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Carbon Footprint of Single-Use Plastic Items and Their Substitution

Department of Industrial and Information Engineering and Economics, University of L’Aquila, 67100 L’Aquila, Italy
Plastic Free Certification s.b.r.l., 64020 Bellante, Italy
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2022, 14(24), 16563;
Submission received: 3 November 2022 / Revised: 22 November 2022 / Accepted: 7 December 2022 / Published: 10 December 2022


Single-use plastic is having a significant environmental impact and its reduction is a mandatory step to reduce plastic pollution worldwide. Indeed, the time that a plastic item can persist in the environment is very long and it is well known that it can produce devastating effects in particular in seas and oceans. Moreover, production, use and disposal of plastic items have a significant impact also on the greenhouse effect; this can be estimated in a life cycle approach, by evaluating their carbon footprint. In this work, a review of the carbon footprint evaluation of different single-use plastic categories has been carried out, developing a methodology to immediately evaluate the benefits related to their substitution with compostable and bio-plastic and/or multiple-use items and materials. The result of the novel methodology developed is a certain number of matrixes, which can categorize impact values in order to compare them with replacement with bio-based plastic materials or multi-use things. Finally, the methodology was tested and validated through a case study, where a plastic reduction plan was proposed and implemented and the CO2 equivalent reduction was assessed, demonstrating a reduction potential related to a replacement by bioplastic or other materials equal, respectively, to 73% and 90%.

