The global downstream industry could be set for a boost in the production of environmentally friendly plastics, according to a new report.
The Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA) has highlighted the findings of a new study by Trucost, a leading environmental research organisation, that finds the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than if plastics were replaced with alternative materials.
The study is based on natural capital accounting methods, which measure and value environmental impacts—such as consumption of water and emissions to air, land and water—which are not typically factored into traditional financial accounting.
Previous reports, such as “Valuing Plastics” (2014) by Trucost and “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics” (2016) by the World Economic Forum Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, only examined the environmental costs of using plastics.
Trucost’s latest study, “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” builds on earlier research by comparing the environmental costs of using plastics to alternative materials and identifying opportunities to help lower the environmental costs of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging.
Dr. Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun, Secretary General, GPCA, said: “The use of plastics in everyday situations, such as shopping, has been frequently in the news of late. Trucost has conducted an in-depth study into the plastics industry and alternatives to traditional materials, with the astounding result that alternative materials actually come with a substantially higher environmental cost. This is crucial to consider when discussing the future use of plastics in consumer goods throughout the GCC.”
These significant results disrupt a common misperception around plastics. The latest research has found that replacing plastics in consumer products and packaging with a mix of alternative materials that provide the same function would increase environmental costs from US$139 billion to US$533 billion annually. That’s because strong, lightweight plastics help us do more with less material, which provides environmental benefits throughout the lifecycle of plastic products and packaging.
The study also concluded that the environmental costs of alternative materials can be lower per ton of production but are greater in aggregate due to the much larger quantities of material needed to fulfil the same purposes as plastics.
In addition, the report’s authors recommend steps to help further reduce plastics’ overall environmental costs, such as by increasing the use of lower-carbon electricity in plastics production, adopting lower-emission transport modes, developing even more efficient plastic packaging, and increasing recycling and energy conversion of post-use plastics to help curb ocean litter and conserve resources.
“We are very excited to present ‘Plastics and Sustainability,’ the largest natural capital study ever conducted for the plastics manufacturing sector,” said Libby Bernick, Senior Vice President - North America for Trucost. “This report provides the clearest picture to date of the relative costs and benefits of plastics compared to alternative materials as well as important opportunities to enhance the environmental performance of using plastics in consumer goods.”
“We now have a fuller picture of the environmental benefits of using plastics,” said Steve Russell, Vice President of Plastics for the American Chemistry Council, which commissioned the study. “From lighter, more fuel-efficient cars to smart packaging that helps our favourite foods last longer; our industry is committed to ongoing innovations that will advance sustainability across major market sectors and the globe.”
"There is now quantifiable proof that plastics, in its various forms, play a significant role in providing innovative plastics solutions to societal challenges,” said Craig Halgreen, Vice President, Corporate Sustainability, Borouge & Leader, Plastics Committee Sustainability Taskforce, GPCA. “This report emphasises the importance of product innovation and eco-friendly after-life solutions such as sustainable municipal waste collection and management practices. It also highlights the responsible role of mechanical recycling in creating a circular economy and reducing plastics marine litter.”
“The GCC currently produces 26.5 million tons of plastic each year, according to our research,” concluded Dr. Al-Sadoun. “This study proves that these enterprising manufacturers are on track towards achieving sustainability targets—a focus that is increasingly in public conversation due to the various national strategies of the Arabian Gulf’s leadership.”