Are Plant-Based Products Really Better for the Environment?

Much has been discussed about the actual environmental benefits of plant-based products. Many articles and think-pieces have misinterpreted basic facts about plant-based materials while leaning too heavily on pessimism and speculation. In this blog post, we’ll address the myth that plant-based products are no better for the environment than traditional petroleum-based products.

How are plant-based materials better for the environment than petroleum-based materials?

It’s undeniable: products made from renewable sources like plants offer numerous environmental benefits over materials made from fossil fuels, like traditional plastics. Petroleum-based products negatively impact our environment by contributing to increased greenhouse gas emissions and prolonging the use of fossil fuels, a non-renewable resource.  

Removing CO2

Plant-based alternatives offer a solution. Unlike materials derived from fossil fuels, feedstocks from plant-based materials remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere during their growing phase, and some is sequestered in the materials during their time as a useful consumer product. If two-thirds of conventional plastics around the globe were replaced by plant-based alternatives, the reduction of emissions would be equivalent to the annual energy use of over 80 million homes. More than half of all traditional plastic resins used in packaging could be replaced by drop-in plant-based alternatives – meaning huge opportunity exists to start creating change.

How Much Better?

The statistics behind products made by PBPC members like Virent and NatureWorks speak for themselves. The raw materials used for Virent’s bio-polyester are 100% renewable, plant-based resources, including beet sugar, cane sugar, corn starch, bagasse, corn stover, grasses, and sorghum. Bio-polyester performs identically to traditional polyester because it is chemically identical, all while leading to a greater than 50% decrease in CO2 footprint. When NatureWorks manufactures their Ingeo polymers, the process produces approximately 80% less greenhouse gases and uses approximately 52% less non-renewable energy than traditional polymers. As another example, DuPont Sorona’s bio-based fibers are 37% renewably sourced by weight – using 30% less energy and producing 50% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional nylon. Products like these demonstrate the immediate impact that plant-based products have on our environment, today.

Plastic in the Environment

Only 9% of plastic waste ever produced has been recycled, with 79% ending up in a landfill or the environment. In fact, it is estimated that over 26 million tons of plastic are added to landfills across the country each year. And landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than CO2. Food waste is significant contributor to landfill methane emissions – despite being compostable, over 40 million tons of food waste were sent to landfills in 2015.  Investing in more plant-based compostable materials in food contact applications, and the appropriate infrastructure that can support them, would help remove much of that food waste out of landfills and decrease methane emissions.

Plant-based materials are better for the environment because they help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and contribute to reduced waste and emissions through a wide range of disposal options, including recyclability and compostability. Expanding infrastructure that will help us embrace a circular economy is needed, and it is true that this shift requires serious change. NGOs like the United Nations Environment Program and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development agree that with the right infrastructure in place, plant-based materials are an environmentally responsible alternative to traditional, petroleum-based products.