1. Introduction

In recent years, awareness concerning environmental issues related to plastic has been increasing dramatically. Plastics’ resistance to biodegradation and their consequent long-life persistence produce a negative environmental impact hard to abate. In this context, an increase in plastic global production from 2 Mt to 380 Mt has been observed from 1950 to 2015, of which approximately 80% is petrochemical [1], such as PE, PVC, PP, PS and PET [2]. It is worth emphasizing that, despite the massive production, only 30% is currently used and between 1950 and 2015, plastic waste amounted to 6300 Mt; of this, 12% has been incinerated and 9% has been recycled [3]. Every year 10–20 million tons of plastics leak into the oceans [4] and their accumulation is found in the convergence zones of each subtropical gyre, but today plastic debris has been found in different seas and shores around the world [5,6]. Through photodegradation and other weathering processes, plastic fragments are dispersed in the ocean [7]. Generation and accumulation of plastic pollution also occur in closed bays [8], gulfs and seas surrounded by densely populated coastlines [9,10], watersheds [11] and rivers estuaries [12]. The most important environmental implications of plastic in marine environments are entanglement, ingestion, smothering by animals, hangers-on and alien species invasions [13]. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increase in the use of single-use plastic items due to the need to reduce contact among people and the increase in take-away products [14,15].
The life span of plastic is estimated to be hundreds to thousands of years but is likely far longer in deep sea and non-surface polar environments [11,16].
Regarding the damage to human health, recent studies have detected microplastics in human blood, lungs and placenta, and have highlighted that children are more vulnerable, drawing attention to the possible consequences. At the moment, it is not known whether microplastics move between organs in a respiratory or a hematic way, and there is still no proof of the contamination of the entire food chain, but scientific research is currently considering correlations with the development of systemic diseases, some tumor types and damage to neurodevelopment [17,18].
In May 2019, the EU approved a pioneer piece of legislation to reduce single-use plastics; it aims to preserve our environment by reducing marine litter, greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on imported fossil fuels. The Single-Use Plastic Directive is a part of the European Strategy Circular Economy action plan and defines different actions that apply to different product categories, with a view to their progressive elimination [19,20].
Many countries have transposed the directive into national laws for local application; for example, in France, marketing of single-use plastic packaging must end by 2040, and, to achieve this goal, reduction, reuse and recycling targets will be set by decree, with progressive targets [21]. However, the difficulty in implementing policies in this regard is evident and often the initiatives are scattered and entrusted to local entities [22]. Perhaps the lack of clear standards in many countries is noteworthy, generating confusion and regulatory and infrastructural issues [23].
Today, environmental legislation oversees a varied and lively market that is sharply expanding, in parallel with an increase in the sensitivity of civil society towards climate and environmental issues. As reported by Symbola, the Foundation for Italian Quality, “reconstructing a quantitative picture of the diffusion of environmental certifications at an international level is not a very simple undertaking: due to the multiplicity of subjects in the field, to the fragmented availability of data, to the heterogeneity and the credibility of the sources” [24]. In this regard, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) analyses take on great importance with regard to obtaining independent assessments and thus preventing greenwashing [25].
There are over 450 players in the world that provide environmental certifications, with an annual growth of 6.2% (2017 data) [24]. There is a variety of programs that are diverse and differentiated by subject, methodology and geography, including certifications in management systems, product quality, energy consumption, reduction of food waste, responsible management of raw materials, etc.
In Italy, according to data from the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) from 2018, over 20 thousand companies have obtained a “green” environmental management system certification under programs such as ISO 14001, Emas or Ecolabel.
Globally, ISO 14001 is the most widespread program, according to IEMA data, with an annual growth rate of 8% (2016 data) [26]. The EMAS standard, on the other hand, a direct competitor of ISO 14001 but limited to Europe, had a growth of 40% between 2013 and 2014 (latest data available) [27].
Another reference program in Europe is Ecolabel, the European Union’s ecological quality mark that distinguishes products with a reduced environmental impact. The number of EU Ecolabel products has been increasing during recent years, now reaching the unprecedented level of 89,357 products (goods and services) [28].
Another important environmental certification is the Environmental Product Declaration (EDP). It is a global program addressing claims concerning the environmental impact of the life cycle of products and services. The international EPD system is the first and longest operational EPD program in the world, originally founded in 1998. It refers to third-party environmental standards such as ISO 14025, EN 15804 and ISO 14067. To date, over 400 organizations from nearly 50 countries publish their EPDs through the program [29].
The Plastic Free Certification (PFC) Benefit Society proposal is part of this varied and diversified scenario, the first and only company on a global level to propose a registered operating standard that focuses on the use of single-use plastics and the related environmental impact. The main value element proposed by PFC is the certification service, accompanied by tutoring and consultancy services and capable of enhancing the environmental commitment in the transition to a plastic free state. Among competing entities, PFC is the only one that bases its certification methodology on a registered and protected regulatory standard. It is a methodological tool that defines four operational phases (Plastic Assessment, Definition KPI, Plastic Reduction Plan, Deployment), aimed at structuring and coordinating an incremental process of reducing packaging and disposable plastic materials.
In this work, firstly, a review of the Life Cycle Assessment of single-use plastic items was performed. The study aimed to highlight the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions that are avoided thanks to the reduction, deletion or substitution of single-use plastic items. Reduction or deletion policies have a clear impact on plastic waste direct pollution decrease, but often they also reduce the life cycle greenhouse emissions of these components. Secondly, a novel specific methodology was developed and it resulted in a comprehensive matrix of carbon footprint values for different single-use plastic items and relative substitution with compostable plastic or multiuse material. In this way, the reduction of CO2 equivalent emissions can be immediately calculated after a reduction plan for single-use plastic items. Finally, a case study was implemented in order to validate the methodology and test the carbon footprint matrixes proposed: plastic reduction plans were proposed and achieved CO2 equivalent reduction in the cases assessed, laying out the path to a plastic free state.

