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Surprising facts about plastics and the environment

It’s undeniable that plastics play a huge part in our daily lives, from the nylon seatbelts we wear in cars to the plastic bags that keep our food fresh. Plastics keep us safe, healthy and benefit our lives in too many ways to count. But did you know that they can also benefit the environment? 

Plastics get a lot of criticism when it comes to litter and pollution, but they can actually help to save the planet – especially when used and disposed of properly and responsibly. They can play a large role in sustainability and helping us to lower our environmental impact. Here are some surprising facts about plastics and the environment.

1. Plastic packaging reduces all types of waste

Plastics are widely used as a packaging material. They are strong, lightweight and durable. They protect our products from damage and our food from spoiling too quickly. In this regard, plastic packaging actually reduces waste by protecting our goods and foods. They allow us to use our products and eat our food; without packaging, these items would simply be discarded before they could be sold.

Numerous life cycle studies have found that plastic packaging actually delivers more food with significantly less waste. They also use less energy and have a lower global warming potential than most of the plastic alternatives currently available. By extending the shelf life of products and foods, plastic packaging can prevent a lot more waste.

2. Plastics lower our environmental impact

Plastics can actually help humans to minimise their environmental impact by reducing waste, energy use and carbon emissions. A recent study found that the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer products is nearly four times less than the cost of using other materials. The study suggests that replacing plastics with alternative materials will be more expensive because plastics allow us to do more with less material.

3. Plastics help to improve fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emissions

Some cars on the road today are made up of about 50% plastic components by volume, from interior panels and dashboards to bumpers and engine housings. Plastic is a lightweight material and as we know, lighter cars use less fuel. Plastics help us to minimise our fuel consumption which, in turn, reduces carbon emissions.

A 10% reduction in vehicle weight can improve fuel efficiency by up to 8% over the lifespan of the car. Certain plastic components, such as underbody shields, help to improve the aerodynamics of our cars. This further improves fuel efficiency and lowers greenhouse gas emissions from modern vehicles. 

4. Plastics in the construction sector help to save energy

Plastic building and insulation products help us to save energy by keeping our homes at a comfortable temperature. This minimises the need for air conditioning or heating, both of which consume large amounts of electricity. These building products, such as polystyrene pipe insulation and plastic-based sealants, allow homeowners to reduce their overall energy consumption – saving money and the environment at the same time.

5. Plastic recycling is saving the environment and creating a sustainable economy

South Africa has one of the best recycling industries in the world – last year we recycled 15% more plastic waste than Europe. Recycling infrastructure and initiatives are growing year-on-year, allowing us to reuse more plastic materials than ever and keep them in circulation. 

This benefits the environment as it keeps plastic waste out of landfills. These materials can sometimes be washed into rivers during rainstorms or blown away in the wind. By recycling plastics, we are keeping existing materials in circulation and out of nature. The entire recycling industry also supports around 60 000 South Africans and generated just under R2.3-billion for the national economy last year alone.

These facts all show how plastics can be used to benefit the environment. If used properly and responsibly, plastic products and packaging can lower our environmental impact by reducing waste, carbon emissions and energy usage. They allow us to do more with less material. Plastics should always be disposed of in a recycling bin, never dumped or littered.

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Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. ​Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.

​Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.

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