What Can a Jar of Peanuts Teach Us About the Environment?

Professor Plastics

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Peanuts in a jar

Do Plastics Have Lower/Higher Impact on Environment than Alternatives?

What happened when Planter’s switched from glass to plastic for its roasted peanuts jar? (Other than Professor Plastics doing my weird happy dance?)

Well, the new label announced: “84% less packaging than glass jar by weight!” The company said that the switch would result in a 25 percent reduction in trucks on the road to ship the same amount of nuts, along with saving millions of pounds in packaging and shipping materials. And like glass, the new plastic jar is accepted in almost all recycling programs.

That sounds like a positive step for the environment.

But wait. Isn’t it common knowledge that plastics cause greater environmental impacts than alternative materials? This example seems to turn that assumption on its head. Waddup?

Actually, I think the plastic peanut jar is a good example of why a new study finds that the environmental costs of using plastics is less than alternatives. A lot less.

Now, the new study is a bit wonky (like me), so I’ll boil it down. A consulting firm called Trucost does environmental studies for many folks, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In 2014, Trucost measured the environmental “cost” of plastics for UNEP. These costs come from various environmental impacts, such as effects from plastics in our oceans and the waste of resources when used plastics get landfilled instead of recycled.

Young Boy Drinking Juice Plastic Containers

In 2016, Trucost did another study that asked: what is the cost of using plastics compared to using other materials? I mean, knowing the environmental cost of plastics is useful, but… compared to what?

The findings were rather stark. When compared to alternatives, the new study finds that the environmental cost of using plastics is four times less than the costs of other materials. Switching out plastics in consumer products and packaging for alternatives that perform the same function would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion annually. Ouch.

Why the lower cost for plastics? A likely reason is the comparable strength-to-weight ratio of plastics (let me explain).

Alternative materials typically use a lot more material for the same purpose. (The peanuts jar is a good example.) In fact, the new study finds that alternatives require four times more material by mass on average. Using more material typically translates into higher environmental costs.

Since plastics are lightweight and strong, they require less material, resulting in less environmental impact.

Caveat: Even though plastics have significantly less impact on the environment than alternatives, we also should reduce those impacts. The Trucost report’s authors recommend a number of steps to help further reduce plastics’ overall environmental cost.

So… will one study change long-held, ingrained beliefs about plastics? Probably not. But this is not the first study of its kind. Previous studies that looked at things like packaging came to similar conclusions. The Trucost study just happens to be the most comprehensive comparison.

So at some point, the weight of all these studies may just tip the scales and disrupt popular public opinion. Then I’ll do my weird happy dance again.