Energy Efficiency

Natural gas and oil are the building blocks for many of the products we all rely on every day, including the plastic used to record the film "Bag it!."

Today most plastics are made with traditional feedstocks, although a growing number of plastics are made using bio-based materials. Regardless of the starting point, from a resource and energy perspective, plastic is often a more efficient material to choose than alternatives. That's because plastics are incredibly energy efficient to manufacture and because they are lighter than alternative materials, which enables plastic products to deliver additional energy savings as they are transported and used.

A recent study from Europe shows that, across various market sectors, using plastics instead of alternative materials helps to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, replacing plastics with alternative materials would require the use of 57 percent more energy and produce 61 percent more greenhouse gas emissions. And when we recycle them, plastics' environmental profile gets even better.

In the United States, plastics are made primarily (70 percent) from domestic natural gas. By recycling plastics, we make that energy available for new products or for other purposes like heating and cooling our homes. For example, more than 4.2 billion pounds of plastics were recycled in the United States in 2009, saving enough energy to heat more than 2.1 million homes.

This video [explained by Ellie] shows that plastics are too valuable to throw away
learn how plastics can play a role in securing alternative sources of energy.
(Note: In the United States, plastics are made primarily from natural gas.)

Plastic Packaging and Sustainability

Plastic packaging helps keep food fresh, reduce waste and protect products from farms to grocery shelves to kitchen tables. Studies show that packaging prevents far more waste than it generates. For example, wrapping a cucumber in 1.5 grams of plastic wrap helps to extend its shelf life from three to 14 days.

And plastic packaging helps to dramatically extend the shelf life many foods and beverages—often using significantly less material than alternative forms of packaging.

That's important because lighter weight means more product can be shipped using less energy, which helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, plastic milk jugs reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one-third compared to alternatives; a plastic tuna pouch reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 77 percent compared to a steel can; and a plastic brick coffee package reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 68 to 76 percent compared to a plastics canister or steel can.

This video from the French Plastic and Flexible Packaging Association is a humorous but useful reminder of what life would be like without packaging.

Ironically, the product from which "Bag it!" takes its name provides a compelling energy efficiency story. Because they are lighter, plastic bags require 70% less energy to manufacture, produce 50% less greenhouse gas emissions and create five times less waste than paper bags. In addition:

  • For every seven trucks needed to deliver paper bags, only one truck is needed for the same number of plastic bags, helping to save energy and reduce emissions;
  • It takes 91% less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it does to recycle a pound of paper;
  • Plastic bags generate 80% less waste than paper bags;
  • The production of plastic bags consumes less than 4% of the water needed to make paper bags; and
  • Plastic grocery and retail bags make up a tiny fraction (less than 0.5%) of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream.

In addition, plastic bags (and bottles and containers) can be recycled many times.

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