Plastics is the new coal? Really?

An interesting report from Beyond Plastics appeared on our computer screens recently espousing plastics as the new coal in terms of climate change. Fact-filled and persuasive, the 27-page report attempts haphazardly to quantify the deadly emissions from the plastic industry in coal-fired power plant equivalents—releasing at least 232 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year over ten stages of plastics production, usage, and disposal, which is the equivalent of 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

This number may be true, with some caveats we will get into later, but besides suggesting that polyurethane foam blown with hydrofluorocarbons might be replaced by fiberglass or cellulose, the report delivers little on what will replace plastics if we stop using them, and whether the impact of alternative materials might be even worse.

All manufacturing operations by nature emit climate change-inducing gases. What’s needed in any analysis is a thorough cost (including environmental cost) versus benefits examination. For example:

1. Will switching en masse from PET bottles to glass bottles be better for the environment considering glass production and recycling costs, increased logistics costs, and breakages?

2. Should we migrate back to paper packaging and cut down many more trees as “green feedstock?” Interestingly, burger chain Wendy’s recently concludes that plastic cups make more sense than coated paper cups and I’ve also noted that of late, Amazon is starting to increasingly employ those old-school plastic courier bags whereas in the past, in Japan at least, in the past it employed cardboard boxes in one of three, yes just three sizes due to packaging line automation requirements to ship parcels. I’ve had personal experience of literally receiving a bar of soap in a box big enough to hold two dozen bars. It’s not just the waste of packaging but the logistics cost of shipping that dead volume.

3. Is cellulose as efficient as polyurethane foam at insulation for refrigeration? Pentane is already widely used in consumer refrigerators and commercial refrigeration is headed in the direction of blowing agents with lower emission footprints. By the way the report only presents 2015 data for Honeywell’s HFC production. Surely there is more timely industry data available.

Looking at some claims in the report that we found to be based on sloppy research:

1. Claim: Ascend Performance Materials uses a very unexpected type of catalyst—radioactive depleted uranium; Fact: Yes, it does, for production of textile chemicals (Don’t get us started on the environmental damage the fast fashion industry does to the environment with barely a whiff of media scrutiny. Did you know that much of the microplastics in the oceans is lint from washing synthetic fiber clothing and fishing nets? Not always the most conspicuous plastic waste on the beaches due to size and point of disposal)

2. Claim: Carbon black is one of the most significant additives. More than 90% is used to fill, strengthen and color plastics, especially synthetic rubber tires; Opinion: it’s a bit of a stretch to lump rubber tires in with the plastic industry. And what alternatives are proposed here?

We believe there is an economic and environmental case for the use of plastics in many applications. We also believe that the plastics industry can do a lot more to mitigate the post-consumer environmental cost of plastics usage by developing collection and recycling infrastructure, ensuring that advanced (chemical) recycling makes sense from an energy perspective, and educating consumers on proper disposal of plastics after use. We are also a big proponent of developing piped water and sewage infrastructure in developing economies in Asia and Africa. Rivers in these regions are a major source of plastic pollution given the populaces’ dependence on these open water sources for daily life.

What we don’t agree with is the demonization of plastics without presenting a logical and scientifically-provable argument for alternative modes of packaging that are better for the environment.