Plastics can help fight climate change?
The perplexing statement was recently made on Facebook by America’s Plastic Makers, a U.S. plastics producer that says its mission is to end plastic waste with modern materials.
“Studies show #plastic can help combat climate change,” the post says. “Researchers found using plastic in packaging and consumer products can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to many alternative materials.”
The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
America’s Plastic Makers is run by the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association for U.S. chemical companies, and is one of the leading producers of plastic in the U.S. The group’s post links to a page on its website that says decades of analysis shows plastics are strong and lightweight, thus requiring less material than steel, paper, aluminum and glass. The group says that replacing plastics with these materials, in many cases, would “significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions.”
But this oversimplifies a complex issue about plastic packaging’s benefits versus its negative impacts on the marine environment and human health.
Many studies have found that plastic significantly contributes to climate change because of the high carbon dioxide emissions that occur at every stage of its life.
The basics of plastic
Plastics are made from raw materials like natural gas, oil or plants, which are refined into ethane and propane before being treated with heat, turning them into ethylene and propylene.
These materials combine to create different polymers, which look like powdered laundry detergent. That’s melted down, cooled and eventually molded to make products like water bottles, food packaging, auto parts, medical devices and more.
This process — which includes the extraction and transportation of oil and gas, as well as the steps to refine the plastic — emits millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide every year.
In its report, America’s Plastic Makers uses various life-cycle studies — a methodology for assessing environmental impacts associated with the different stages of a product, process or service — from 2011, 2016 and 2018. Those studies suggest that plastic can perform the functions of paper or glass, but with less material and less weight, leading to less production energy and greenhouse gases.
The benefits of lightweight material are legitimate, but plastics still have negatives. Primarily, American consumers use so much plastic that it still has a large negative impact on the environment.
A May 2019 report called “Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet,” by the Center for International Environmental Law, found that the manufacture of plastics is particularly greenhouse-gas intensive.
In 2015, emissions from manufacturing ethylene were 184.3 to 213 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, about as much as what 45 million vehicles emit during one year.
Then there’s the repeated disposal of plastic packaging, via landfill, incineration or recycling. Incineration has the largest climate impact. U.S. emissions from plastics incineration in 2015 were 5.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
Because plastics are so common and so easily disposed of, it’s not especially realistic to compare their environmental impact to other materials.
“This topic is indeed more complicated than the (American Plastic Makers) report suggests,” said Rob Jackson, an earth systems professor at Stanford University. “I’m reminded of the common question, ‘Paper or plastic?’ The right answer is whatever you already have, so long as you reuse it.”
Finally, researchers have found that plastics have a large negative impact on the earth’s oceans.
The ocean acts like a huge sink for global pollution, with tons of plastic dumped in waters around the world every year. Hundreds of thousands of marine animals get entangled in plastic waste each year and ingest and suffocate on plastic products they mistake for food.
Studies evaluating how plastics impact marine environment and human health acknowledge that the material is cheap, strong and durable, and offers benefits to humanity, but say that waste management practices and human behavior have created a real problem.
Plastics do not biodegrade but they do eventually break down under sunlight and fragment into small particles, called microplastics. One 2012 report published in Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology said that 267 species in the marine environment are known to have been harmed by plastic entanglement or ingestion.
Scientists suspect that ocean pollution is an important but insufficiently understood component of global pollution that poses serious threats to human health and well-being.
Matthew Kastner, director of media relations for the Chemistry Council’s plastics division, acknowledged the danger of ocean pollution but also said the press has made exaggerated claims about plastics and greenhouse gas emissions.
“This is a short social media post intended to help correct the record,” Kastner told PolitiFact. “We 100% agree that plastics do not belong in the ocean or anywhere in the environment.”
All this presents a complicated choice in terms of deciding what to choose for packaging, researchers say.
“What is clear is that we need to reduce plastics production while ensuring that any alternatives do not contribute more to climate change, and this is where recycling comes in,” a 2020 analysis by the Imperial College of London says. “The emissions reductions from eliminating the need for new plastic outweigh the slightly higher emissions that come from processing wastes to recover plastics.”
America’s Plastic Makers claimed on Facebook that plastic can help combat climate change.
It’s true that some studies have found that plastic packaging is less environmentally damaging than alternatives like glass and paper, but this doesn’t negate plastics’ negative impact on human health and marine environment.
Instead of assessing which packaging to use, researchers said the focus should be on ramping up recycling and reuse practices.
The topic is more complicated than the post suggests. We rate it Half True.