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STUDY: Plastic packaging beats alternatives for energy use, emissions

Six major categories of plastic packaging help to significantly reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions compared to packaging alternatives, a new study has found.

Six major categories of plastic packaging help to significantly reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions compared to packaging alternatives, a new study has found.

The study, Impact of Plastics Packaging on Life Cycle Energy Consumption & Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States and Canada,” provides a transparent, detailed life cycle assessment that quantifies the energy and climate benefits of using various types of everyday plastic packaging compared to alternatives. 

Prepared by Franklin Associates for the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), the study assessed the energy requirements and greenhouse gas emissions of six general categories of plastic packaging produced and sold in the U.S. and Canada: caps and closures, beverage containers, other rigid containers, shopping bags, shrink wrap, and other flexible packaging.

“Plastic packaging enables the safe and efficient delivery of various products which form part of our daily lives, everything from food to essential health and safety aids,” said Carol Hochu, president and CEO of the CPIA, in statement to media. “However, many are unaware that plastics carry out these functions while at the same time conserving energy and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. This study clearly articulates these benefits to sustainability,” Hochu added.

Study authors used life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology to compare current amounts of various plastic packaging products to packaging made with alternative materials. 

The assessment found that for the baseline year 2010, replacing all plastic packaging with non-plastic alternatives for these six types of packaging in Canada would:

  • require almost 4.4 times as much packaging material by weight, increasing the amount of packaging used in Canada by nearly 5.5 million tonnes or 5.5 billion kilograms;
  •  increase energy use by 2.0 times – equivalent to the amount of oil transported by 18 supertankers; and
  • result in 2.3 times more global warming potential – equivalent  to adding 3.3 million more cars to our roads.

Similar calculations are available for the U.S. market.

“Plastics packaging is highly engineered enabling innovation in performance and reductions in material use resulting in enormous sustainability benefits throughout the entire life cycle, as this study shows,” said Cathy Cirko, VP of the CPIA, in the joint statement about the findings. “After use, plastics make further contributions to sustainability by being re-purposed through recycling or recovered for its energy value and converted into a liquid oil, electricity and into other fuels”.

More than 70 per cent of Canada’s population has the opportunity to recycle all their plastic bottles; over 50 per cent can recycle non-bottle containers, and 60 per cent can recycle polyethylene plastic film and bags. The study contains more than 50 tables and 16 charts and illustrations, and examines the each of the major life cycle stages for packaging: raw material production, packaging fabrication, distribution transport, postconsumer disposal, and recycling.

The report is available in its entirety here.  

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