New study: Plastic packaging helps reduce solid waste

A new study by the Earth Engineering Center at The City College of New York (EEC|CCNY) finds that plastics play a role in creating an environment where Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) generation rates actually decline, even with rises in per capita income and consumption.

By using less material, plastics help reduce GHG emissions and waste generation, as well as save energy.
By using less material, plastics help reduce GHG emissions and waste generation, as well as save energy.

Historically, the amount of MSW produced by a country, or region rises in lockstep with the economy, or personal consumption expenditures (PCE). In the mid-1990s, the rate of MSW generation stopped tracking along with PCE in the United States and began to slow.

This phenomenon is known as decoupling. In 2010, the amount of waste produced in the US started to decline, despite a continued rise in consumer spending. The study’s authors attribute the decoupling to the increased use of plastic in packaging.

We knew that the overall amount of plastics in the waste stream increased substantially over time due to increased consumer use. We extensively studied the potential for energy recovery and have quantified the impact there,” said Marco J Castaldi, PhD, director of the EEC at CCNY.

“We were surprised to learn in this study just how much of an impact plastics had on solid waste weight reduction and volume reduction, over the years.”

EEC|CCNY also looked at scenarios where other types of packaging were used in place of plastic packaging to understand plastics’ potential impact on the total MSW generation in the US.

On average, products made with alternatives require 3.2 times more materials than when plastics are used. For packaging specifically, the combined weight of alternative materials is about 4.5 times more than the weight of plastic packaging.

"Plastics have an important role to play in delivering sustainable outcomes," said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

"By using less material, plastics help reduce GHG emissions and waste generation, as well as save energy. And, our industry is working to further realise plastics’ sustainability benefits through our commitment to recycle, or recover all plastic packaging by 2040."

To accompany the study’s release, ACC has developed a new interactive packaging substitution calculator for packaging professionals to estimate the weight and volume savings as well as the potential to reduce municipal solid waste.

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