Two decades ago, the pop group Aqua released their first massive single, “Barbie Girl,” in which they proclaimed, “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic.” And, back then, it kind of was. However, as environmentalists started conducting more research on plastic items the world’s rose-colored view on plastic goods began to change for the worse.

The favored material — found in everything from food packaging to clothing — has littered the oceans, clogged landfills, and contributed to an increase in harmful carbon emissions. In 2017, Science Advances published a study that found humans have created more than eight billion tons of plastic since 1950. Even worse, the study found that 91 percent of all plastic waste never gets recycled.

Our dependence on plastic costs a lot of money, too. According to a study from Trucost and the American Chemistry Council, plastic consumption cost $139 billion in damage to the environment in 2015. That sum is currently projected to skyrocket to $209 billion in 2025.

The numbers are astonishing. But what if we told you that plastics aren’t necessarily as evil as we’ve made them out to be? Or that replacing them with alternative materials could be more detrimental to the environment?

Trucost’s Plastics and Sustainability study found that in some key instances plastics can actually help reduce environmental damage. One way plastics do this is by keeping food fresher for longer, minimizing the amount of food waste. For example, packaging a meat product with a single-use plastic film can prolong its shelf life by 6 to 16 days. The less rotting food sent to landfills, the better, especially when it comes to meats and cereals. It may sound strange, but those two food items emit the majority of carbon dioxide caused by food waste (approximately 3.3 billion metric tons).

Plastic is also better than most other materials on the market for packaging and transporting goods. Say you need a shipment of granola. It’s more useful from a cost and environmental standpoint to package the granola in sustainable standup pouches instead of something more substantial like thick cardboard. Because the material is light, trucks don’t have to use as much fuel during transportation, thus bringing down carbon emissions. Flexible packaging also allows companies to ship more product at a time, resulting in a reduction in both the number of transportation trips and the overall carbon footprint.

Like some other materials on the market, plastics can be made from recycled matter. Cutting down toxic emissions while repurposing previously used materials? That’s a win in our books.

Additionally, bubble wraps and other protective barriers used in packaging are incredibly effective in minimizing damage during the shipping process. Fewer damaged goods means less waste, fewer returns and, ultimately, a less adverse impact on the environment.

You might be thinking, “That’s all well and good, but why can’t we just eliminate plastics and stick with things like recyclable glass or paperboard?” We previously mentioned that the weight of such materials can negatively impact shipping, but that’s not the only way they hurt the environment.

Trucost’s study found that using alternative materials such as aluminum, glass, and paperboard in place of plastics would ultimately have greater environmental consequences, increasing “costs from $139 billion to a total of $533 billion.” That’s because these materials require more resources (including electricity, energy, and water) to assemble and transport. Plus, there’s no guarantee that a product made with alternative materials will be much more recyclable than plastic. This worry is especially prevalent now that China has implemented stricter recycling standards, preferring single-source materials like unsoiled paper over multi-material products that are more difficult to break down.

In all of these instances, Trucost found that replacing plastics with alternative materials would negatively impact climate change, ocean health, and human health. So, if plastic isn’t going anywhere, how can we shrink its harmful effect on the environment?

Luckily, Trucost laid out a few practical options. First, plastic packaging plants can switch to low-carbon electricity (wind, solar, or hydro). Secondly, companies can reduce the amount of plastic they’re using by redesigning their products. Can soda bottles be sleeker or thinner? Can pouches be more compact? These are a couple of the questions designers should consider when drafting product concepts. Finally, all countries should improve their domestic and international waste collection and processing. We can start this last step in our own homes by learning more about our city and state recycling regulations.

And positive steps are being taken, just look at what GreenBlue organization is doing with their philosophy of sustainable materials management though material sourcing, material health, and material value. Through their efforts the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) was formed, which is an industry group of leading global companies throughout the supply chain working together to make packaging more sustainable (Label Technology is a member.)  One of the committees within SPC is specifically looking at recovery of multi-material flexible packaging. The first step to understanding the importance of packaging is to learn more about it—start here by reading about the role of transport packaging. And keep clicking around! Both these websites are full of clear explanations around confusing topics.

Interested in learning about how Label Technology can partner with you to develop a sustainable package for your product? Or just have some general questions about packaging sustainability? Contact us via phone or email; we’d love to find solutions to help both your company and the environment.