Plastic: A Sustainability Enabler — Part 2

April 5, 2022

This second article in a three-part series continues the use of the universally agreed upon Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from the United Nations as a framework for offering a clear vision of how impossible it would be to achieve a sustainable future without plastic.

By Heather Nortz
Manager, Sustainability and Materials

This second article in a three-part series continues the use of the universally agreed upon Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from the United Nations as a framework for offering a clear vision of how impossible it would be to achieve a sustainable future without plastic.  

Part One covered examples of plastic products that aid in reaching achievements among SDGs 1 through 7. Part two reviews examples within SDGs 8 through 17.  

Some clarifications before we begin, as were mentioned in part one: 

This list focuses strictly on how plastic material enables success in sustainability goals. It does not touch on the work that individuals or organizations do to build a sustainable future. Goals such as “Partnerships for the Goals” and “Reduced Inequalities” are not listed, for instance, because they speak more about initiatives the plastics industry as a whole contributes to, than they do about the material itself. 

This is not an exhaustive list. There are certainly more products containing plastic that enable sustainability initiatives than are stated here. 

SDG #9 Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure 

Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation. 

Plastic enables innovative solutions such as: 

  • Electric vehicles, renewable energy, development of new vaccines, development of new technologies, etc. 
  • Plastic is integral to the development of infrastructure. 
  • Buildings, bridges, roads, construction equipment, safety equipment for construction workers, etc. 
  • Recycling and composting infrastructure, recycling and waste bins, etc.  

SDG #11 Sustainable Cities and Communities 

Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. 

Open public spaces and public services aid in community development. Plastic is used to create: 

  • Park benches, playgrounds, streetlamps, building materials, etc. 
  • Public transportation such as metro, subway, buses, taxis, bike or scooter sharing, etc. 

SDG #13 Climate Action  

Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. 

Choosing plastic over other materials can help to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.   

  • Plastic is much less energy intensive to transport, compared to other materials. 
  • Plastic is incredibly durable compared to other materials such as glass or paper. The ability to use a material for a long time mitigates the need for replacement and increased production.  
  • Plastics are essential to the efficiency and operation of electric vehicles. They are also essential to reaching the goal of clean and zero-emissions vehicles for federal, state, local, and tribal government fleets in the Federal Clean Electricity and Vehicle Procurement Strategy
  • Plastic enables cars to be lightweight and improves battery longevity. 

SDG # 14 Life Below Water  

Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development. 

Though waste plastics do not belong in the ocean, plastic products do aid in restoration of life below water. For example: 

  • Coral reefs are restored by organizations such as NOAA that plant nursery-grown coral back onto reefs. To do this, scuba gear, boats, and planting tools are required. 
  • Oyster populations in the Hudson River, among other locations, are being restored by rebuilding habitats in the river. Conservation projects like this are happening all over the world and require plastic instruments in data collection, lab testing, and project deployment stages.  

SDG #15 Life on Land  

Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. 

Unintentionally placed and carelessly discarded plastic material does not belong in the environment. However, plastic is used in numerous research projects that allow us to understand the natural world and ultimately accomplish sustainability initiatives with tools such as: 

  • Data collection, transportation to and from locations, lab equipment, monitoring and measuring technology, etc. 
  • Perception is reality, but reality is not always the commonly accepted perception. It is all of our responsibility to push against the claims that say, “banning plastic is the sustainable thing to do”. Those claims are shortsighted and misinformed. Plastic is in fact a sustainability enabler. Until that fact is widely realized and accepted, we will continue to see dangerous legislation such as material bans and plastic production moratoriums arise.   
  • The best way to communicate this idea to those with differing views is to find where both parties have common ground. For example, everyone wants to live in a clean environment; everyone desires safety, health, and convenience. As demonstrated in the above examples, plastic is required to provide those things.  
  • Using examples of how plastic enables the Sustainability Development Goals is a great place to start the conversation about the sustainable attributes of plastic. Please share parts one and two of this blog series with your friends and family to raise awareness of the great things we all rely on plastic to do.