• While plastic has serious environmental downsides, green alternatives may be worse in some cases.
  • Biodegradable plastics market may reach $6.73 billion in five years, according to an estimate.
  • U.K. study showed that cloth bags would have to be used more than a hundred times to mitigate the impact of a single-use plastic shopping bag.

Environmentalists long preached that the use of plastic shopping bags, straws, single-use forks and other items are bad for the Earth. 

What if the alternatives are worse?

That’s the argument an executive with Exxon Mobil, one of the world’s top plastics makers, made at an analyst presentation in New York. The answer is critical for sustainability investors, who are betting on a market forecast to rise 13% annually through 2025, reaching $6.73 billion in annual sales, according to a 2018 survey from Grand View Research. The goal is to create an alternative to the current situation that’s created 5 trillion pieces of the material afloat in the sea.

“From a sustainability viewpoint, plastic packaging beats alternatives,” Jack Williams, an Exxon Mobil senior vice president, said at the presentation on Thursday, according to Bloomberg. That’s because making plastic uses less energy than other products and alternatives generate much more waste, he said.

But is he right? Plastics are made from petrochemicals, and the assertion is coming from Exxon Mobil, the Big Oil giant that has been criticized for its lack of commitment to sustainability. CEO Darren Woods on the same day as the presentation dismissed efforts by rivals to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as a “beauty contest” that wouldn’t do much to stop climate change. He was following in the footsteps of Chevron CEO Mike Wirth, who earlier this week said his company wouldn’t follow European rivals by setting “aspirational” carbon-neutrality goals.

When it comes to plastic, the answer is: It’s complicated.

Governments around the world and major corporate consumers have taken steps to reduce single-use plastic packaging under the premise that less is more. Just this week, a lawsuit by environmental groups in California went after Coca-Cola, Nestle, Pepsi, Mars and other companies for plastic pollution. But what about the alternatives?

A study of shopping bags used in the U.K. in 2006 concluded that “whatever type of bag is used, the key to reducing the impacts is to reuse it as many times as possible,” whether for shopping or other purposes. Bags designed to last longer “need more resources in their production and are therefore likely to produce greater environmental impacts if compared on a bag for bag basis.”

Paper bags had to be used at least three times, low-density polyethylene bags at least four, non-woven polypropylene 11 times and cotton bags 131 times to have “lower global warming potential” than conventional single-use plastic bags.

Exxon Mobil’s Williams cited a 2018 study by researcher Franklin Associates which is sponsored by the American Chemistry Council, an industry group. It found that “replacing plastic with alternative materials in packaging applications would cause increases in energy use, water consumption and solid waste, as well as increase greenhouse gas emissions, acidification, eutrophication and ozone depletion.”

Of course, it’s clear that Exxon Mobil has a vested interest in the argument. Petrochemicals — which are used to make plastic — “are rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil consumption,” according to a 2018 report from the International Energy Agency. “They are set to account for more than a third of the growth in oil demand to 2030 and nearly half to 2050, ahead of trucks, aviation and shipping.”

Industrialized economies including the U.S. and European countries use as much as 20 times as much plastic per capita as places like India and Indonesia, which have larger populations, the IEA said. But even anti-poverty group Global Citizen, which advocates reducing plastic use, warns some alternatives to the material could be even worse for the environment, including so-called biodegradable water bottles and plastic bags which will only degrade under specific conditions. It also cited bamboo straws and repurposed plastic used in clothing and roads.