Materials consumption has come under increasing scrutiny in climate policy. According to the World Economic Forum, four to eight percent of global oil use is associated with plastics. Part of the motivation for reduced usage of plastics, aluminum and others is not just the habitat conservation concerns, but also the climate concerns. How founded are these, though?

The resources required to produce the materials used for packaging food, goods and other products is considerable. Aside from plastic production, plastic is also used in some countries to produce electricity through incineration. Together, these activities were estimated to have a global climate impact of 850 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019. Aluminum production is estimated to account for roughly 1,000 million metric tons. And for paper, much of which is used for packaging and paperboard, one study estimated 721 million metric tons of emissions in 2012, or 1.3 percent of global emissions. Looking at the figures, many have concluded that materials consumption needs to decline to combat climate change—but that is not the whole story.

First, it’s important to remember that packaging materials are made and used because they have real value. Food would not be as fresh, and products would get broken or damaged without these materials. Suppliers choose packaging materials because they know paying the cost for them allows them to sell more product with less waste. In the food and beverage industry this has become particularly important, as food waste is a major source of emissions. The United Nations estimates that if food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter at 3,600 million metric tons in 2011. Comparatively, packaging emissions are low, and according to Vancouver’s National Zero Waste Council, packaging comprises only five percent of the total emissions of food products. One 2014 study estimated that compared to substitutes, plastic packaging reduced U.S. emissions by between 75.8 and 89.6 million metric tons. Simply, when considering products that are not easy to reduce consumption of (namely food), changing packaging material or cutting its consumption does not necessarily yield a net benefit.

A more nuanced look at the climate impact of materials typically associated with packaging offers some insight as to where the real climate value of policy lies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) collects data on recycling and packaging materials and has also published the estimated life-cycle impact from both material use reduction and from recycling. The table below offers a comparison.

Emissions from Reduction (MTCO2e/U.S. Ton) Emissions from Recycling (MTCO2e/U.S. Ton) Materials Generation for Containers and Packaging (thousand U.S. tons) Recycling Rate Landfilled Rate
Aluminum -4.91 -9.11 1,890 33% 53%
Steel -3.06 -1.81 2,010 73% 22%
Paper (mixed) -6.75 -3.53 41,060 73% 21%
Plastics (mixed) -1.92 -1.02 14,490 13% 70%
Glass -0.53 -0.28 8,930 34% 53%


Source: U.S. EPA recycling data and documentation for Waste Reduction Model. Emissions data for aluminum and steel for cans (not ingots).

What is immediately apparent is that for all materials, except for aluminum, recycling offers more than half the climate benefit of reduction. Aluminum offers more benefit than reduction, because it can be recycled numerous times and recycled aluminum inputs require less energy than virgin ones. Essentially, the data tells us that for most materials, a two percent increase in recycling is better than a one percent reduction of consumption.

The data also shows that where some materials are substitutable, some are more environmentally friendly than others. The high emissions abatement from recycling of aluminum, for example, suggests that switching to aluminum from plastic or glass yields greater environmental benefits. There are of course non-environmental reasons for why substitution may not occur, such as cost, material availability, ease of transport or food sanitation.

The other interesting point from the data is that for aluminum, plastic and glass, recycling rates remain markedly low. Overall municipal waste recycling rates in Europe were 46 percent in 2017 (versus 35 percent in the United States). Recycling rates also vary substantially by state, and those with recycling-focused policies like bottle return laws typically have greater recycling rates. Further, Michigan, which pays double the typical deposit rate, has redemption rates typically above 90 percent, whereas California has only 75 percent and New York 66 percent. Essentially, better recycling policy could improve recycling rates, and provide bigger incentives for recycling results in higher rates.

There is also considerable potential value in landfilled materials. Recycled PET, a common type of plastic used in bottles, sells for $299 per ton, and recycled aluminum has a value of $1,317 per ton. For the sake of argument, if all landfilled plastic containers could be recycled at the price for PET (in reality much of the plastic is also HDPE, which sells for higher), the landfilled value in 2017 would be approximately $3 billion. For aluminum containers, the value would be $1.4 billion. This indicates that there may be an unrealized private sector demand for recyclable packaging materials that are ending up in landfills. As a note, the high demand for aluminum has already created a robust $800 million per year market for recycled product.

As a caveat to all the above data, however, the total emissions from materials usage in the United States is relatively low. If recycling were improved so that an additional 10 percent of aluminum containers produced were recycled, the annual emission yield would be a mere 1.7 million metric tons (estimate based on EPA data of emissions and materials generation). For plastics, it would be 1.5 million metric tons. For comparison, power sector emissions between 2018 and 2019 fell by 145 million metric tons. Better recycling policy can yield climate benefit, but nowhere near the benefits at stake in the power, industry and transportation sectors. But from another perspective, this is good news: It means Americans should not feel too guilty about the climate impact from their materials packaging.

The bigger environmental impacts of packaging materials have to do with the effect on habitats, and waste finding its way to oceans. This analysis is specifically focused on climate impacts from the use of packaging materials in the United States, but it should be noted waste generation finding its way into oceans is predominantly from foreign nations. Less than two percent of plastic waste in the United States is mismanaged (littering, uncontained landfills, etc.), whereas in China it is 76 percent and India it is 87 percent. Even for environmental conservation, policies aimed at consumption reduction in the United States would fail to target the core problem.

The upshot is that packaging materials are a major source of global emissions but attempting to curb consumption in the United States may not be the easiest way to achieve benefits. In many cases, the packaging materials used can avoid a more significant environmental impact from food waste or more damaging materials substitutes. From an emissions perspective, incremental improvements to recycling rates may yield bigger gains than attempts to cut consumption, and some materials have a bigger recycling benefit than others. Either way, though, the meat of domestic climate policy will continue to lie in the power, industry and transportation sectors. And, for environmental conservation, Americans should take note that the biggest challenges globally lie outside their borders. Better recycling policy should be pursued simply because there is an environmental and economic benefit at stake, but it does not absolve policymakers from pursuing the much bigger and more impactful policies affecting climate and global habitat preservation.

Image credit: Virrage Images