Nowadays, we often hear calls to cut carbon emissions by less use of plastics. This example is given as a win-win choice for protecting the environment, the biodiversity and the planet from global warming. Decarbonisation and circular economy into one for the bright future of the planet!
Reality is fundamentally different. Yes, in fact, plastics and composite materials are a problem for the circular economy due to the difficulty of recycling and are often burned or disposed at landfills.
On the other hand, there are no other materials in the history of mankind that lead to such a large reduction in carbon emissions as plastics – thousands of different compounds that are extremely lightweight, resistant and used in a number of industries.
Until today, we have produced about 8.3 billion tons, which practically replace other materials – metals, wood, paper, glass – at least 5 times more weight.
A 2010 denkstatt study shows that replacing plastics used in the EU in 2007 with other materials would result in a relative increase in carbon emissions of about 61%, equivalent to all emissions from a country such as Belgium.
The examples are numerous and quite logical. We only need to think about how much more energy would be needed if we replace all plastic glass bottles that are about 10 times heavier on average! In addition, the extraction and production of glass packaging require much more energy, just like collecting, transporting and washing it for reuse. The mass vehicle is much lighter, more comfortable, safer and more energy-efficient today, primarily thanks to the replacement of much of the metal in the plastic construction. Millions of square kilometers of woods are saved thanks to the replacement of wood with plastics in the production of thousands of articles – from building materials to crates and pallets.
Even more interesting are the many applications of plastics, where substitution is practically impossible. Let’s take artificial rubber, for example, what could replace it in the production of tires? If we had to get the appropriate amount of natural rubber, all the tropical forests would be turned into plantations, and we would still be unable to satisfy the demand. The alternative is the wooden wheels of the wagons, that is, a return in the 19th century. Plastic packaging of disposable foods saves us a huge amount of waste by repeatedly prolonging the shelf life of the food. Insulating materials made of plastics not only lead to the largest energy savings but also have the smallest carbon footprint for manufacturing compared to alternatives. Plastics can be used for controlled energy recovery after the end of their useful life, which means they replace an equivalent amount of gas or coal in the system. Modern low-cost photovoltaic panels or giant windmills are impossible without the extremely lightweight and durable polymeric materials that are deposited in them.
The carbon balance of the whole European plastic market (excluding rubber) shows that the benefits of using it during its useful life (carbon footprint) exceed about 10-15 times the emissions from production and its waste management. This means that there is practically no more carbon-efficient material with so many applications. Or otherwise, plastics are the greenest thing that climate activists could imagine.
Modern civilization is an extremely complex system in which there are no easy solutions for rapid change and improvement. When someone says something is “bad” and we need to get rid of it, we need to think about the alternatives and make the bill. In 99% of cases it will show that the free market itself has made the energy-efficient choice – it is logically also the cheapest – and there is not much potential for improvement. This is the case with plastics – perhaps there is no problem stopping them from using cotton buds and straws, but in the most massive and significant applications, they are undoubtedly the most green alternative as a complete environmental footprint – air, water, resource efficiency, biodiversity conservation – not just carbon emissions. It remains only to solve the problem of managing them as waste, but it is a matter of time, wealth and desire.
The original version of this text was published in August, 2018 in Forbes Bulgaria magazine.