2. Materials and Methods

The methodology to be referred to is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA, ISO 14040), which records every environmental impact of a product (good or service) with the cradle-to-grave approach, from the raw material for its creation extracted from the subsoil, to the end-of-life management (waste), passing through all the production, assembly, transport, distribution and use phases. When this methodology is applied only to environmental impact related to global warming (greenhouse effect), it is called carbon footprint (ISO 14067) because carbon emissions (in the carbon dioxide form, CO2) are the main cause of global-scale impact in this category.
Indeed, the developed procedure starts from bibliographic research on scientific papers, international reports and publications on LCA and carbon footprint analysis of single-use plastic items. This research allowed the obtaining of CO2 equivalent values that are emitted during some products’ or some products’ categories’ life cycles. Usually, software is used to evaluate the impact assessment, linked with a specific database: Ecoinvent one is by far the most used and it can be seen as a common base for different plastic objects. Therefore, this research allowed the use of group single-use plastic items in some significant categories, for which the dataset would be more complete and especially would be of greater interest for businesses in evaluating benefits from plastic object removal.
For all the categorized items, all the common plastic materials (PET, PVC, HDPE, LDPE, PP, PS) were considered. With this approach, it was possible to produce summary tables, in the form of double-entry matrixes, where each product or material category is identified with a kg CO2eq/kg plastic value.
The functional unit, i.e., the unit used in estimates of impact, is in fact kg of plastic, set from the weight of the individual object. This is by far the most used functional unit in the literature for such analyses, since it enables one to compare different objects with different uses. Only in a few cases have different functional units been adopted, referring, for instance, to the number of items [21,30].
The categories identified are those in Table 1.
For all the categories considered, the same boundaries and scenarios were considered in order to obtain the best comparison level among categories and, above all, among substitution scenarios within the same product category in Table 1. The life cycle approach considered is presented in Figure 1: in the cradle-to-gate section, the extraction of raw materials (oil-based or biological ones) is considered, as well as the production of different types of plastic and the manufacturing of products for each category; the use phase is neglected with regard to single-use items—it is considered only for multi-use ones (referring to a suitable number of instances of reuse); the end-of-life scenario is represented by a proper share of incineration, recycling and waste disposal in landfill. In upstream and downstream phases, the average European values for energy- and transport-related emissions were considered [31,32].

2.1. Plastic Films

In particular, the category “films” refers to the packaging—primary, secondary or tertiary—used to wrap many products [24,33], including packaging for food [34,35]. Primary packaging refers to the film directly in contact with the product; secondary includes packaging used to wrap specific quantities of primary packages; tertiary packaging includes larger containers for warehousing and storing packed things. In this case, the function of the items is to cover or contain or keep together more than one product. The functional unit can be square meters of film, but different materials have different grammage (i.e., kg/m2) and, so, measuring by weight makes it easier to compare items across different categories.
For films, the most used material is LDPE, with very few examples of PP and PET films, which have higher costs [36]. For the substitution scenario, bio-based plastics are considered, among which PLA is the most used one. Particular attention was paid to Mater-Bi® material [37,38], which is a biodegradable and compostable bio-plastic used for films, bags and packaging in general. This material, indeed, received an environmental certification which indicates that is has some impact according to ISO 14024 standards and specific Product Category Rules (PCR) that define the evaluation impact methodology [39,40]. This methodology was reproduced here, but with the referenced input values of the other categories here considered and the scenario appropriate for end-of-life, with no incineration.

2.2. Garbage Bags

The category “garbage bags” includes the various sizes (expressed in volume) of garbage bags [30], and various plastic materials such as HDPE, LDPE and PP. Many Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) aim to compare the environmental performance of different garbage bags. In particular, plastic materials are compared with alternative materials (paper, biodegradable plastic, kraft paper, cotton, biodegradable and reusable polypropylene non-woven bags) using a cradle-to-grave approach and the waste management is characterized by a mix of three different end-of-life scenarios: incineration, landfill and recycle [21,41].
The Life Cycle Assessment of garbage bags is usually influenced by parameters such as the number of bags needed to fulfill the functional unit, the weight, the surface and the biodegradability [21]. The most used functional unit is referred to as one bag equivalent [21,42].

2.3. Bottles

The category “bottles” includes all types of single-use plastic bottles and therefore involves different weights [43,44]. Liquid food packaging has been demonstrated to have a higher environmental impact contribution compared to solid food packaging and it should be prioritized for sustainability improvement [45]. Following the cradle-to-grave methodology excluding retail, production and transport of secondary and tertiary packaging, the factor that has the greatest influence on CO2eq emissions is the end-of-life of the product. In the case of incineration, there is a very high CO2eq value, which has an impact on the whole LCA. The best alternative material to plastic is PLA, which allows greater reduction of emissions at the end-of-life of the product and makes the process circular since the compost obtained can be used as a natural fertilizer [46]. The CO2eq balance of biopolymers is neutral since the CO2 released during the production phases is balanced by that consumed during the growth of maize plants.

