Climate Week: Some Solutions and a Lot of Work Ahead
Climate Week 2021 (September 20-26) reminds us that we have a lot of work ahead of us to combat climate change. And it won’t be easy.
Fortunately, we do have many of the solutions.
Decades ago, before climate change (or “global warming”) became apparent, plastics were rapidly replacing traditional materials in multiple applications, from our overweight cars to protective packaging and safety gear.
The reasons went beyond simple price and performance. These new materials typically required less material to perform the same or superior functions than many traditional alternatives. Overall, plastics were clearly more efficient. And it was assumed back then that this efficiency – doing more with less – would also lead to a lighter environmental footprint in many very important ways.
Now in 2021, we have the documentation, a growing body of research that can inform smart public policy.
Take greenhouse gas emissions. Based on decades of life cycle analyses (LCAs) that study the environmental impacts of consumer goods, multiple researchers have concluded:
- The use of plastic packaging and products can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to alternatives such as steel, paper, aluminum, glass, etc. Likewise:
- Replacing plastics with alternatives in many applications would significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions.
For example, an extensive LCA in 2016 found that “on average over four times more alternative material is needed (by weight) to perform the same function”[i] as plastics, which is why plastics can reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to alternatives. While studies vary somewhat, research typically shows that use of plastic packaging and products results in approximately 2.5 times less greenhouse gas emissions than alternatives.
Similar benefits are found in our homes and cars where plastics can help decrease energy and fuel use, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, plastics enable and improve efficiencies in lower carbon energy sources such as wind power and solar energy.
So after decades of contributing to solutions that improve sustainability – energy efficient homes, lower carbon energy, electric cars, and more – we now know that plastics play a critical role in our fight against climate change. The global community cannot realistically meet its climate change commitments without the help of plastics.
Unfortunately, these findings are not widely known, and many Americans believe that plastics are an oversized contributor to climate change. It will be difficult to counter decades of assumptions, so ingrained that some politicians are calling for a pause in the production of plastics or an excise tax on virgin resins in hopes of reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Even though both notions would be a step backward for the environment.
We know that we can’t change entrenched opinions overnight. But we can bring a greater sensibility to public discourse on plastics and climate change. And we have begun doing that.
Reflecting on this year’s Climate Week, it’s clear we all have a lot more work ahead. Fortunately, many solutions have been identified, which makes our work so much more purposeful. The materials we make will help rebuild our nation’s infrastructure… and build back better while creating a more resilient and lower carbon future. Plastic makers will play an outsized role in upgrading our nation’s ability to move people, energy, goods, and water – we’ll do this by helping enable energy-efficient vehicles, solar and wind technologies, more efficient mobility systems, and durable piping. And we will continue to innovate and develop new products and technologies that help drive down greenhouse gas emissions.
America’s plastic makers are all in.
For a demonstration of the role plastics play in helping drive down greenhouse gas emissions, click here.
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