Plastic: A Sustainability Enabler – Part 1

March 22, 2022

In the first of a three-part blog series, Heather Nortz, PLASTICS’ Manager for Sustainability and Materials, discusses how plastics are necessary to achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

By Heather Nortz
Manager, Sustainability and Materials

It’s difficult to be in the sustainability field without hearing that plastics are “evil”, “toxic”, “exceed the number of fish in the ocean”, the list goes on.

Plastics have also been positioned as synonymous with the waste management problem challenging nations around the world; that has given rise to a narrative which says the solution to that problem is to cut back on production of all plastic products or, in some instances, cease production altogether.

What this perception doesn’t take into account is that plastics help people do almost everything in life. From sending an email to improving infrastructure to curing illnesses, plastics support a wide variety of daily activities.  

To go a step further, plastics help to enable many of the sustainability trends and initiatives that are of peak importance to the overall well-being of people and the planet.

That’s right. Plastic is a sustainability enabler.

Relying on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)— seventeen internationally agreed upon top priorities for achieving global sustainability—as an organizational tool, the list below provides examples of how plastics are necessary to making these initiatives possible.  

A few clarifications to note before diving in:

  1. This list focuses strictly on how plastic material enables success in sustainability goals. It will not touch on the work of individuals or organizations to build a sustainable future. Goals such as “Decent Work and Economic Growth” 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.
  2. There are simply too many SDGs that plastics aid in accomplishing to address them all in one blog post. This article focuses only on goals 1 through 7; part two will cover 8 through 17.
  3. This is not an exhaustive list. There are certainly more products containing plastic that enable sustainability than are stated here.

SDG #2 Zero Hunger

End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

Plastic aids in agricultural efficiency and growth.

  • Irrigation systems
  • Protection of plants and animals via crop tarps and animal shelters
  • Agriculture equipment

Plastic extends the shelf life of food and facilitates the preparation and serving of food.

  • Food packaging
  • Refrigerators, freezers, coolers
  • Affordable cookware, dishware, utensils, food storage ware

SDG #3 Good Health and Well-Being

Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

In the medical field, plastic is vital to numerous treatments and applications.

  • Stethoscopes, syringes, infusion bags, heart monitors, blood pressure monitors, bandages, first aid kits, ice packs, personal care products, etc.

Plastic also promotes good health and well-being through injury and illness prevention.

  • Bike helmets, vehicle bumpers, sunglasses, personal protective equipment, sporting equipment, etc.

SDG #4 Quality Education

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

In a world of social distancing and virtual learning, plastics were a big part of enabling education to continue when in-person schooling was unavailable.

  • Keyboards, computers, phones, mouses, headphones, microphones, desks, textbooks, etc.

SDG #6 Clean Water and Sanitation

Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Plastic is instrumental in providing clean water and sanitation for all. Plastic is used in:

  • Water filters, water bottles, the Life Straw and similar products, wastewater treatment plants, irrigation systems.
  • The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act sets a goal to replace all remaining lead pipes with plastic to ensure safety and sanitation of drinking water.

SDG #7 Affordable and Clean Energy

Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

To aid in the prosperity of renewable energy and energy efficiency, plastic is used in:

  • Wiring and film panels of solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries.

The uses of plastic as a sustainability enabler are often overlooked. Public perception of plastic has been narrowed into a focus on the “plastics are evil” narrative, which is problematic on several levels. First of all, it’s not true. Also, without considering how plastic is essential to achieving widespread sustainability goals, public perception will continue to be misguided. Misguided perceptions, once they become mainstream, easily lead to misguided action by those who have influence on public policy. We’ve already seen it result in legislation such as material bans and plastic production moratoriums that threaten our industry and the livelihoods of families who depend on it.

It is important for anyone who relies on plastic in their lives (I would argue, all of us) to advocate for plastic as a sustainability enabler. I challenge you to bring up these examples, or examples of your own, to your peers, colleagues, friends, and family to begin to broaden the public’s perception of plastics.