In an article published on November 9, 2018, industry association American Chemistry Council (ACC) informed about a life cycle assessment (LCA) study that found that “replacing plastic with alternative materials in packaging applications would cause increases in energy use, water consumption and solid waste, as well as increase greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), acidification, eutrophication and ozone depletion.”

The new study was commissioned by the ACC and the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), and prepared by Franklin Associates. It expands upon a 2014 report that “used life cycle assessment methodology to assess the energy consumption and GHG emission potential of six general categories of plastic packaging produced and sold in the U.S. and Canada relative to alternative packaging.” For the U.S., the 2014 study found that “the substitute packaging would require 80 percent more cumulative energy demand and result in 130 percent more global warming potentials.” For Canada, “energy requirements for substitute packaging [were found to be] twice as high as the equivalent plastic packaging, and global warming potential impacts for the substitute packaging more than double the impacts for the plastic packaging replaced.”

The 2018 assessment intended “to provide a snapshot of the environmental impacts of the current overall mix of plastic packaging in several categories, and the environmental impacts of the overall mix of alternative types of packaging that might be used as substitutes,” also for the U.S. and Canada region. The examined plastics were “limited to the predominant packaging resins” and included “low-density polyethylene (LDPE), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), expanded polystyrene (PS), [and] polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The alternative materials included steel, aluminum, glass, paper-based packaging, fiber-based textiles, and wood.  The study calculated “savings equivalents for plastic packaging compared to substitutes” for a variety of environmental indicators, including “total energy demand, expended energy, water consumption, solid waste by weight, solid waste by volume, global warming potential, acidification potential, eutrophication potential, smog formation potential, ozone depletion potential.” Plastic packaging scored better than alternatives for all indicators except the last one, leading the authors to conclude that “plastic packaging is . . . an efficient packaging choice in terms of a variety of environmental impacts.”

Steve Russell, ACC’s vice president of plastics, said that “the findings challenge common misperceptions around plastics and underscore that plastic is a versatile efficient material that is helping to solve some of our greatest environmental challenges.” He, however, stressed the need to “further improve the environmental performance of plastic packaging” by working toward “better end-of-life solutions.” In May 2018, ACC and North American plastics producers committed to ensuring that “100 percent of plastic packaging will be reused, recycled or recovered by 2040” (FPF reported). Russel commented that “we all want a world without plastic pollution, but we wouldn’t want a world without plastic.”

Read more

ACC (November 9, 2018). “Study contradicts conventional wisdom: Replacing plastic packaging with other materials would have adverse environmental impacts.


Franklin Associates (April 2018).”Life cycle impacts of plastic packaging compared to substitutes in the United States and Canada. Theoretical substitution analysis.(pdf)

Franklin Associates (January 2014). “Impact of plastics packaging on life cycle energy consumption & greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and Canada. Substitution analysis.(pdf)