Why plastic-free isn’t the same as carbon-free

In this article, we'll help you understand these two goals and decide which is right for your business.

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A great way to show your customers that you’re serious about reducing your environmental impact is to commit to going plastic-free or carbon-free. But what do these terms mean, and how are they different from one another? 

In this article, we’ll help you to understand these two goals and to decide which is right for your business. 

What does plastic-free mean?

Plastic-free doesn’t mean you have to throw away all your existing packaging. It just means that your business doesn’t use or buy any new plastic, including biodegradables

What does carbon-free mean?

The definition of carbon-free is slightly more complicated. It may mean either being carbon neutral or zero carbon, which has subtly different meanings.

A carbon neutral business is one that calculates their emissions and offsets them using carbon offsets, like tree planting. This means their environmental impact in terms of carbon emissions is neutral — neither bad nor good. 

On the other hand, a zero carbon business is one that creates no carbon emissions in the first place. There’s no need for any offsetting as there are no emissions to offset. 

For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that carbon-free means carbon neutral, as this is the more realistic goal for most small businesses.

Image credit: Pexels

How does plastic contribute to carbon emissions?

Most conventional plastics are made using fossil fuels. Plastic production uses 4% of petroleum produced globally per year, and the refining process uses another 4%. Producing just 1kg of plastic emits between 2 and 3.5kg of carbon emissions. 

To make matters worse, a large proportion of plastic waste is incinerated, which creates massive carbon emissions. In 2018, England incinerated around 749,200 tonnes of plastic waste, much of which was used for energy. In the same year, waste incineration provided just 2.4% of the UK’s electricity but accounted for 13% of greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation. 

The emissions from plastic production and incineration combined means that plastic generates more than 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses each year. By 2050, this may have risen to 2.8 billion tonnes. 

Plastic and climate change

Greenhouse gas emissions, a huge amount of which plastic is responsible for, are largely to blame for climate change. And it’s not only the production and incineration of plastic that has huge global warming potential. 

Oceans are the largest natural carbon sink in the world and absorb almost a third of our carbon emissions. Many experts worry that marine plastic pollution poses a threat to this process. 

One of the main reasons for this is the effect of marine plastic on plankton, which play a key role in carbon sequestration. Studies have shown that plankton’s health and capability to absorb carbon are damaged by microplastics in the ocean.

So there’s clearly a link between the increasing carbon emissions in our atmosphere and the constantly growing demand for plastic. However, there are some key differences between going plastic and carbon-free.

The difference between plastic-free and carbon-free

By going plastic-free, you won’t also necessarily be going carbon-free. This is because every potential replacement for plastic still has a carbon footprint.

Packaging materialCO2 emissions per kgEquivalent in miles driven
Polyethylene6kg18 miles
Polycarbonate6kg18 miles
Polystyrene5kg15 miles
Polypropylene1.95kg – 3.5kg5.85 – 10.4 miles
Polyvinyl chloride1.7kg6 miles 
Aluminium15kg45.8 miles
Bamboo1.4kg4.3 miles
Glass1kg3.1 miles
Cotton970g3 miles 
Paper950g2.9 miles
Jute560g1.7 miles
Cardboard540g1.6 miles
PLA 500g1.5 miles
Kraft paper455g1.4 miles
Bagasse36g0.1 miles

Because plastic is extremely light, you don’t need a lot of it to make it into something useful. This means that some kinds of plastic packaging have a lower carbon footprint than their non-plastic alternatives. 

For example, paper bags weigh more than plastic ones, so their transportation uses more energy. For this reason, a paper bag has to be reused 4 times before it has a lower carbon footprint than a plastic bag. Cotton bags are even worse — they have to be reused 131 times before their carbon footprint is lower! (Figures taken from “How bad are bananas”). There’s a great explainer video with more info on this here.

The carbon emissions of different materials also depend on how far they’ve travelled. For instance, you might think that plastic-free toilet paper has a lower carbon footprint than toilet paper wrapped in plastic. However, if the plastic-free version has come from China and the one wrapped in plastic was made in the UK, then the latter will have incurred far fewer carbon emissions. 

Similarly, going carbon-free doesn’t mean you have to go plastic-free. Net zero businesses can still use plastic because they offset their emissions in order to be carbon neutral.

This is not to say that you should use as much plastic as you like. Your priority should be to reduce the plastic that you use rather than to replace it with new, plastic-free materials, as these may take an even heavier toll on the environment. 

Image credit: Unsplash

Which should you prioritise: plastic-free or carbon-free?

Whether you prioritise going plastic or carbon-free depends on your business’ goals. There are a number of benefits to going both plastic-free and carbon-free:

Benefits to going plastic-free

  • Differentiates your business in the market and attracts customers
  • Suggests that your products are high quality 
  • Reduces your waste footprint
  • It’s better for your health — plastics leach chemicals that can be toxic if we ingest them, leading to a number of health issues
  • Protects animal species and ecosystems, which are harmed by microplastics in the air, soil, and ocean
  • Reduces your carbon footprint
  • Your business will be helping to build a circular economy for plastic

Benefits to going carbon-free

  • Differentiates your business in the market and attracts customers
  • Reduces your carbon footprint 
  • Reduces cost because of lower energy bills and fewer high-emission activities, like business travel 
  • You’ll avoid being heavily taxed through the proposed carbon border tariff scheme in the future

However, you don’t need to choose one or the other. Doing what you can to reduce both your carbon emissions and plastic use where possible is the best thing you can do to reduce your environmental impact.

Conclusion

Going plastic-free isn’t guaranteed to reduce your carbon emissions, and the choices with the lightest carbon footprint aren’t always plastic-free. Eliminating plastic and eliminating carbon emissions from your business are two related but ultimately separate things. 

That’s why it’s essential to reduce your use of plastic where you sensibly can instead of replacing it with other materials. Cutting down on the plastic that you use and buy in your day-to-day life is a simple and foolproof way to reduce your environmental impact.

This small step may not feel like much, but it will reduce your carbon footprint more than you might think. 

Sophie Comninos
Author: Sophie Comninos

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