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Looking at Plastic with Clear Eyes

It’s cool to hate plastic. Do a quick Google search for “evils of plastic” and you’ll get more hits than you can peruse in 20 lifetimes. But there’s a change afoot. Some very cool people have realized that plastic is helping to improve the environment.

These people aren’t necessarily cool in the sense of the popular kids in high school. No, they definitely tend toward the science geek part of the high school social spectrum.

But just as “Revenge of the Nerds” saw the uncool kids become cool, so are the scientists, engineers, and product designers who make the smartest uses of plastic in the process of becoming very cool, indeed.

Consider the humble milk container. The average high-density polyethylene jug is lighter than its competitors (glass and paper) and leads to 25 percent less emission of greenhouse gases in its life cycle.

Why? Because plastic’s light weight means it requires less energy to be transported. A recent Boston Globe story walked through exactly these realities.

Experts in the Globe story and many others attest to plastic’s hidden environmental appeals.

“There are a number of studies that have showed that even though plastics are made from petroleum, they use less petrol-chemical energy than glass,” said Susan Felke, a professor of packaging at the School of Packaging at Michigan State University.

When it comes to milk containers, plastic milk containers keep milk from spoiling and allow consumers to make fewer trips to the grocery store, and when they return home with their milk they’re using less fuel when they do so. It might not seem like a lot when you consider just one person with just a few containers of milk, but when you multiply it by a few trips a week, 52 weeks a year, and multiply by, say, 150 million, which is about the number of individuals buying milk in the United States annually, the fuel savings actually become important.

Even maligned grocery bags of the plastic kind are, it turns out, way more environmentally friendly than meets the eye. They require 70 percent less energy to manufacture than paper bags. Plus, because of their light weight, they require, again, far less energy to transport.

So, put away your guilt when it comes to plastic. It’s a part of modern life that is probably doing way more good, in way more ways, than you have given it credit for. At a minimum, it’s keeping your carbon footprint, and those of everyone you know, a lot, lot smaller.