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Performance Plastics and Sustainability
by IAPD Environmental Committee
Plastics are often criticized as being bad for the environment. However, performance plastics offer unique opportunities to reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle. Performance plastics are designed to last for multi-use applications and, in many cases, generate a smaller carbon footprint than glass, steel or wood over the course of their lifetime. Here’s a look at some of the many environmental benefits of performance plastics:

  • Strong yet lightweight performance plastics use less fuel to transport thus reducing an organizations carbon footprint.
  • Weather-resistant performance plastics are replacing wood in construction and signage, resulting in longer lasting applications that won’t warp or rot.
  • Certain performance plastics can be used without the added lubrication that metals would require, eliminating the need for greases and lubricants.
  • Many performance plastics qualify for LEED points for building design and construction.
  • Most performance plastics can be recycled into new, useful products again and again.

We’ve all heard the negatives about plastics. What we aren’t hearing is the other — the informed — side. Let’s start with the misconception that plastics consume more energy than traditional materials. A comprehensive study by Franklin Associates, Ltd., a life cycle and solid waste consulting firm, determined that the total energy used in manufacturing plastic packaging is considerably less than the energy used to produce non-plastic alternatives. Without plastics, the equivalent of an additional 58 million barrels of oil or 325 billion cubic feet of natural gas would have been required to meet America’s packaging needs alone in 1990. That’s enough to meet the energy needs of 100,000 homes for 35 years. For further information, visit http://plastics.americanchemistry.com/plastics-an-energy-efficient-choice.

This study takes into consideration the raw materials such as oil in manufacturing products along with the energy consumed in their manufacture and shipments. Although it focused on packaging, its findings can be translated to other industries when comparing plastics to more traditional materials.

Next, let’s talk about plastic not being recyclable. The facts are that plastics are recyclable and can be more valuable as scrap than metal and other traditional materials. The problem is that plastics are more difficult to separate. While our industry continues to improve its efficiency, increase its recycling and reduce its waste, the public and other industries are not following suit. It’s easy to outlaw plastic bags and blame the plastics industry, but the fact is that supermarkets in the United States take back these bags and recycle them. When recycled, they are repurposed, usually using less energy than other materials, and made useful again.

While IAPD members typically are not in the single-use market, the effort involved in recycling remains constant. It is not easy — recycling requires space and time. However, those who are recycling agree that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Another issue we must address is the growing public stigma that all plastics are causing environmental and health problems and are not a good replacement for wood, paper, glass or metal. IAPD members are extremely cognizant of this and it is our duty and responsibility to our industry to educate our customers, the public and policy makers. We must also continue to promote and encourage the proper use and handling of this wonderful material. While the argument can be as broad as the number of products made with plastics, a primary argument in this area is that the very attributes that some consider negative are the same characteristics that give plastics their supremacy.

There are certain things we can do to support our cause. First, recycle. Don’t bury it. Every time you bury plastics you are wasting resources. Next, use the right material for the job. There is an incredible array of plastic materials. Choose wisely and, if you need help, an IAPD member can advise you. Then look at the big picture. Take water pipes or underground pipes for instance. The arguments from the metal industry cannot stand up to the facts that plastic alternatives are less expensive to produce and ship, easier to work with, are less affected by weather, do not corrode and last longer.

Growing our market is contingent on continually educating the industry on the sustainability of plastics and teaching them to look beyond the consumption of oil as a raw material and at the overall environmental benefits. Performance plastics cost less, take less energy to produce and have a lower carbon footprint “cradle to grave” when considering coal and the other chemicals used and their hazardous byproducts when complete.

The bottom line is: Plastics are necessary in a modern society and, if used responsibly, can be one of the most sustainable materials available.