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Advantages and disadvantages of plastic products

Why the plastic industry should care for impact reduction

The Global plastics production forecast 2025-2050 (Statista) says that by 2030 the world will produce 483 million tons of thermoplastics (the biggest group of plastic materials), and by 2040 it will be even more, with 564 million tons of plastic. While plastic has technical properties that cannot be reached with other materials such as textiles, paper, or metals, plastic is made from non-renewable resources, and its manufacturing, as well as its disposal, can cause serious harm to the environment. In this article, we give an overview of the plastics industry, how plastic harms the environment, and how the plastics industry could reduce carbon emissions from plastic production and disposal.

 

What are the advantages of plastic

Plastic is lightweight and has – depending on the granulate – high flexibility and durability, which makes it a very efficient material to use in many everyday appliances.

Plastic is important for several reasons. First, it is a durable and versatile material that can be molded into various shapes and sizes, making it suitable for various applications. Its flexibility allows for innovative designs and functionalities in industries such as packaging, construction, automotive, electronics, healthcare, and more.

Second, plastic is cost-effective to produce. Its manufacturing process is generally efficient and less expensive than other materials like metal or glass. This cost advantage makes plastic accessible to many consumers and businesses, contributing to economic growth and development.

Third, plastic packaging plays a crucial role in preserving and protecting products. Plastic packaging helps extend the shelf life of food, beverages, and other perishable goods by providing a barrier against moisture, air, and contaminants. This is especially important for the pharmaceutical industry.  It also reduces transportation costs due to its lightweight nature, resulting in fuel efficiency and lower carbon emissions.

 

What are the disadvantages of plastic

How plastic is made

With so many advantages, even environmentally, why is plastic bad for the environment? Nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel. Plastic is made through a process called polymerization, where monomers (building blocks) are chemically bonded together to form long chains called polymers. Monomers are typically derived from petrochemicals like crude oil or natural gas. The plastic manufacturing process releases greenhouse gases directly into the atmosphere.

The plastic industry is a huge, fast-growing industry. New plants for making granulates are built in several countries in the world. The US uses gas derived from fracking, which comes with even higher environmental costs than standard gas exploitation methods.

The Center for International Environmental Law about CO2 emissions from plastic production and use:

“If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. By 2050, the cumulation of these greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons—10–13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.”

 

Plastic recycling and disposal

If plastic waste is discarded non-properly, plastic waste is a huge environmental problem This is not just a problem for the biodiversity of systems due to animals confusing plastics with food; there are also concerns about microplastics being potentially toxic to the environment. Meanwhile, microplastics can be found anywhere in our environment, also in the human body.

The International Union for Preservation of Nature states:

“The most visible impacts of plastic debris are the ingestion, suffocation and entanglement of hundreds of marine species. Marine wildlife such as seabirds, whales, fish and turtles mistake plastic waste for prey; most then die of starvation as their stomachs become filled with plastic. They also suffer from lacerations, infections, reduced ability to swim, and internal injuries. Floating plastics also help transport invasive marine species, thereby threatening marine biodiversity and the food web.”

Once plastic products are discarded non-properly, they contribute to carbon emissions through the process of decomposition, which releases CO2 and other harmful chemicals into soil, water, and the atmosphere. A lot of times, plastic is burned in a non-controlled environment, which causes more harm to the environment than controlled incineration plants

Plastics vary in their life span – if used in packaging, it can be a few weeks and up to several years; if used in cars or machines. This means that carbon captured in the plastic will be released after a short period of time.

 

What are plastic alternatives?

One alternative the chemical industry is going for is using renewable raw materials as alternatives to their non-renewable counterparts. Another trend is to replace harmful chemicals so that the end product cannot release harmful chemicals. Still – considering that this is a growing market – using renewable alternatives is not an overall solution to the problem. Given that precursors – to make them renewable – have to be extracted from renewable materials – even if it is biological waste – they will be missed somewhere else as a base for food, topsoil, or pasture. Also, the plastic industry will compete with other industries for renewable raw materials, which will make it much more expensive for the industry to keep prices low.

 

What measures is the industry applying to reduce the impact of plastic on the environment?

There is a growing number of legal requirements for plastic products (especially packaging) for products going into the market. Many companies try to meet these requirements by taking a circular economy approach by enhancing the reusability or recyclability of their products. This can be done by reusable plastic products, enhancing mechanical recyclability, or investing in chemical recycling technologies. While this can extend its lifespan and time of use, it is not long enough to actually help keep the carbon dioxide in the plastic stored for longer than some years. It only shifts the point of time in which the emissions will be released into our environment.

Thus, the plastic industry has a significant responsibility to care for and take action to reduce waste and environmental impact. Although plastic plays an important, sometimes even a key role in our society, on the other hand, it is also misused or used too much. A real reduction will only come by transforming businesses and slowing down plastic usage. One start could be identifying which areas of the business are key to society and which products can be outdated to slow down plastic use. It is clear that expected growth numbers will eat up any enhancements in the products itself, so a real transformation is necessary to meet the set environmental goals.

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