2.4. Packaging

The category “other packaging” includes all those particular types of packaging, other than films, which have different characteristics and shapes [47,48]. Similar considerations can apply for films, but the data are average values and involve clamshells, containers, bags, food trays, cases and other primary, secondary and even tertiary packaging [49]. Pallets have also been focused on, demonstrating the reduced carbon footprint resulting from the use of to wooden pallets compared to plastic ones [50].
Plastic packaging is used in many sectors: nursery, field, post-harvest, retailers, consumers and landfill [34]; the types of plastic used in food product packaging are PP, PET, PE, PA, EVOH and APET [51]; PET is the least preferred option [47]
Different disposal methods have been compared to evaluate how recycling influences the impact of plastic packaging [52,53].

2.5. Detergent Bottles

In addition, the category “detergent bottles” includes single-dose containers used for hygiene-related products in general [54,55]. This category is particularly important for hotels and residences in general. In this category, the functional units used are often different: our purposes are effectively met using the amount of active content (dose) for a certain washing load [56]. The dose for a single-use detergent can vary between 10 mL (for sachet-like primary packaging) and 40 mL (small bottle-shaped packaging). With this functional unit, the allocation process can play an important role since the same factory usually produces a different variety of products, co-products or side-products by changing the formulation of the detergent. However, the plastic bottles are quite the same and, so, the functional unit here proposed is kg of plastic, similar to the other categories studied.
The main materials are HDPE or more generally PE, in terms of extrusion of granulates obtained by polymerization of ethylene, PP and PET produced by injection stretch blow moulding [57]. Extrusion usually requires lower energy and it is cheaper, while injection moulding allows higher freedom in shaping. The choice of kind of plastic can also be imposed by content characteristics (for instance, UV reactivity or chemical resistance [58]). An average weight of 7 g per single-use bottle can be estimated. Sometimes, polyimide plastic (PI) can also be used for sachet-like single-dose shower gel or other cosmetics. Therefore, the substitution can be done with bio-based plastics or paper-based products for sachets. Actually, the use of dispensers in bathrooms, showers and toilets is the most practiced impact reduction, having the possibility to be refilled thousands of times with a higher content of detergent.

2.6. Cutlery

Finally, the category “cutlery” includes all disposable plastic tableware—plates, forks, knives, spoons, mixers, etc.—considering the average impact among these different product categories [59]. Following a cradle-to-grave approach, the materials that are most often used to replace plastic are PP and PS, which ensure a great reduction in CO2eq values when composting is used as end-of-life treatment [60,61].

2.7. Generic Plastic

Some more general reports have also been identified [62,63] which have made it possible to develop the category defined as “other”, which includes all the objects of the most various nature that can be considered disposable. In these reports, the CO2 emissions related to plastic objects, in different materials, are estimated throughout the product life cycle: starting from the extraction of petroleum products, to the refining process to obtain plastic material, to processing in order to obtain finished products and the end-of-life, divided into “incineration”, “recycling” and “landfill” [64].

2.8. Single-Use Plastic Substitution

The second phase of the assessment allows an analysis of the impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, and also an analysis of the hypotheses of single-use plastics substitution. Three main scenarios have therefore been identified: (a) use of products made of compostable plastic materials; (b) use of reusable objects several times; (c) permanent disposal of plastic products by the process reorganization. Only in the latter case is CO2 emission reduced to zero.
In the other two cases, it is necessary to compare the CO2 value estimated by the life cycle of the compostable plastic object and the multipurpose object with the value of the initial case, obtaining a net benefit [65,66]. An overview of the biodegradable plastic materials used in place of fossil-based plastic is given in Table 2 (PLA, PHA, bio-PET, bio-PE, etc.) [62,67]. In addition, the literature analysis takes into account tetrapak, kraftpaper and wood as well as objects in multi-use material (glass, aluminum) [68,69].
In this way, the benefit obtained from the replacement of single-use plastic objects, and the difference in the carbon footprint with the considered hypotheses of substitution, is clear and allows one to direct the choice of replacement towards opportunities that further reduce the equivalent CO2 associated with the product chain (Figure 2). It is also appropriate to point out that, in the case of multi-use material, the impact is divided into the average number of times an item is used.
Summarizing the whole procedure developed, and shown in Figure 2, the following path has been lain out:
A specific literature review was performed in order to merge the carbon footprint values (kgCO2eq) of several studies of single-use plastic items and their substitution (Section 2.1, Section 2.2, Section 2.3, Section 2.4, Section 2.5, Section 2.6 and Section 2.7);
The items individuated were categorized (Table 1);
For each category, an average value of specific carbon footprint (kgCO2eq/kg item) was calculated depending on the material used (conventional fossil-based plastic or sustainable alternatives—bio-based material or multi-use item);
Specific two-dimensional matrixes were constructed using the carbon footprint values calculated, where product categories and material are the input elements;
Collecting simple primary data (i.e., product to be substituted, weights, number of items and materials), it is possible to use the matrixes to directly evaluate the carbon footprint of the initial items and their sustainable substitution, comparing each to assess the possible benefits in terms of CO2eq saved.

