
Less food waste and loss also has a range of flow on sustainability benefits
– Improves Delivery/Transport/Freight Of Products In Several Ways
Plastic’s traits of being soft, waterproof, flexible, and so on enable some products to be packed and transported in ways they can’t with other materials
Plastic packaging’s light weight and packing efficiency can make transporting and freight to be cheaper, more sustainable (with better fuel efficiency), and more space efficient than what it would be with some types of glass. Plastic also isn’t prone to breakage like some glass materials might be.
Plastic Is Valuable To The Economy, & Employs A lot Of People
Plastic Is An Affordable Material
Plastic is generally a cheap material to produce (especially when oil prices drop)
This means that cost savings by suppliers and producers across the supply chain can be passed onto consumers to make some products and services more affordable.
Plastic’s Chemical Makeup & Properties Can Be Modified During Production To Suit It’s End Use
As a synthetic material, the manufacture of plastic can be modified.
Can Be Repurposed, Or Downcycled For Secondary Uses & Applications
Plastic can be down cycled to make plastic fill.
Plastic bottles can be repurposed for recycled fibre clothing.
Some Plastics Have A Long Usage Lifespan
Not all plastics have a high waste rate like single use or disposable types of plastic.
PVC piping for example may last 50 to 100 years, and construction plastic has a mean lifetime of 35 years.
Plastic Takes Up Less Space In Landfills Than Some Other Materials
According to bankrate.com, plastic might take up less space/volume in landfill than paper.
Plastic may take up 7 times less space than paper.
Unlike Some Other Materials, Plastic Doesn’t Emit Methane When Breaking Down
Plastic Bottles Can Be Used To Get Water To Those Who Need It Quickly & Affordably
Bottled water made of plastic are an affordable and quick way to get water to populations of people who need it, especially in the case of an emergency.
Examples of this include cities experiencing a water shortage, regions that have been damaged by a natural event.
New Plastic Types & New Plastic Chemistries Might Offer Improvements Over Traditional Plastics
Some plastics can only be recycled a limited number of times before they have to be sent to landfill or another waste management destination.
Plastic Is One Of The Most Energy Dense Waste Materials To Burn For Energy
Some Waste Management Methods For Plastic That Use Heat Offer Different Benefits
Having said this, both may also have drawbacks with cost, scaling etc.
Plastic Bottles, Bags & Straws May Be More Eco Friendly Than Other Material Substitutes In Some Ways
Plastic Packaging May Be More Eco Friendly Than Other Material Substitutes In Some Ways
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 May Be More Sustainable Than Some Metals In Some Ways
Plastic May Be More Sustainable Than Some Bamboos In Some Ways
Plastic May Be More Sustainable Than Paper & Also Cardboard In Several Ways
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)
The Water Footprint Of Some Plastic Products May Be Lower Compared To Products Made From Other Materials
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 Some Plastic Products May Be Lower Compared To Products Made From Other Materials
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.
Furthermore, some reports 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 Might Be Potential To Manage Plastic Better As A Society, & Reduce The Negative Effects Of Plastic Use
Without having to eliminate the use of plastic altogether, these ways to potentially manage plastic better may result in less of a negative impact from the use of plastic.
Potential Cons Of Plastic
Plastic Is Derived From A Non-Renewable Resource
Plastic is derived from fossil fuels like petroleum or natural gas, and unlike renewable resources, there’s reportedly only a certain amount of fossil fuels left.
Plastic Can Be Linked To A Range Of Human Health Risks & Concerns
For example, high waste plastics, commonly littered or polluted plastics, and some types of PVC plastic may be more problematic or harmful in different ways than other types of plastic.
Plastic Pollution On Dry Land Is A Problem
Ocean Plastic Pollution Is A Problem
Plastic Pollution Costs Money To Clean Up, & Specific Types Of Plastic Can Result In Economic Loss
Plastic Is One Of The Most Commonly Littered Waste Materials
Plastic waste is one of the most common types of waste found on beaches and in oceans.
Plastic May Negatively Impact Wild Life & Marine Life
There Can Be Several Issues Related To Recycling Plastic
Some examples include:
– Plastic Has A Low Average Recycling Rate Compared To Other Materials
Although some plastic products have higher recycling rates than others, and some cities have higher recycling rates than others, the average global recycling rate of plastic is still low compared to other materials.
– Plastic Can’t Be Recycled Infinitely
Unlike metals which can be recycled over and over, there’s a limited number of times some plastics can be recycled (due to integrity and quality issues)
When plastic can’t be recycled anymore, it’s either downcycled, or sent to landfill or incineration.
– Some Plastics Can’t Be Recycled At All
One example is the cross contamination of one plastic with another.
Another example is that some products contain several different types of plastic (such as some sport drink bottles), or different materials. This makes recycling inefficient or not possible.
– Plastic Recycling Isn’t Always Economically Feasible Or Profitable
Some of the reasons for this include the market value of recycled plastic material, plastic value being influenced by oil prices, or a number of other factors related to collecting and sorting/processing plastic.
– Other Issues
Some recycling chains (that involve the processing and eventual re-sale or reuse of recycled plastic material) involve one piece of plastic changing hands many times, and being transported long distances.
Some argue how efficient or feasible this, and whether other waste management options would be better.
One example is that unless pollutant capture technology and devices are used, air pollution can be an issue.
Another example might be ensuring a consistent supply of 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 might mean more plastic ends up as litter, polluted plastic, or in landfills.
Plastic Is Not Biodegradable Or Compostable
Unlike organic materials, traditional plastic is not a biodegradable or compostable material.
Some bioplastics might be biodegradable or compostable under certain conditions, but bioplastics may also have other issues to consider.
Bioplastics Still Have Their Own Issues & Problems To Consider
Bioplastics can be more expensive, as well as needing specific conditions to break down effectively.
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.
Microplastics Are Potentially An Issue In Several Ways
Some examples include:
Such as in the soil, in fresh water sources like rivers and lakes, in the ocean, in the air, in food and drinking water supplies (bottled water, and tap water), being ingested by wildlife, being inhaled or ingested by humans, and potentially in the deep sea or washed up and buried on beaches and coastlines.
– The Health Effects On Humans & Wildlife May Not Be Definitive
– The Effects On The Environment May Not Be Definitive
– May Be Difficult To Clean Up Or Remove From Society
The nature of microplastics (how small they are), and the range of places they end up in may mean they may become impossible to fully remove from society.
Read more about microplastics in this guide.
Plastic In The Environment Can Absorb & Carry Around Persistent Organic Pollutants
Synthetic Fibres Containing Plastic Might Not Be As Eco Friendly As Natural Fibres In Some Ways
Some 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 some natural fibre textiles
Plastic May Account For More Greenhouse Gases Than First Thought
Disposable Plastic Bottles May Be Considered 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.
Other Re-usuable Materials Can Be More Sustainable Than Re-usuable Plastics In Some Ways
For example, re-usuable carrier bags and drink bottles made of materials other than plastic are more sustainable than plastic across some sustainability indicators if they are re-used a certain number of times.
Wood Might Be 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 Be Slightly More Sustainable Than Plastic In Some Ways
Boxed/Carton Water Might Be More Sustainable Than A Plastic Water Bottle In Some Ways