Plastics Lead Way in Health, Safety, Energy Efficiency

Published February 1, 1998

Few movie-goers will forget the scene in The Graduate in which Dustin Hoffman’s character is pulled aside at his graduation party by an older gentleman with a bit of advice for the future: “Plastic.”

That was sound advice in 1967, and even better today. Relentless attacks by environmental groups notwithstanding, plastics have shown themselves to be of enormous benefit to health, safety, and the environment.

Shatter-resistant plastic bottles and tubes have largely replaced their glass predecessors, greatly reducing the number of cuts and lacerations requiring medical treatment. With clear plastic food packaging, meat products in the neighborhood supermarket are protected from prodding fingers, while allowing shoppers to see what they are buying. Once the meat is taken home, it is placed in an energy-efficient refrigerator where remarkably thin layers of foamed polyurethane sandwiched between molded panels of ABS or polypropylene help keep the cold air in the refrigerator from dissipating.

Most people take these, and the many other benefits of plastics, for granted. Indeed, with increased public awareness and concern about waste and energy issues, some have questioned whether plastics are an efficient use of limited energy resources. But would energy be conserved if plastic packaging, for example, were replaced by non-plastic alternatives?

Franklin Associates Ltd., an independent research organization, recently calculated the total energy used in producing common plastic packaging and disposable goods–from raw material extraction to delivery of a finished product–and compared it to the energy use of the most common non-plastic alternatives. Plastic packaging emerged as the clear winner.

In 1990, according to the Franklin Associates report, 336 trillion fewer Btus (British thermal units, a standard measure of energy use) were required to produce plastic packaging than would have been required to produce the non-plastic alternatives; 39 trillion fewer Btus were required to produce plastic disposable goods. Without plastics, the equivalent of an additional 58 million barrels of oil or 325 billion cubic feet of natural gas would have been required to meet America’s packaging needs in 1990. That’s enough energy to serve 100,000 homes for 35 years.

The energy savings attributable to plastic disposables are less dramatic largely due to the inclusion of reusable items, such as cutlery and water glasses, among the alternatives to plastic disposables. When disposable plastic products are compared only to disposable alternatives, such as paper plates and cups, the energy requirements for plastics are generally comparable to or less than the energy used for alternatives.