2.9. Main Influence Parameters

The conducted analysis allows one to evaluate the parameters that most influence the values of equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of single-use plastic products [70]. Among these, end-of-life management [53], the possible phases of the transporting of raw material, semi-finished and finished products [24,71] and the energy mix of electricity production in the geographical context of reference [72] certainly have a strong impact.
In particular, Table 3 shows the percentage contributions to global warming of each stage of plastic material production: polymer production, from crude oil extraction to raw material production, causes the greatest impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, followed by end-of-life management and the manufacturing process [61].
The percentage contributions shown in Table 3 are strongly influenced by end-of-life management: incineration has the highest GWP value, four orders of magnitude higher than landfill and two orders of magnitude higher than recycling [51]. In a scenario in which only incineration is used as waste treatment, the percentage contribution of the end-of-life phase to global warming impact is very high, reaching a contribution value near 50% (Figure 3).
Furthermore, another parameter that plays an important role is Land Use Change (LUC), which contributes at least 10% of the carbon footprint of bioplastic products, essentially due to the release of CO2 resulting from land clearing and the subsequent implementation of mono-cultivation of biomass to produce biopolymers [61].
These considerations allow one to understand the complexity of LCA analyses of single-use items in plastic and alternative materials, which are strongly influenced by methodology, boundaries and geographical context, especially considering that the management of waste also varies greatly among geographical contexts (Table 4) [73,74].
Considering other impact categories makes the analyses more complex but also more complete and should allow one to take into account, for example, water consumption involved in bioplastics, which is about 20 times higher than for HDPE and LDPE, or the littering phenomenon.
The latter in particular is not generally considered in LCA analyses, even if the scientific literature already defines littering indicators to evaluate its impact potential in terms of environmental release, dispersion and persistence: in this sense, bioplastic and plastic from fossil fuel seem to have the same performance [25,30], validating arguments that focus on plastic reduction and reuse, instead of substituting a plastic single-use item for a bio-based, biodegradable or compostable one [75].

3. Results and Discussion

The results of the developed procedure have been organized in a matrix form (Table 5) in order to be easily used for a quick evaluation of the environmental impact of the item used. The values of kgCO2eq obtained in the literature review (and given in Section 2.1, Section 2.2, Section 2.3, Section 2.4, Section 2.5, Section 2.6 and Section 2.7) are presented in a look-up table, where the two inputs are plastic material and item category, as outlined earlier (Table 5). In the analysis, kgCO2eq indicates the weight of the item, with the average calculated for each category in the literature review. The look-up table presents the specific CO2eq emissions for each category and for each type of plastic material. It is important to note that not every material can be used for each category since some items are made only with specific kinds of plastic. The “other” category row is the only one entirely filled out, since it groups several different objects.
The same procedure was applied to the possible substitution of single-use plastic items, as referenced in Section 2.1, Section 2.2, Section 2.3, Section 2.4, Section 2.5, Section 2.6, Section 2.7 and Section 2.8. A look-up table was developed in which the same categories were considered, but with bio-based plastics and reusable materials (Table 6). Therefore, in this matrix, for each categorized item, it is possible to evaluate the carbon footprint for the different possibilities of replacement with compostable plastic or multi-use items. The specific values of kgCO2 per kg of bio-based plastic can be calculated via the methods of the literature review presented here and the environmental impact can be calculated when the weight of the item itself is known; if multi-use items are considered, the number of possible reuses has to be estimated for the specific emission value, which is divided by this number of reuses themselves.
Thanks to these two look-up tables, for each item category, a direct comparison in terms of kg CO2eq/kg of weight is possible. For instance, Table 7 presents this comparison for the category “other”, which is the most complete category, subtracting the emission value of the substitution material from the single-plastic one. However, this comparison can be fair only if the substitution item is exactly the same as the single-use one. Otherwise, the right weight should be considered for the new item, and the final difference is expressed in absolute terms of kgCO2 per item and not in specific emission per weight.

