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Study shows plastic containers reduce municipal solid waste

Plastic replaces metal, glass, paper or cardboard and helps in reducing by 58% the generation of solid waste in the United States, says research at the City College of New York

Plastic introduction and spreading as the main raw material in packaging industry has impacted the environment positively by reducing the production of municipal solid waste. This is the conclusion of a scientific study conducted by The Earth Engineering Center (EEC) at The City College of New York.

According to the research, plastic plays an important role in reducing municipal solid waste production rates in the United States (in volume and weight), despite consumption and income increase. Researchers noticed that the generation of waste started slowing down in the late 90’s, even though it was a time of economic growth in the country. According to the article, since plastic is lighter and more flexible than other materials used in packaging, consumers dispose of less waste.

However, in the same historical period, plastic became the most commonly used material when manufacturing a number of products and containers, replacing other materials. The process in which economic growth and waste production decline occur concomitantly is referred to as “decoupling.”

The EEC scientists’ paper unveils that the total amount of plastic disposed as municipal solid waste rose in large scale. However, it suggests the situation happened precisely because the substance replaced glass, paper and cardboard for a variety of consumer goods between 1960 and 2013; plastic waste climbed 84 times, but total urban waste went up just 2.9 times.

The article supports that the result of this equation is an overall reduction in weight and volume of municipal solid waste at the rate of 58% for the same time frame.

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Scenarios show plastic’s potential impact

In the study of the City College of New York, other materials replaced plastic in various scenarios, computer-tested. The goal was to gauge the potential impact of each one of them in the generation of total waste across the US.

When consumer goods were assessed, according to the study, the replacement of plastic for metals, glass and paper or cardboard increased generation of waste 3.2 times on average. When specific production of packaging was verified by the analysis, the results were even clearer: 4.5 times more waste than the use of plastic.

Another scientific study, by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), reached a similar conclusion. The survey revealed that 2 thousand plastic bags weigh 13.6 kg (30 lb.) altogether on average, while the same amount of paper bag sums 127 kg (280 lb.). Thus, the use of plastic is justified for its lighter composition, and also for the impact in the entire production chain - for each truck carrying plastic bags, seven are required to have paper bags.

From a recycling perspective, the ACC work also shows that the manufacturing industry consumes 91% less energy and 80% less waste when using the same amount of plastic compared to paper.

“The industry has been working hard in a responsible and clear way, beyond its production limits, to show society all the benefits and value of plastic. Although these results break paradigms and prove yet one more plastic benefit, we keep focused on environmental education, through its conscious consuming, proper disposal and recycling,” observes Miguel Bahiense, president of the Socio-Environmental Institute for Plastics (Plastivida - Instituto Socioambiental dos Plásticos).