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Waste Recovery & Reduction

Reducing Energy Impacts with Plastics

Managing energy use is a vital component of CPIA’s efforts to achieve environmental sustainability.

Using plastics in products and packaging, and retrieving their energy benefits helps reduce energy requirements and limit greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change. And, at the end of their lives, many plastics are valuable inputs to sources of clean energy.

While opportunities abound, there’s much more to come. It’s exciting, it’s innovative and it’s changing every day.

Plastics and Energy Reduction

Think back on your day – how many things did you do that didn’t take some form of energy. From flicking on a light switch to powering up your computer or opening your garage to take out your bicycle. Every single day, we each consume vast amounts of energy. Its availability is vital to worldwide economies and to human development. In their many forms, plastics can contribute to reducing energy demands in large and small ways.

Resource-efficient and strong

Products and packaging made from plastics are lightweight, they’re excellent insulators and use relatively small amounts of raw materials to contain and protect the products we all rely on.

These characteristics translate directly into reducing energy demands for transportation, temperature management and replacement of damaged goods. And then, at the end of their useful lives, the energy stored in plastic products and packaging that are not or cannot be recycled can be converted to renewable energy sources to power homes and businesses.

Thinking about…International Climate Change Protocols

On December 12, 2015, Canada joined countries around the world in signing an ambitious agreement to reduce the impacts of climate change, and to set and measure progress toward achieving targets that will make this possible. Innovative solutions developed by the plastic industry have presented various opportunities to reduce GHG emissions over many years. As just one example, a University of Toronto study suggested that Canada could achieve significant reductions by simply replacing old municipal water pipes with new plastic pipes. Why? Because it takes more energy to pump water through leaky or partially corroded or blocked pipes. Find out more about innovative solutions made possible with plastics:  Latest News

Energy-efficient packaging

Packaging serves several functions. It contains and protects products, preserves quality and stability of goods and provides information for consumers. Plastic packaging does all this in a way that’s energy-efficient from start to finish.

How do we know?

For many years, CPIA has taken part in and funded studies to learn about the impacts of plastic products and packaging from raw material extraction through to disposal.

These include Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) studies that measure environmental impacts of a particular product from raw material and energy consumption, manufacturing and use, right through to its ultimate disposal.

One of the studies compared the energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts of six types of plastic packaging in the 1.6 million tonnes used every year, to other packaging options such as glass bottles and jars, cartons, cardboard and metal cans.

It showed that in Canada alone, it would take more than four times as many other materials (actually 7.1 million tonnes!) to do the same work as plastics, at more than double the energy demand.

Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) with Plastics

Burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activities. When greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, they contribute to warming the earth’s surface and result in climate change.

Manufacturing all kinds of products and packaging requires energy. For CPIA and our members, reducing the energy requirements related to all aspects of plastics – from reducing the amount of raw materials needed, to using less energy in manufacturing, to creating products and packaging that require less energy throughout their life cycles to disposal. All of these are important steps on the road to sustainability.

CPIA supports their efforts as part of our commitment to this process. Here’s how…

Using less plastic to do the same job

Plastics are ‘heavy lifters’ because they are very strong compared to their weight. This makes great candidates for lightweighting and thinwalling – where packages can be made lighter or thinner, in effect using less material to do the same job. This helps achieve the first of the 5Rs, “source reduction”.  For example, if you could compare an empty laundry detergent bottle from 10 years ago with today’s version, you’d probably find the newer one is as much as 10% lighter – but still able to do the same job.

But that’s not all. The lighter and thinner plastic packaging delivers the same services (protection, convenience, preservation and consumer information) with less overall environmental impacts. Using less material means resources are conserved, less energy is used to make the package and less GHG is generated.

Reducing Energy Consumption one Bottle at a Time

You may use plastic bottles because they’re lightweight, convenient and safe, but did you know they can take up to 25% less energy to produce than metal cans, glass bottles or cartons? And because they weigh less, they also require less energy to transport. The average 2-litre PET bottle has shed about one-third of its weight since 1980, but can still contain the same amount of liquid (e.g., pop). If the same size bottle is made of recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate resin), it can reduce up to 48 million BTUs of energy.

Reducing energy consumption and GHG emissions with plastic products

Used in products for homes, offices, manufacturing facilities and just about every walk of life, plastic products result in daily reductions in energy and GHG emissions.