Application to a Case Study

In order to make the methodology clearer and to validate it, it was applied to real case study data. In particular, data from a hotel and catering business were collected, in terms of kind and amount of single-use plastic items (on a yearly basis) and the weights of the objects. The goal of the company is to improve its sustainability rate by substituting with bioplastics or other materials the following single-use plastic items: water bottles (0.5 L), garbage bags (30 L), plates, spoons, forks, knives and cutlery bags. For each item more than one alternative was analyzed, taking into account the following materials: glass, tetrapak, PLA, paper, kraftpaper bio-plastic and wood.
The processing of the results was characterized by three main phases:
  • Primary data collection referring to single-use plastic items to be replaced: product, material, weight, annual consumption;
  • Identification of alternative items: materials and weight;
  • Calculation of carbon footprint using the substitution matrix, both for plastic items and their alternatives.
Table 8 shows the overall single-use substitution for the selected items in the case study. The rows indicate the product kind, the categorization proposed (according to Table 1), the number of items consumed in a year, the weight of each product and the material. Therefore, the initial carbon footprint impact can be evaluated using Table 5. Hence, possible substitution objects with sustainable materials were identified, with proper weight and new CO2 equivalent emissions calculated using Table 6. It is worth highlighting that plastic water bottle is the product most impactful in terms of CO2 emissions (275.2 kg per month), but it is also the one that offers alternatives that guarantee the biggest CO2 saving, both in absolute and percentage terms. In fact, by replacing PET with glass bottles, a reduction in CO2 emissions amounting to 274.1 kg per year is obtained, which corresponds to a percentage reduction equal to 99.6% compared to the starting value. This is clearly due the fact that glass can be reused many times. Considering water bottles in tetrapak and PLA, the carbon footprint percentage reduction reaches lower values of 75.4% and 79.7%, respectively.
As concerns garbage bags, plates and cutlery bags, it is noted that bioplastics ensure a comparable performance in terms of CO2eq emissions with respect to paper and kraftpaper, although slightly lower. This does not apply to cutlery, for which wood ensures a lower carbon footprint value, with a reduction in CO2eq emissions equal 73.3%, which is considerably larger than bioplastics (−0.55%).
Figure 4 shows the overall carbon footprint of single-use plastic items actually used in the case study (470.1 kgCO2/year) and the reduction potential related to replacement with bioplastic or other materials, equal to 73% and 90%, respectively. The bioplastic scenario is indicated in the rows of Table 8 with compostable or PLA, while the other materials scenario concerns the substitution of single-use plastic items with reusable materials. It is important to note that, in the data reported in Figure 4, glass bottles and paper garbage bags were considered in the “other materials” scenario.

