A Look at Plastics’ Toll – And What We Can Do About It
Plastic continues to be one of the most controversial materials to use when making or packaging products. While production costs and misuse the material is a global environmental problem, there are ways to help mitigate damage caused by the commonly mishandled material.
Before we get down to business, let’s first take a look at some statistics derived just from bottled water:
- Producing bottles to meet America’s demand for bottled water uses more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually (the equivalent of enough fuel to power 100,000 cars for an entire year). That does not even include the oil used when transporting the plastic bottles.
- The energy wasted by using bottled water would be enough to power 190,000 homes.
- Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year — but the United States’ recycling rate for plastic is only 23%, which means 38 billion water bottles (more than $1 billion worth of plastic) are wasted each year.
While these numbers might be staggering, plastics waste is not a uniquely American problem. Packaging World cites a study published by WalesOnline that found bottled water to be the world’s fastest-growing beverage. Dumping it in favor of tap water would not only minimize the amount of plastic in landfills, but also the energy used to ship the bottled water.
It’s crucial to remember that plastic water bottles are far from the only plastic we consume. According to Alive.com, a Canadian health and wellness resource, plastic surrounds us. Our telephones, our carpets, and even the clothes we are wearing all may contain plastic or a derivative. We store our food in it, drink water from it, and even brush our teeth with it.
Alive quotes Lisa Gue, an environmental health policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation, who calls our reliance on plastic an obsession: “Our obsession with plastic is loading up the planet with toxic chemicals, and we’re only beginning to understand the serious consequences these substances have on health.”
In her piece for Packaging Digest, Chandler Slavin discusses the plastic shopping bag, calling it a “waterproof, durable, lightweight packet capable of holding more than a thousand times its weight, soon to become a relic of modern convenience, thanks to bag bans aimed at its eradication.” (At the time of this article, there are currently six major cities with plastic bag bans in the U.S. – Austin, Texas; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Chicago; Los Angeles; San Francisco; and Seattle – and six others with plastic bag fees hindering their use – Boulder, Colorado; Brownsville, Texas; Montgomery County, Maryland; New York City; Portland, Maine; and Washington D.C.).
Slavin continues: “[Positive use of plastic] doesn’t replace the powerful images of albatrosses with plastic debris in their decaying stomachs, or children in India sifting through mounds of plastic garbage; it doesn’t change the economics of recycling, where much post-consumer plastic is of too little value to recover; and it doesn’t help position the industry toward a sustainable future where plastics [are] regarded as the true engineering marvel it is, not the environmental burden it is perceived to be.”
However, it is not merely perception: plastic waste’s impact is very real.
Chemicals contained in plastic migrate around the world and proceed to build up in both the environment and within our bodies, imposing a threat to human health (not to mention the health of our planet and its other occupants).
“Plastic, one of the most preferred materials in today’s industrial world, is posing [a] serious threat to [the] environment and consumer’s health in many direct and indirect ways,” states the abstract of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study. Exposure to harmful chemicals during manufacturing, leaching in the stored food items while using plastic packages, or chewing on plastic teethers and toys by children are linked with severe adverse health outcomes such as cancers, congenital disabilities, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive effects, and more. NIH goes on to urge: “Promotion of plastics substitutes and safe disposal of plastic waste requires urgent and definitive action to take care of this potential health hazard in future.”
We know plastic waste is not healthy for us or our environment, so why are we so reliant on the material at all? Essentially it comes down to cost and convenience.
The Alive article cites plastic’s lightness, ease of shaping, strength, and low cost as reasons for its variety of uses. It is a packaging option capable of withstanding both its contents (dangerous household products such as bleach, ammonia, and other caustic cleaners) and its inevitably rigorous shipping journey. It is a practical alternative to glass and ceramic dishes at home with the ability to guard against contamination that makes it equally as useful in sterile medical environments like hospitals.
Slavin, too, says it comes down to economics and policy. “The economy of waste is not divorced from capitalism. In the majority of America, waste management is funded by taxes and managed by municipalities. In countries with Extended Producer Responsibility [EPR] programs, however, industry funds waste management and private companies compete for the management of the waste. America’s plastic recycling rates have stagnated while countries with EPR boast high plastic recovery and recycling rates. Economics and policy, therefore, dictate the success of waste management.”
