Plastic alternatives could increase human impact on the environment - Leading academics

Posted On: 
18th January 2019

The British Plastics Federation Director General has drawn together several different academic reports published in the UK, the USA & Canada which all concluded that plastic is the most environmentally-friendly packaging material, in stark contrast to a great deal of press coverage in the UK, which questions the choice of plastic. 

Credit: 
BPF

More than fifty academics from sixteen UK universities have called for better public understanding of the benefits that plastics bring by warning that replacing plastics with alternative materials could lead to greater environmental damage. 

At the end of 2018, in an open letter co-signed by the British Plastics Federation (BPF), eighteen academics from fifteen universities drew attention to the role plastic plays in lowering environmental impacts through the low amount of energy used in its production, its light weight in comparison to alternatives and the resources used in its manufacture.

Following this, Herriott Watt University in Scotland independently released a similar statement, signed by forty academics from a range of disciplines including engineering, economics and various physical and social sciences, which warned that replacing plastics with alternatives could lead to unintended damage to our ecosystems.

Complementing these findings, a 175-page research report published in December 2018 by US and Canadian scientists, concluded that plastic is the most environmentally-friendly packaging material, which is in stark contrast to a great deal of coverage in the UK press which questions the choice of plastic.

The 2018 study looked at energy use, water consumption, solid waste, greenhouse gas emissions, ozone depletion, eutrophication, and acidification, and found that replacing plastic with other materials would result in significant harm to the environment.  The report found, in the United States alone, using plastic packaging saved enough water to fill 461,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, and enough energy to fuel 18 million passenger vehicles.

Recently, the British Plastics Federation (BPF) worked alongside manufacturers and recyclers to release its vision to ensure plastics are used sustainably. Working alongside the charity RECOUP, the BPF also released eco-design guidance to help designers create easy-to-recycle packaging, highlighting the key role clever design plays in keeping products environmentally-friendly.

Regarding the importance of plastic to our society, Director of the Centre for Advanced Materials Engineering at the University of Bradford, Philip Coates, recently stated:

“Plastic covers a remarkable set of families of materials, and through innovation we can design plastics with special, unique properties to help us develop new technologies. We can raise the stiffness to match that of aluminium (whilst remaining lighter), or change other physical properties such as thermal and barrier attributes of the material.

The range of valuable - in some cases life-saving, and in many cases life enhancing - applications of plastics are expanding. Surgeons are excited about shape memory fixations as these can simplify keyhole surgery; safe implants, including bioresorbable ones offer significant advantages to patients over conventional metal implants, including lighter weight and matching of properties with bone.”

These public statements and reports draw attention to the often-overlooked environmental credentials of plastic. Of course, we need to continue to work to ensure that plastic does not leak into the natural environment, where it can cause well-documented harm. The whole of the UK, EU and US combined account for just 2% of marine litter and lots of work is going on across the world to find ways to stop plastic waste leaking into the environment.

It is good that people are thinking about the impact waste can have on the environment. However, from the industry’s perspective, we would like the government, NGOs and the public to better understand the benefits of plastic and the vital role it plays in lowering greenhouse gas emissions across the planet.

We should all be mindful of the materials we use in our lives and each of us should do what we can to lower our impact on the environment. But switching to alternative materials could potentially quadruple the environmental costs, according to one study. In innumerable applications, it is the best material for the job and – surprising as it may be – the best material for the planet.