Q: Can plastics actually help save energy?

A: Yes. Only about 4-5 percent of the United States fossil energy consumption from natural gas is actually used to produce all of the plastic carpets and clothing, films, packages, appliances, shapes, building materials, automobiles, gadgets, and toys that we use. This is a small percentage in comparison to energy’s other uses for motor fuel and electricity. In addition, it often takes less energy to convert plastics from an industrially purchased pellets into a finished product compared to the production of similar goods made of other materials. For instance:

  • For equal carrying capacity, plastic grocery bags require about 70% of energy required to make paper grocery bags1.
  • Foamed polystyrene containers take 30 percent less total energy to make than required for paperboard containers2.
  • Polyurethane foam insulation in refrigerators and freezers saves operating cost by providing superior thermal insulation. Without the benefits provided by the plastic insulation, these appliances would use up to 63 percent more energy3.
  • High density polyethylene requires 10% less energy to deliver the same amount of milk as does paperboard cartons4.

A recent study performed by The Corporation for Comprehensive Analyses, “The Contribution of Plastic Products to Resource Efficiency” illustrated that if alternatives were substituted for plastic products about 26% more energy would be required and about 56% more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would result. In other words, plastic products in the marketplace today have enabled energy savings equivalent to 22 million metric tons of crude oil, carried by 190 super crude oil tankers. The GHG emissions saved are equivalent to the total CO2 emissions of the countries of Portugal or Belgium.

Q: What would happen if plastic packaging were replaced with alternatives?

A: Without plastics, a German study showed, the energy used to produce packaging would increase by 110%5. By that study, in 2005 United States manufacturers saved 434 trillion Btu. This is a savings equivalent to 72 million barrels of oil.

1 Franklin and Associates Inc., “Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis of Polyethylene and Unbleached Paper Grocery Sacks_, 1990
2 Franklin and Associates Inc., “Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis of Foam Polystyrene and Bleached Paperboard Containers”, 1990
3 Franklin and Associates Inc., “PLASTICS' ENERGY AND GREENHOUSE GAS SAVINGS USING REFRIGERATOR AND FREEZER INSULATION AS A CASE STUDY”, 2000
4 Franklin and Associates Inc., “Energy and Environmental Impacts of High-Density Polyethylene and Bleached Paperboard Gable Milk Containers”, 1989
5 "Packaging Without Plastics: Ecological and Economic Consequences from a Packaging Material Market Without Plastics," The Society for Research into the Packaging Market (Germany), 1992
6 The Corporation for Comprehensive Analyses – GUA – Gesellschaft fur umfassende Analysen, Vienna, “The Contribution of Plastic Products to Resource Efficiency, January 2005

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