Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Ferraris, Fiats, and the plastic paradox

Have you ever looked closely at a Ferrari? It’s more than a car, isn’t it? I am among many people who find it to be more a work of art than a means of getting from Point A to Point B. The price of a Ferrari ensures that it is considered a status symbol. The design implies that the owner has impeccable taste, and the price implies that they have means … or at least that they had the means before the purchase was completed.

So, with all that going for them, why don’t we see more Ferraris on the road? Well, they are not really a wise purchase. They serve the same function as another Italian car model – the Fiat – but cost vastly more. And Ferraris are gas guzzlers, making them worse for the environment.

What does this have to do with plastics? I often hear people trying to sell metal and glass containers using arguments that are reminiscent of those used to sell a Ferrari when a Fiat would be the wiser choice.

First, such salespeople claim that metal and glass are greener than plastic when countless peer-reviewed life-cycle studies indicate that is just not true. The prime reason is that metal and glass containers require more material used, which means more waste is created. They also require much more energy to make, and that translates to burning more fossil fuel and generating more carbon-dioxide emissions, which is generally thought to be a bad thing.

Like a Ferrari, metal and glass feel like premium products, but to claim that they are environmentally friendlier is stretching truth well past the breaking point. Car salespeople have a reputation for being creative in their pursuit of a sale, but if they tried to sell me a Ferrari by claiming that it is the green choice, I would laugh in their faces.

I have heard from companies selling us metal and glass containers with the claim that they are more valuable at the end of life when it comes time to recycle them. At first glance, there is some truth to the notion. After all, metal and glass are more expensive – because they require so much more energy and are heavier, so transporting them requires more fuel. The worse a material is for the environment, the more expensive it tends to be. Gold, palladium, and platinum, for example, are horrendous for the environment and horrendously expensive to produce.

We know that expensive materials are terrible for the environment and are lucrative to collect and recycle, which tells us something about the other side of that coin; namely that cheap, environmentally friendlier materials such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics are not lucrative to collect and recycle. It is difficult to make money doing it – which helps explain the lower recycling rate.

That brings us neatly back to our analogy. Telling people that they should buy a metal or glass container because it is more valuable and likely to be recycled is equivalent to telling them to buy a Ferrari instead of a Fiat because the Ferrari will have a much higher trade-in value. If someone told you to do that, then you would probably doubt their integrity. The same applies to the people marketing glass and metal as the greener, more highly recycled option. It’s pure marketing spin, totally detached from reality.

People generally see Ferraris as more appealing than Fiats, but that does not make a Ferrari the smarter purchase. Spending vastly more for a car that is much worse for the environment is fiscally and socially irresponsible. On the flip side, opting for the less expensive, greener option is wise and responsible.

Fiats and plastics won’t turn as many heads as the pricey alternatives, but they are practical choices as we navigate the road to a bright and environmentally responsible future.

Chris DeArmitt
Chris DeArmitt
Chris DeArmitt, PhD (polymers and surface science), is a plastic materials consultant and independent environmental expert, award-winning speaker, author, and class-action expert witness. Get the facts in 5 minutes by clicking on the website url.


  1. Hey, wait a sec. I think I have seen one of these before. It’s a Cost, Benefit Analysis – right? Too bad they went out of style because they are helpful in thinking things through. Would be nice if they were fashionable amongst governments.

    • Hello James. Interestingly, there are 30 life cycle studies on bags globally and they all concluded that the plastic bag causes less waste, GHG and harm than the alternatives, so taxes and bans were already known to increase harm even before such action was enacted.


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