Virgin plastic more environmentally damaging than previously assumed?
Current study by ETH Zürich turns out alarming results
When we think of environmental pollution caused by plastic, we envision the trashing of our oceans and countryside. Beyond the visible impact, however, the invisible pollution is high too. According to a study made by ETH Zürich, the plastics industry was responsible in 2015 for 1.6 billion tons of global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, with the largest portion (about 96 percent) resulting from the production of plastic! Analysts came to that alarming conclusion and added: “twice as much fossil carbon is combusted as fuel for plastics production than contained as feedstock in plastics.”
The results are particularly noteworthy because research to date has concentrated on the environmental pollution that occurs with the disposal of plastic. Those damages alone are enormous. The incineration of plastic packaging, the primary means of disposal in Germany and other European countries, generates on average three grams of CO2 for every gram of plastic. Moreover, burning the plastic is a tremendous waste of a valuable raw material.
The fact that the manufacture of new plastic generates even more GHG emissions than incineration means the carbon footprint of virgin plastic is much worse than previously assumed. According to the researchers, “Growth in plastics production in coal-based emerging economies, such as China, Indonesia and South Africa, was the major driver of the increasing carbon footprint of plastics.” Six percent of global coal electricity is used in plastics production. Many EU countries and Western industrialized countries have outsourced the energy-intense manufacturing of plastic to those countries.
The circular economy for plastic is active climate protection
Greater use of renewable energy would help to reduce the carbon footprint for plastic manufacturing. It would be much more effective, however, to put plastic into a circular economy instead of producing new plastic. High-quality plastic recycling actively contributes to climate protection.
Many manufacturers do not convert to recyclate because the recycled material costs more than new plastic made from fresh crude oil. The family-owned company Werner & Mertz is one of the few companies prepared to pay the transitory additional costs. The medium-sized enterprise has converted all its transparent PET bottles for the Frosch brand to 100% used plastic. In doing so, the company has utilized not only post-consumer material from the European Bottle to Bottle collection system, but also—since 2014 as a major exception in the market—an increasingly higher share of recycled material from European household waste collection like the Yellow Bag (now at 50%). In the meantime, more than 560 million bottles of this type have been put into a closed cycle. That’s a world record!
“The study once again makes clear what we have known for years. The circular economy for plastic is indispensable for the protection of the climate and our environment. We show that it’s possible. Now other manufacturers are challenged to follow our example. We believe that policymakers are duty-bound to promote plastic recycling with targeted incentives so that companies will find the use of recyclate more attractive from a financial perspective,” says Werner & Mertz owner Reinhard Schneider.
Link to the study: Growing environmental footprint of plastics driven by coal combustion | Nature Sustainability
 According to the study, 4.5% of global GHG emissions, converted to tons, based on the following statistics: » https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/208750/umfrage/weltweiter-co2-ausstoss/