4. Conclusions

In this paper, a wide methodology to evaluate the environmental impact of single-use plastics was developed, aiming at assessing the possible benefits related to the substitution with more sustainable alternatives or the total use discontinuation of single-use plastics.
The methodology starts from a literature review of studies that evaluated the worldwide environmental impact of single-use plastic items, making use of the holistic method of Life Cycle Assessment. In this way, all the products that are usually made with single-use plastics were grouped into functional categories, having as a functional unit the weight of the item. The analysis was limited to the carbon footprint of these objects, expressed in equivalent kg CO2. In the review, the life cycle of each plastic was considered, from the extraction of the raw material to the production of the plastic, from the manufacture of the items to the end-of-life. This final phase received particular attention: incineration, recycling and disposal are the three possibilities and they significantly influence the final carbon footprint performance of a plastic object.
This literature review developed a number of impact matrixes—look-up tables where the impact of each category is expressed in terms of CO2eq emitted, depending on the specific material of the item.
The same procedure was applied to potential substitution items: single-use items made of bio-based plastics or objects made of reusable materials. In this latter case, the single impact should be divided by the number of reuses. In the case of bio-plastics, the geographical context can be not negligible, influencing the energy mix and end-of-life management. Land use change and water requirement need further attention with regard to bio-based materials, which can lead to unexpected higher carbon footprint values or greater general environmental impact.
Finally, the procedure was tested on a real case study of a hotel and catering business, where an assessment of single-use plastic was conducted in order to list all the single-use items actually employed (cutlery, garbage bags, water bottles, etc.). With this methodology, two scenarios were proposed: one considered replacement with objects made of bio-based materials, with a potential CO2eq reduction equal to 73%; the second scenario considered the introduction of multi-use objects, with a higher reduction, up to 90% on an annual basis. This test also aimed to find hot spots, in terms of carbon footprint of items employed in the company, and to choose the substitution options that have a higher carbon dioxide reduction potential. That it needs only a limited amount of primary data (number of items, categorization and weight) is one of the methodology’s strengths.
Indeed, the developed procedure makes it easy to directly compare single-use plastic items and their alternatives (bio-plastic objects or multi-use ones), evaluating the potential benefits in terms of kg CO2eq of the replacement scenario. This can validate a substitution already in place or help decision makers and single citizens to take actions and choices in the direction of the most sustainable scenario, also involving other environmental impact categories. The matrix form is also easy to understand and to adapt to the different categories of items determined and it is easy to introduce it into more complex algorithms of environmental impact assessment or global sustainability index evaluations, which could definitively be a future research direction. Indeed, the limitation of carbon footprint analyses is related to the missing categories addressing other impacts which can also be significant for plastic or bio-plastic objects (water footprint, energy footprint, land use, toxicity, acidification potential, etc.).
This procedure is easy to update in order to consider new data from updated literature studies or particular item categories and it is also easy to contextualize it in a specific geographic context (i.e., with specific data on transport or on electric energy mix) or to use it to consider specific sustainable materials and novel sustainable options continuously under development.
This procedure can lead, also, to more widespread labeling and certification of plastic free companies, assessing at the same time the related potential of carbon footprint reduction. The final evaluation of CO2eq reduction, eventually, could extend the possibility to participate to immaterial financial markets of CO2, and this could enhance single-use plastic substitution if a potential CO2 reduction is demonstrated.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, D.D.B. and G.C.; methodology, D.D.B.; software, S.A. and L.D.P.; validation, L.D.P., S.A. and E.C.; formal analysis, L.D.P. and S.A.; investigation, L.D.P., S.A. and E.C.; resources, G.C. and D.D.B.; data curation, L.D.P., S.A. and E.C.; writing—original draft preparation, L.D.P., S.A. and E.C.; writing—review and editing, D.D.B. and G.C.; visualization, L.D.P. and D.D.B.; supervision, D.D.B. and G.C. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.


Plastic Free Certification s.b.r.l. has been kindly acknowledged for technical support and sharing relevant information about the plastic assessment and reduction action plans development.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


EVOHEthylene vinyl alcohol
LDPELow-density polyethylene
HDPEHigh-density polyethylene
PBSPolybutylene succinate
PEFPolyethylene Furanoate
PETPolyethylene terephthalate
PLAPolylactic acid
PVCPolyvinyl chloride
TPSThermoplastic Starch


