Plastic packaging provides an environmental leg-up on alternatives, study shows
by Dan Ilika, Assistant Editor
Replacing plastic packaging with substitute materials would increase energy use, emissions potential
TORONTO—A recent study is shedding new light on the environmental benefits of using plastic in the packaging.
Jointly commissioned by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), the study shows replacing plastic packaging with alternate materials would double the energy used by the Canadian packaging industry and require 5.5 million additional tonnes of packaging material by weight.
Similar results were published for the industry in the United States.
“I think people know full well that plastic packaging provides a lot of benefits in terms of protecting food and extending shelf life, but now we’re able to say with a great deal of certainty how plastics can really help enhance a package’s environmental performance,” said Carol Hochu, president of the CPIA.
Using a life cycle assessment methodology for the baseline year of 2010, the study examined the energy requirements and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of six categories of plastic packaging: caps and closures; beverage containers; other rigid containers; shopping bags; shrink wrap; and other flexible packaging.
The study pitted plastics against comparable alternatives, including paper, cardboard, glass, steel and aluminum, and found that the global warming potential of the industry increased by 130 per cent when using substitute materials.
“As a result of using plastic packaging versus alternate types of packaging, there are great savings to be found in total packaging weight, in accumulative energy use and in global warming potential,” Hochu said.
According to the study, the Canadian packaging industry used 1.6 million tonnes of material in 2010, while more than 7.1 million tonnes of other packaging material would be needed to replace plastic.
Similarly, the study found the industry would use a great deal more energy if plastics were replaced with alternate materials.
The study found the increased global warming potential of using alternative materials was equivalent to adding 3.3 million vehicles to Canada’s roads.
“I think it’s a good news story certainly from the plastics industry perspective and for those that have an interest in (the role of) plastic packing in some of these important environmental (measures),” Hochu said.
“It’s acknowledging the important role that plastic packaging plays, and (that) there’s also a significant contribution to sustainability as well.”
That’s not to say that there’s not an important role for alternative materials to play in the packaging industry, she continued.
Hochu also said the study won’t make manufacturers run out and pump more virgin plastic into their operations.
“We are still enthusiastic disciples of the four Rs: reduce; reuse; recycle; and recover,” she said.