Why the Plastics Scorecard?
The Plastics Scorecard represents an expansion and deepening of the various plastics assessment approaches, including the “Plastics Pyramid” and other similar tools. Based in life cycle thinking, the Scorecard evaluates and categorizes plastic products based on environmental benchmarks for 1) feedstock production, 2) chemical and plastics manufacturing, 3) use and 4) end of life.
Companies, governments and environmental organizations are in search of an approach that enables them to readily assess the environmentally preferability of plastic materials and products. Examples of cross material comparisons of plastics include:
- Greenpeace - In 1998, Greenpeace released its Plastics Pyramid, which identified PVC plastic as the least preferred plastic and biobased polymers as the most preferred plastics. The Plastics Pyramid evaluated plastics based upon the hazards posed by chemicals associated with plastics across their life cycle.1
- Minnesota - In 1998, two Minnesota government agencies (Office of Environmental Assistance and Technical Assistance Program) published the Design for Environment Toolkit, which included a “Relative Environmental Impact Ranking of Plastic Resins”. Their assessment of the relative environmental risks of plastics is based on the “ratios of comparative fuel, materials use and emissions that result from production of resins”. PVC had the highest environmental risk factor (least preferred) and polypropylene and low-density polyethylene had the lowest environmental risk factor (most preferred).2
- Opel - In 2002, the automaker Opel included in its Environmental Report 2000/2001 a “Priority List for Plastics with Regard to Recycling Aspects”. The least preferred plastics were PVC and any “mixture of incompatible materials”, and the most preferred plastics were polypropylene and polyethylene followed by polyoxymethylene, polyamide and thermoplastic polyurethane. Opel made its determination of environmental preferability based upon the recyclability of the material.3
- Herman Miller -In 2006, the office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller published a graphic similar to Opel on the “Recyclability of Plastics Used in Furniture”. PVC and thermoset plastics were the least preferred and Nylon 6 and PET, followed by the polyolefins (polyethylene and polypropylene) were the most preferred.4 Like Opel, the criterion for evaluating plastics was recyclability.
- Health Care Without Harm - In 2006, the Center for Health Design, Health Care Without Harm and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published a set of papers on the greening of health care construction that included an assessment of the environmental preferability of plastic construction materials for the health care sector. The “Plastics Environmental Preference Spectrum” evaluated plastics based on their chemical hazards, renewability and recyclability. PVC and “plastics with highly hazardous additives” were least preferred while “biobased plastics sustainably grown” followed by the polyolefins (polyethylene and polypropylene) were most preferred.5
- Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy - In 2008, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) released its fact sheet, the “Smart Plastics Guide: Healthier Food Uses of Plastics”. The Smart Plastics Guide recommends avoiding the use of PVC, polystyrene, and polycarbonate plastic with food products and identifies PET, HDPE, LDPE, polypropylene and bio-based plastics as “safer choices for foods and beverages”. IATP developed its recommendations based upon the environmental and human health risks posed by plastics across their life cycle.6
The environmental and human health attributes these assessments used to evaluate plastics varied, but together they included: renewable resources, hazards of chemicals used in manufacturing and present in the product (especially additives and monomers), pollution from manufacturing, potential for leaching of toxic chemicals during use, recyclability and recycling rates and/or combustion byproducts from incinerating the plastic.
The value of these environmental assessments of plastic materials is, they provide quick reference guides to the types of plastics that are more or less preferred. Their downsides include: the method for evaluating and comparing plastics is not fully developed and transparent, they are narrowly focused (for example, the Opel and Herman Miller only considered the recyclability of the plastics) and being generic, they do not address subtle differences between specific products. In creating a plastics preference method it is critical to create a method that is transparent and whose rationale is clear and results are replicable -- this is the intent of the Plastics Scorecard.
1 Wytze van der Naald and Beverley Thorpe. 1998. PVC Plastic: A Looming Waste Crisis. Greenpeace International (accessed 7/23/08).
2 Jeremy Yarwood and Patrick Eagan. 1998. Design for Environment Toolkit: A Competitive Edge for the Future. St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance and Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (accessed 1/5/09).
3 Opel. 2002. Environmental Report 2000/2001. Rüsselsheim, Germany: Adam Opel AG.
4 Mark Rossi, Scott Charon, Gabe Wing, and James Ewell. 2006. “Design for the Next Generation: Incorporating Cradle-to-Cradle Design into Herman Miller Products.” Journal of Industrial Ecology (10):193-210.
5 Mark Rossi and Tom Lent. 2006. “Creating Safe and Healthy Places: Selecting Materials that Support Healing.” Designing the 21st Century Hospital: Environmental Leadership for Healthier Patients and Facilities. Concord, CA: Center for Health Design. (accessed 7/23/08).
6 Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. 2008. “Smart Plastics Guide: Healthier Food Uses of Plastics”. Minneapolis: IATP (accessed 1/5/09).