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Figure 1. Boundaries of the LCA analyses on single-use plastic items and substitution.
Figure 1. Boundaries of the LCA analyses on single-use plastic items and substitution.
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Figure 2. Flowchart of the proposed procedure. On the left, the section on impact assessment when single-use plastic objects are used and on the right when these are replaced by compostable materials or multi-use objects. Input data from a plastic assessment report.
Figure 2. Flowchart of the proposed procedure. On the left, the section on impact assessment when single-use plastic objects are used and on the right when these are replaced by compostable materials or multi-use objects. Input data from a plastic assessment report.
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Figure 3. Percentage contribution of each stage to global warming, considering three scenarios of end-of-life for LDPE material.
Figure 3. Percentage contribution of each stage to global warming, considering three scenarios of end-of-life for LDPE material.
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Figure 4. Carbon footprint of single-use items in plastic, compared to single-use bioplastic items and other materials (multi-use ones) scenarios for the case study presented.
Figure 4. Carbon footprint of single-use items in plastic, compared to single-use bioplastic items and other materials (multi-use ones) scenarios for the case study presented.
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Table 1. Product categories identified.
Table 1. Product categories identified.
Garbage bags
Detergent bottles
Other (general cases and packaging)
Table 2. Bio-based alternatives to some of the most widely used fossil-based plastics.
Table 2. Bio-based alternatives to some of the most widely used fossil-based plastics.
Fossil-Based PlasticsEquivalent or Approximate Bio-Based Alternatives
PPBio-PP, Bio-PPT, PLA, PHA, PHB, TPS, cellulose based
PEBio-PE, PLA, PHB, PHA, starch- and cellulose-based polymers, PBS
PSPLA, PHA, TPS, cellulose-based polymers
PVCBio-PVC, PHA, starch- and cellulose-based polymers
Table 3. Percentage contribution of each stage to global warming.
Table 3. Percentage contribution of each stage to global warming.
Stage% Contribution to Global Warming
Transport of the polymer1–2%
Manufacturing process10–20%
Distribution and use phase3–5%
Table 4. Waste management by country.
Table 4. Waste management by country.
Geographical Context% Contribution End-of-Life Managment
Table 5. Final classic plastic carbon footprint values expressed in kg CO2/kg plastic.
Table 5. Final classic plastic carbon footprint values expressed in kg CO2/kg plastic.
Films 3.000
Garbage bags 3.2004.130
Bottles 6.400
Detergent bottles 4.2685.2984.4784.528 4.503
Cutlery 2.6382.670 3.8004.018
Other (general cases and packaging)4.4384.2685.2984.4784.5285.6087.6284.503
Table 6. Alternative more sustainable materials’ carbon footprints (values expressed in kg CO2/kg item).
Table 6. Alternative more sustainable materials’ carbon footprints (values expressed in kg CO2/kg item).
Garbage bags 3.5001.310 0.420
Bottles2.480 2.0000.0087
Detergent bottles2.7031.9033.058
Cutlery3.762 1.2701.4001.623
Other (general cases and packaging)2.7031.9033.0583.9403.2500.570
Table 7. Substitution matrix: difference between fossil-based and sustainable values of carbon footprint of single-use items in the general plastic category.
Table 7. Substitution matrix: difference between fossil-based and sustainable values of carbon footprint of single-use items in the general plastic category.
Other (General Cases and Packaging) PVCPPPETHDPELDPEPSPUPE
(bio-PET, bio-PP, bio-PE)
Table 8. Case study on substituting single-use plastic.
Table 8. Case study on substituting single-use plastic.
ProductCategoryAnnual ConsumptionWeight (kg)MaterialInitial CO2 Value (kg)Substituting MaterialNew Weight (kg)New CO2 Value
Delta CO2
Water bottle 0.5 LBottles22520.0191PET275.2Glass0.05731.1−274.1
Garbage Bags 30 LGarbage Bags700.043LDPE12.4Paper0.0555−7.4
Spoons, forks and knivesCutlery15000.004PP18Compostable0.00517.9−0.1
PouchOther packaging15000.004PP26.6Paper0.002112.4−14.2
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Di Paolo, L.; Abbate, S.; Celani, E.; Di Battista, D.; Candeloro, G. Carbon Footprint of Single-Use Plastic Items and Their Substitution. Sustainability 2022, 14, 16563.

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Di Paolo L, Abbate S, Celani E, Di Battista D, Candeloro G. Carbon Footprint of Single-Use Plastic Items and Their Substitution. Sustainability. 2022; 14(24):16563.

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Di Paolo, Luca, Simona Abbate, Eliseo Celani, Davide Di Battista, and Giovanni Candeloro. 2022. "Carbon Footprint of Single-Use Plastic Items and Their Substitution" Sustainability 14, no. 24: 16563.

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