Plastic Reduces the Waste in Our Landfills

The times they are a-changin’.

This post seems to be older than 18 years—a long time on the internet. It might be outdated.

I was on the Nalgene and came across this. Plastics tpyically have a bad rap because of what they do to the environment. However, it seems that plastics can (and are) more eco friendly then even I thought:

A study in West Germany looked at the foreseeable effects of abandoning plastic packaging (“Packaging Without Plastics,” Society of Research Into the Packaging Market, December 1987). It concluded the effects would be:

  • MORE packaging waste by weight — more than 4 times greater
  • MORE packaging waste by volume — more than 2 1/2 times greater
  • MORE energy used in manufacturing and distribution — more than 2 times greater
  • HIGHER cost of packaging — more than 2 times greater.

A detailed study done in the U.S.A. compared aluminum, glass, and plastic soft drink containers (“The Environmental Impact of Soft Drink Delivery Systems: A Comparative Analysis,” Franklin Associates, March 1989). The study concluded that the plastic alternative:

  • Is the most energy efficient
  • Creates the least air emissions during manufacturing
  • Produces the least solid waste by both weight and volume at equal container recycling rates.

The West German government studied paper and plastic grocery sacks (“Comparison of the Effects on the Environment from the Environment,” August 1988). Comparing the manufacturing processes for these sacks shows that:

  • Plastic grocery sacks consume 30 percent LESS energy
  • Paper sacks produce 70 percent MORE air pollution
  • Paper sacks generate 50 times MORE water pollution.

A recent study in the U.S.A. (“Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis of Polyethylene and Unbleached Paper Grocery Sacks,” Franklin Associates, Ltd., June 1990) supports these results:

  • Plastic grocery sacks are more energy efficient — 30 percent less energy used compared to the paper alternative
  • Plastic grocery sacks are less polluting, with 77 percent less solid waste during manufacturing and distribution
  • 68 percent less atmospheric emissions
  • 93 percent fewer waterborne wastes

Conservation of Natural Resources, Particularly Fossil Fuels

According to several studies compiled by the Association of Plastics Manufacturers in Europe, the use of plastics yields large energy savings.

To illustrate, a truckload of bottled water in glass bottles is comprised of 57 percent water and 43 percent glass by weight; while in plastic, the load is 93 percent water and 7 percent plastic. The use of plastic results in an approximately 40 percent reduction in overall motor fuel consumption and the associated exhaust emissions.

Minimizing of Municipal Solid Waste Volume (When Disposed)

Disposal of plastics (compared to glass and paper) can minimize municipal solid waste volume. To illustrate:

  • Plastic grocery sacks have 1/10th the volume of their paper counterparts.
  • At 1987 recycling rates, 2-liter plastic soft drink bottles result in less than 1/3 the volume of solid wastes as 1-liter glass soft-drink bottles.
  • A plastic ketchup bottle has less than 1/2 the material volume of the competitive glass container.
  • A 1/2 gallon plastic milk jug occupies less than 1/2 the volume of the material in the same sized paper carton.

Minimizing of Food Waste Entering the Refuse Stream

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce study shows that every time we increase the use of plastic packaging by one tenth of one percent, we get an estimated 1 3/4 times decrease in the amount of food waste. (“The Greatly Growing Garbage Problem,” Harvey Alter, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 1988.)

Better Degradation (Instability) in Natural Environments

  • Plastics degrade in the presence of sunlight. Additives can accelerate this degradation process. (The modified materials are called photodegradable plastics.)
  • Some plastics degrade in the presence of microorganisms. Others can be blended with additives to create this property. These are called biodegradable plastics.

Degradable packaging wastes, however, do NOT help solve municipal solid waste disposal problems.

  • Fact: landfills are designed and operated to slow down the rate of degradation of waste materials. For example, landfilled wastes are dated by reading the publication date of excavated newspapers.
  • Fact: approximately 70 percent of the weight of the waste stream is vegetable and animal matter (paper, yard, and food wastes) — all are biodegradable. Yet, the U. S. has a landfill disposal capacity crisis!
  • Fact: to make a plastic sack biodegradable (using additives) and as strong as a non-biodegradable sack, its bulk must increase. For example, studies show that polyethylene grocery sacks containing cornstarch have to be about twice as thick to keep the same weight-carrying capacity.

Plastics: Good for the Environment.

As you can see from the information provided above, plastics can play a significant role in the solution to solid waste management.

Though the information is offered in good faith and believed to be accurate, all statements and suggestions are made without warranty, express or implied. Adapted from materials from the Association of Rotational Molders.