Plastic – the apple of discord between decarbonization and the circular economy

This article is available in Bulgarian.

I am increasingly coming across the message that we should reduce our carbon emissions by using less plastic. This is often touted as a win-win choice by eco-activists. They say that we can save sea creatures from plastic waste and save the planet from warming at the same time – decarbonization and circular economics put together for a brighter future on Earth!

The reality, however, is very different.

The reality, however, is very different. On the one hand plastics and composite materials are a nightmare for the circular economy – they simply refuse to circulate and always manage to find their way to the incinerator, disposal or the ditch. On the other hand, there isn’t another type of material in human history that has led to such a drastic reduction in carbon emissions. The thousands of possible plastic compound variations, most of which are very light and durable, have seen widespread use since their invention. To this day we have produced approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastic that have replaced other materials with weights that are as much as five times higher – metals, wood, paper, glass. A denkstatt study from 2010 shows that replacing the plastics used in the EU in 2007 with other materials would result in a 61% increase in carbon emissions, which is the equivalent of all the emissions of a country like Belgium. The examples are numerous and very logical – just imagine how much more energy would be used if all the plastic bottles we use were replaced by glass bottles that are 10 times heavier on average. In addition, the extraction and production of glass and the collection, transportation and cleaning of glass packaging uses much more energy. Vehicles today are much lighter, more comfortable, safer and more energy efficient in large part due to the replacement of metals by plastics in their construction. Millions of square kilometers of forests have been saved thanks to the replacement of wood materials with plastics in thousands of products – from construction materials to crates and pallets.   

The uses of plastics where their replacement is practically impossible are even more interesting. Take artificial rubber for example – what could replace its use in the production of car tires? If we had to produce the same amount of rubber by natural means, we would have to turn all of our tropical forests into rubber plantations and even then we wouldn’t be producing enough for our needs. The alternative is to use wooden wagon tires – a return to the 19th century. Single use plastic food packaging saves us large amounts of waste by drastically increasing the time food takes to expire. Heat insulation materials produced from plastic not only lead to the greatest energy savings but also have the smallest production carbon footprint compared to alternatives. Plastics can be used as a controllable source of energy after their lifecycle has ended, which means that they can replace an equivalent amount of gas or coal in the energy system. Modern photovoltaic panels and windmills would be impossible without the lightweight polymer materials that are used in their fabrication.   

The carbon balance of the entire EU plastics market (without rubber) shows that the carbon emissions resulting from the full lifecycle use of plastics are 10-15 times higher when compared to the emissions resulting from managing plastic as a waste. In practical terms this means that there is no other material that has the same carbon efficiency with equivalent versatility. In other words, plastics are the greenest thing that climate activists could possibly imagine.

Modern civilization is an incredibly complex system in which there are no solutions for quick changes and improvements. When someone proclaims something as “bad” and that we need to get rid of it, he or she also needs to think about and research the possible alternatives. In 99% of cases such research will show that the free market has already made the most energy efficient choice – it is also cheaper and there isn’t much potential for improvement. This is the case with plastics – maybe we can stop using them in q-tips and straws, but in their most massive and widespread uses they are unequivocally the greenest alternative in terms of holistic ecological footprint that takes into account air pollution, water pollution, resource efficiency, preserving biological diversity and lowering carbon emissions. The only problem that remains is how to properly manage plastics as a waste, but this is a question of time, wealth and choice

The original version of this article was published in Forbes Bulgaria magazine in August 2018.

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