A report on the carbon impact of packaging material reveals that in most cases the main alternatives to plastic packaging – cardboard, glass, steel and aluminium – “emit more greenhouse gases”.
The report, commissioned by Veolia and published by Imperial College, analysed more that 70 life cycle assessments to evaluate the environmental impacts of packaging alternatives over their lifetime, including impacts from mining, manufacturing, logistics, usage and end-of-life management covering recycling or disposal.
By assessing many different studies with different assumptions it found that “plastic can provide the lowest carbon emissions of available materials providing it is recycled properly, and effectively debunking the growing movement to switch away from plastic in all scenarios”.
However, only 2 per cent of British people believe that plastic contributes the least greenhouse gases to the environment from its production, use and recycling.
The report states that in most cases the main alternatives for packaging including cardboard, glass, steel and aluminium emit more greenhouse gases than plastic.
The researchers state that if all plastic bottles used globally were made from glass instead, the additional carbon emissions would be equivalent to 22 large coal-fired power plants producing enough electricity for a third of the UK.
The report concludes that the key to limiting environmental impact and carbon emissions is reduction, reuse, optimisation of recycled content and effective waste management to treat packaging at its end of life, and importantly recycling always wins over virgin production on all environmental indicators.
For plastics, it has been shown that recycling saves between 30 per cent and 80 per cent of the carbon emissions that virgin plastic processing and manufacturing generate.
If all plastic were recycled this could result in mean annual savings of 30 to 150 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to shutting between eight and 40 coal-fired power plants globally.
With the widespread application of renewable energy and demand-management strategies, increasing the recycling of plastics has the potential for both curbing the growing life cycle GHG emissions from plastics, and also preventing them from entering the marine environment.
Professor Nick Voulvoulis, Professor of Environmental Technology at Imperial College London, said: “Plastics have a large and unacceptable impact on the marine environment, and potentially impacts to human and ecosystem health that are not fully understood, and cannot easily be incorporated into life cycle assessments.
“We need to reduce plastics production, while ensuring that any alternatives do not contribute more to climate change. The findings of this study demonstrate that removing, reducing, reusing or recycling the plastic packaging placed on the market is an important part of the way forward, and a better option to replacing it with current alternative materials, or waiting and hoping for solutions not yet available.”