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Climate Change

Plastic Pollutes, but Replacing It Is Even Worse ... Says Study Funded by Plastic

Switching to paper or glass isn’t the answer, a report commissioned by the American Chemistry Council says. Here’s why.

Two years ago, a London-based environmental consulting firm named Trucost wrote a report (PDF) for the United Nations Environment Program that said "the environmental impacts of plastic cannot be ignored." It cited litter, damage to marine life, greenhouse gases from plastics manufacturing, and other ills before recommending that "companies establish a strategy to reduce the impacts of plastic, including setting targets with deadlines."

Then, last November, the American Chemistry Council, a trade group for manufacturers of plastics and other chemical products, hired Trucost to do a follow-up report. This one, released today, concludes that switching from plastic to other materials, such as glass, paper, aluminum, and steel, would nearly quadruple the environmental cost.

Is Trucost contradicting itself? Actually, no. It's all a matter of emphasis. The plastic-cup-half-empty view is that plastic pollutes. The half-full view is yes, but the alternatives would be worse.

"Replacing plastics with other materials is not going to solve the problem," Libby Bernick, Trucost's senior vice president for North America, said in an interview before the report's release.

While the study for the United Nations did recommend reducing use of plastic, it said that this should be done via more recycling and redesign of products, not by switching to other materials. In fact, the UN report called plastic "one of the most useful and important materials in modern society."

Conversely, the report for the American Chemistry Council doesn't make a case for plastic's perfection. It says that the environmental cost of plastic is $139 billion a year. It could be reduced to $98 billion a year by switching to more sustainable kinds of plastic, it concludes. Switching to alternatives such as glass, paper, aluminum, or steel would raise the environmental cost to $533 billion a year, Trucost says.

Some recommendations in the report:

Makers of rival materials weren't impressed.

Lynn Bragg, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, wrote in an e-mail that glass containers "are 100 percent and endlessly recyclable, made from inert raw materials." Jody Hall, vice president for automotive at the Steel Market Development Institute, said steel is recapturing market share from plastic in gas tanks of hybrid vehicles, which need to be extra-strong. And Matt Meenan, a spokesman for the Aluminum Association, said aluminum cans can be transported and cooled with less energy than plastic bottles require, which saves energy.

How does he know? The group is preparing a report that says so.


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