Energy is needed to generate raw materials, manufacture products and manage waste, but because the new plastics are often small and lightweight, lifetime energy impacts and GHG emissions are lower. Combined with the fact that many plastic products are designed specifically to reduce GHG emissions the overall impacts can be impressive. For example:

  • Chances are your home has plastic foam insulation and maybe even a house wrap (a plastic film barrier sheet that acts like a windbreaker for a building). Together, they can reduce your annual heating/cooling costs by as much as 50%
  • One study showed if all houses in Canada used plastic exterior foam insulation, GHG emissions would drop by 3 million tonnes/year, the equivalent of taking 700,000 vehicles off the road each year
  • A European study suggested that energy savings over the lifetime of plastic insulation boards (like siding) are more than 150 times greater than the energy needed for production and that it takes just four months for insulation materials save more energy than is used to produce them
  • In infrastructure projects, durable and non-corrosive plastic piping can replace leaky and partially-blocked metal water pipes to significantly reduce energy requirements of pumping water from place to place.
  • Do you remember your grandparents’ car? It was heavier and larger than today’s version because many materials in yesterday’s automobiles have now been replaced by plastics. For every 100 kg of plastics used, today’s car might save about 750 litres of fuel over its lifespan
  • Used in electronics and appliances, plastics offer a lightweight alternative that significantly reduce energy over their lifetimes, for example, substituting mp3 players for portable CD players or replacing film cartridge cameras with digital versions result in significant energy and GHG emission reductions (by factors of at least 25)

Plastics and Energy Recovery

Much of today’s energy needs are met by burning non-renewable fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. But, by converting non-recyclable, end-of-life plastics to energy, we can help offset or even reduce the demand for fossil fuels.

Recovering energy from waste is a waste management alternative to landfill, where energy from materials that can’t be diverted is transformed into renewable energy. Energy recovery involves scientific, regulated and carefully controlled incineration techniques such as gasification, pyrolysis, or the manufacture of refuse derived fuel (RDF).

Energy recovery complements recycling activities by recovering ‘borrowed energy’ from the products and plastics at the stage where they can’t be reused or recycled. These technologies are united by a common feature: safety and high yield, partially-renewable energy production.

Plastics are a valuable source of energy

In 2012, CPIA commissioned a study to determine the energy value of plastics that currently can’t be recycled and that go to landfill. Researchers at the University of Waterloo estimated that if every bit of the 2.8 million tonnes of non-recyclable plastics were converted to energy:

  • using pyrolysis, where waste plastics are heated to promote chemical decomposition that converts them to synthetic oil products, they would generate more than nine million barrels of oil – enough to power nearly 640,000 cars for a year
  • in a waste-to-energy (WTE) plant, where plastics would be burned, they would generate enough energy to supply nearly 1.5 million households with dioxin and furan-free electricity for a year and reduce coal consumption by 681,000 tonnes

At CPIA, our priority is to reduce, reuse and recycle end-of-life plastics as much as possible. But we also recognize that recovering energy from remaining materials is a valuable option that provides a welcome renewable source of energy.

Thinking about … Waste to Energy (WTE)

WTE is a term that covers technologies (like pyrolosis, refused derived fuel, gasification) used worldwide to reuse waste materials that can’t be recycled to generate fuel sources for heat and power. Plastics have a high measure of “captured” energy (the amount of energy that can be released) which helps increase the efficiency of WTE processes.

Energy Recovery Using the Energy Bag
Dow has teamed with municipal and industry partners to implement an alternative for plastic waste with the Energy Bag Programs. The Energy Bag Programs demonstrate that non-recycled plastic items – like juice pouches, candy wrappers and plastic dinnerware – can be collected and converted into an energy resource and helps identify a way to keep more material out of the landfill. More on Dow’s Energy Bag Program.

Canadians support energy recovery

Canada is becoming a leader in WTE technology with new plants in place or in progress in several communities from Prince Edward Island to Vancouver Island. In 2014, CPIA commissioned a poll to probe Canadians’ attitudes to WTE facilities to find out if WTE is a concern and how Canadians view this option as an alternative to landfilling the plastics that currently can’t be recycled.

The results showed strong support for WTE technology:

  • 89% of respondents prefer that non-recyclable plastics go to WTE/EFW rather than landfill
  • 80% showed interest in expanding WTE recovery systems
  • 66% have a favourable impression of WTE EFT technologies
  • 63% voiced support for hosting an EFW facility in their community

Fast Facts on Energy, GHG Reduction and Energy Recovery

  1. The 2014 Substitution Analysis LCA: Impact Of Plastics Packaging On Life Cycle Energy Consumption & Greenhouse Gas Emissions contains a wealth of information about impacts of plastics as well as various other packaging types.
  2. In a three-month trial in one US community, CPIA member Dow rolled out a program to recover non-recyclable plastic (NRP) materials for WTE processing. This short pilot converted 6,000 lb. of NRP to synthetic crude oil, despite somewhat low participation. With more time to get in the swing of things, nearly 80% of residents said they’d like to participate if they had another chance. Find out more about the Citrus Heights Purple Bag program.  Dow also has an”EnergyBag Program“.
  3. Non-recyclable plastics are an important contributor to renewable energy sources in Canada. Find out more in Energy And Economic Values Of Non-Recycled Plastics (NRP) Currently Landfilled In Canada (2012).
  4. Find out more about living walls here: CPIA and living walls and
  5. Find out more about how plastics can help the environment (Infographic: from this original posting at