From the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to the detection of microplastics in the bloodstream of newborn humans, the environmental and health impact of plastics is the subject of growing scrutiny by researchers, regulators, and the general public. The near-ubiquity of plastic is causing challenges for businesses seeking to make good on their ESG commitments, and new research from McKinsey & Company suggests that in many cases, plastics have a lower greenhouse gas impact than the next-best alternative.
The study looked at examples of products within five sectors: packaging, building and construction, automotive, textiles, and consumer durables, which combined represent about 90% of global plastics volume, with packaging making up more than half of total global plastics demand. The independently-conducted research looked at the total greenhouse gas contribution of plastics compared with alternatives such as glass, paper, and steel, and included product life cycle and impact of use.
In thirteen out of fourteen applications that researchers examined, plastics outperformed alternatives. For example, plastic used in hybrid fuel tanks in vehicles contributed 90% less greenhouse gasses, plastic grocery bags emitted 80% less pollution than paper alternatives, and in residential water pipes, plastic produced 25% fewer emissions than copper. The one case where a non-plastic alternative won out was industrial drums: while making a steel drum produces significantly more emissions than plastic during production, steel drums last twice as long and are typically recycled. In the case of paper bags, their significantly heavier weight results in much higher emissions during production and transportation.
The report is up-front about the realities of plastic’s impact on the world, noting that the benefits of plastic does not diminish the industry-wide need to continue improving environmental performance, meeting net-zero targets, improving recycling, and eliminating environmental leakage, though the report notably omits the impact of plastic on ocean pollution.
The results of the report introduce a challenging environmental dilemma: reducing plastics use may help reduce the damage to oceans and aquatic life, but may result in the use of more labor-intensive products that could emit more pollution into a world already reeling from the early impacts of climate change. Regulators and industry will have to carefully weigh the potential consequences of plastics reduction as they work to meet their environmental goals.