7 Facts about Plastics and the Environment that May Surprise You

Professor Plastics

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Dad making lunch and snacks

Hi, Professor Plastics here.

We all know that plastics are part of our everyday lives, from air bags and seat belts that help save the lives of our loved ones… to zipper bags that help keep our kids’ lunches fresh.

But even though we rely on them every day, sometimes plastics can surprise us. Especially when it comes to one of today’s top priorities: our environment and what kind of planet we will leave our children and their children.

Here are seven notable facts about plastics and the environment that my students (and many others) often are surprised to learn…

1) Every day, plastics help us dramatically lower environmental impacts

A new study[1] adds to the growing body of research on how plastics help us reduce our environmental footprint… by reducing material use, energy use, waste, and carbon emissions. This latest study finds that the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer products and packaging is nearly four times less than the cost of using other materials. The study says that replacing plastics with alternatives that perform the same function would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion annually. Yikes! Why the lower environmental cost for plastics? Because plastics help us do more with less material. For example…


2) Plastic packaging helps dramatically reduce both packaging waste and food waste

We all want to do more with less. Strong, lightweight plastics enable our packaging to do more with less. Similar to the study above, many life cycle studies have found that plastic packaging delivers more food with significantly less waste, energy use, and global warming potential than alternatives. And by extending the shelf life of healthful, nutritious foods, a little bit of plastic packaging can prevent a whole lot of food waste, a huge environmental problem. Did I mention that I really hate wasted food?

Strawberries in Borough Market, London

3) Plastics make up 50% of today’s cars, which helps significantly improve fuel efficiency

Lighter cars = less fuel use. To help our environment by improving fuel efficiency, carmakers are increasingly turning to strong yet lightweight plastics, including carbon fiber-reinforced plastics. Auto experts estimate that modern cars are comprised of 50 percent plastics by volume, yet only ten percent by weight. Did you know that just a ten percent reduction in vehicle weight can increase fuel efficiency six to eight percent over the life of today’s cars? (And these lightweight plastics already play an integral role in many auto safety features: seat belts, air bags, interior cushioning, crumple zones, bumpers, safety glass, and so on.)

Low angle view of a young woman filling gas into her car at gas station.

4) Plastic building and insulation products save an enormous amount of energy

Nearly 40 percent of America’s energy is used to power our homes and buildings—mainly for heating and cooling—so increasing home energy efficiency can help significantly reduce our energy use. Plastic building products—from foam insulation to caulks/sealants to PEX pipes—help homeowners save big on energy use. A life cycle study found that the use of plastic building materials saved 467.2 trillion Btu of energy per year over alternatives. That’s enough energy to meet the annual average energy needs of 4.6 million U.S. households! The small amount of energy inherent in plastics saves a huge amount of energy over time.

Woman adjusting thermostat

5) We’re recycling more plastics

Plastics recycling has grown dramatically since we began measuring in the 1990s, and today we have access to recycling programs for a growing number of plastics, including bottles, caps, containers, lids, and bags/wraps (see below). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans recycled more than 6 billion pounds of plastics in 2015 (the last time they calculated)! And we can expect to recycle even more plastics in the years ahead.

Family in Kitchen Recycling Paper and Plastic

6) There are more than 20,000 places in the U.S. to recycle plastic bags and wraps

And your curbside recycling bin typically isn’t one of them. Instead, plastic bags and wraps can be taken to recycling bins in front of more than 20,000 U.S. grocery and retail stores. You can recycle grocery bags, bread bags, food storage bags (even the sealable ones), shipping pillows, bubble wrap, dry-cleaning bags, overwraps for beverage cases, and more. Just make sure they’re clean and dry. Even though lots of people are surprised to learn about recycling bins at stores, in 2016 we recycled nearly 1.3 billion pounds of bags/wraps!

Excited early 30's blond woman carrying bags after she has done her weekly shopping. She's trying to unlock her car while carrying those bags and talking over cell phone that is stuck between her ear and shoulder. She's really happy and excited. It's summer afternoon at shopping mall parking lot. Blurry cars in background. Tilt shot.

7) Plastics makers are working to keep plastics out of our oceans

Everybody agrees that plastics don’t belong in our oceans—yet marine litter remains a stubborn, global problem. Plastics makers across the globe are working together and partnering with governments, scientists, and others to find workable solutions to keep plastics out of our oceans. To date plastics makers have announced more than 355 projects to address marine litter, but there’s much more to be done. We all can do our part by working to prevent litter and by recycling everything we can.

Group Of Volunteers Tidying Up Rubbish On Beach Holding Plastic Bags.

Surprised by some or all of these? You’re not alone.

The key lesson here (hey, I’m a professor): by doing more with less, by helping reduce food and packaging waste, by supporting our cars’ fuel-efficiency diet, by using just a little bit of energy to save a whole lot… by doing all these things, plastics help us reduce our environmental footprint. Every day. For ourselves. Our kids. And their kids…

For more facts about plastics that may surprise you, check out: Wait…That’s Plastic?

[1] “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” Trucost, 2016.