The recycling market is in a constant state of flux. Countries with EPR are the most proficient at recovering waste, but that is because of fundamental differences in consumer attitudes and governmental structure and funding. Until the United States decides that to truly be a global player, we must also live sustainably and promote sustainability – yes, even in capitalism – we’re not likely to see an Extended Producer Responsibility program come into play here. So, what can we do?
What You Can Do
RecycleNation recommends weighing your options and offers pros and cons for each of three common packaging materials (specific to beverage containers sold in supermarkets):
- Plastic. The oil and natural gas that is needed to produce plastic is buried deep in the earth’s crust, which means manufacturers must drill through layers upon layers of rock in order to reach it. Though plastic can be recycled, most plastics can only be recycled once or twice reliably with current technology. While FP’s films are made of plastic, we’re doubling down on finding better ways to recycle it or increase biodegradability to minimize its impact on the environment.
- Glass. Because glass is fairly heavy and fragile compared to other materials, it is much more difficult to transport. Products that are packaged in glass cannot be packed as tightly as those with aluminum or plastic packaging, which means it requires more energy to transport glass. Conversely, glass is 100% recyclable and there is no limit to the number of times that this material can be recycled. Glass that is recycled is used to create new glass bottles that end up on store shelves as soon as one month later. Glass that isn’t is turned into other useful products, such as cullet for construction or aggregate for decoration and other applications.
- Aluminum. Aluminum cans are lightweight and can be packed tightly together, making them easy to transport and therefore greener than transporting glass. However, mining for bauxite (a component used in aluminum production) is harmful to the environment and can lead to water contamination, erosion, and habitat destruction. Like glass, aluminum is 100% recyclable and can be recycled over and over again. According to RecycleNation, about 55% of aluminum cans are currently being recycled compared to only 34% of glass containers. The aluminum that does make it to landfills can sit for up to 500 years before it is fully decomposed — which pales in comparison to the millions of years that it takes glass to decompose.
These, of course, are not the only replacement options. New technologies are enabling more creative packaging options than ever before. (Medium and Printsome offer some examples, including packaging made from cornstarch, soy- and milk-based inks, and reusable bags containing no plastic).
There are steps you can take beyond choosing to purchase and use sustainable packaging in your own life. The nonprofit organization Plastic Tides offers tips for using less plastic paired alongside the harrowing statistics that will have you rethinking your plastic consumption:
- Don’t buy bottled water. Bottled water companies sell tap water at 100 times the price — not to mention the materials needed for bottling and emissions needed for transportation.
- Bring your own reusable bag to the store. In the United States, a single reusable grocery bag can save 312 plastic bags from the landfill per person per year. The United States currently uses 100 billion plastic bags per year, amounting to 12 million barrels of oil used to produce these bags.
- Skip the straw. National Geographic backs this one up with fairly damning evidence: “Of the 8 million tons of plastic trash that flow every year into the world’s oceans, the plastic drinking straw is surely not a top contributor to all that tonnage. Yet this small, slender tube, utterly unnecessary for most beverage consumption, is at the center of a growing environmental campaign aimed at convincing people to stop using straws to help save the oceans. Small and lightweight, straws often never make it into recycling bins; the evidence of this failure is clearly visible on any beach. And although straws amount to a tiny fraction of ocean plastic, their size makes them one of the most insidious polluters because they entangle [sic] marine animals and are consumed by fish.”
- If you’re a smoker, dispose of cigarette butts appropriately. There are 7 billion butts of litter produced every year. And yes — cigarette filters are made of plastic.
- Eat locally. Food bought at farmers’ markets (or better yet, from your own garden!) often comes in much less packaging than that of standard grocery stores. You can find Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA) near you with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s CSA Directory.
Are these options too easy? Try out a plastic-free challenge – try it for a day, a month, or even a year. Support legislation that makes it easier to avoid plastic or ban it altogether – and support candidates who run on pro-sustainability platforms, especially in state and local elections. As Slavin said in her Packaging Digest piece: “In the majority of America, waste management is funded by taxes and managed by municipalities.” Naturally, it then comes down to everyone to do their part; every little bit helps and adds up to a lot.