For every plastic-free material or product swap it’s quite likely you’ll find a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that declares the plastic version is actually much better for the environment. For instance, it’s been widely reported that an organic cotton tote bag needs to be used 20,000 times—or every single day for 54 years—to offset its overall production impact, a figure the plastics industry has run with to justify the continued used of PE single- use bags. Unsurprisingly, things aren’t quite so clear cut.
“An LCA only gives you so much of the picture. It’s not the be all and end all of environmental impact,” says Simon Hann, Principal Consultant and LCA Specialist at sustainability consultancy Eunomia. This is applicable to every product and material out there, but in the case of plastic there are myriad unquantifiable environmental and social impacts—some that are just emerging—that either don’t make it into an LCA or don’t make it into wider reporting. After years of inaccuracy and assumption, it’s time to put the plastic LCA under scrutiny.