Time to Talk About Plastic

Is plastic good, or bad? By now we’ve all seen images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the animals ensnared in plastic waste, and most recently how micro-plastics are now being found in human blood and lungs. On the other hand, we know plastics can create durable goods that will last for many lifetimes and are critical in some life saving tools and technologies. So how do we navigate these nuances? When should you feel good about plastic and when should you avoid it? Keep reading to learn more about responsible plastic use.

The Upside of Plastic

Plastic is a lightweight and durable material, which is what makes it perfect for things like helmets, headlamps, tarps, seatbelts, fuel tanks, medical supplies, and the list goes on. Being durable, it can be reused many times and in many cases turned into something different through recycling or upcycling. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, as they say. Or perhaps one person’s recycling is another person’s dog bed, check out B Corp certified PLAY, they make pet beds out of recycled plastic water bottles. 

As a society, we’ve created so many products out of plastic, that now you can frequently find whatever plastic products you need in a post-consumer recycled plastic or you can find the same product in an alternative material. Sometimes, the plastic option IS the more eco responsible choice. Take for example B Corp certified Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs. When you see them on the shelf at the grocery store, you’ll notice their eggs are in plastic cartons. At first glance, this seems less sustainable than the cardboard and molded paper pulp cartons of their competitors. In 2012 Pete & Gerry’s hired the Canadian research company Quantis to do a full analysis on the environmental impacts of various different packaging options for their eggs. What they uncovered was that by using 100% recycled plastic, their cartons were the better option both in terms of use and production. It actually removes plastic from the waste stream by utilizing recycled plastics. That doesn’t mean all plastic egg cartons are good though, in that same study, they discovered the MOST harmful was plastic cartons made from virgin plastic, no shocker there. So what’s a consumer to do? Work to understand the brands you purchase from and support brands that are making business choices that are in alignment with your values. If you want to learn more about Pete & Gerry’s and their egg cartons, be sure to check out the episode of the Responsibly Different™ podcast where they shared their sustainability journey.

The Clear and Present Dangers of Plastic

Plastic is made from petroleum oil, which in unto itself creates a lot of damage and harm in its extraction, production, and end of use cycles. While some companies tout the recyclability of plastic, the reality is that the vast majority of plastic ends up in landfills, or worse, littering our planet. A study by the EPA found that in 2018 only 8.7% of the over 35.7 million tons of plastic produced, were recycled. In addition, the production of plastic requires a lot of water, approximately 22 gallons of water for every pound of plastic produced. At the current rate of plastic production and pollution, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight).

Much of this plastic waste is from single use food and beverage consumption, which in addition to negatively impacting the planet, is also have a serious impact on people and their health. Scientists have found Bisphenol A (BPA) in more than 90% of Americans tested. BPA is a chemical that is used in the production of many plastics and are found in everything from plastic water bottles to computers and take out containers. As the chemical bond breaks down, BPA is released and leaches into your food and water. According to the National Library of Medicine, there are direct links from BPAs to cancer growth and development, most commonly in breast, ovary, and prostate cancers.

And this is just the proverbial tip of the plastics iceberg. An estimated 33 billion pounds of plastic enter the ocean every year, which is the equivalent of dumping two full garbage trucks full of plastic in the ocean every single minute of the year.

Can I just swap to an alternative?

It’s complicated. If we all ditch plastic only to replace it with another material, you’ll quickly see the short sightedness of that solution. Glass for example is heavy (which would consume more resources in shipping), is expensive to recycle, and if it breaks in transit with food products as its contents, the entire batch needs to be discarded. 

What about stainless steel and other metals you might ask? While some metals, like aluminum, are lighter, they still need to be mined. That extraction process can be very damaging to the environment and the workers involved. As a mined resource, the quantity available in the earth is finite. Metal also oxidize over time causing potential contamination problems.

Do we get any closer with Bamboo? Sort of, it may be one of the best natural alternatives we have to single use plastics like cups and straws. However a lot of the bamboo coming from China is being sourced from poorly managed forests with irresponsible logging practices and pesticides being overused. 

We could go on, the moral of the story is there is no silver bullet solution, but there are some things we can all do that will collectively have a meaningful impact.

It’s a Team Effort

It’s important to know and understand the impact of our actions and how we can collectively have a meaningful impact. Start by reducing in places you can, keep a reusable utensil set with you and pass on the plastic straws and utensils. At the grocery store, don’t wrap your produce in those flimsy plastic bags, the reality is your produce came from the earth and you will be rinsing it and or cooking it before you consume it anyway. That produce is exposed to more in transit to the grocery store and in processing then in the 20min trip it will take from your cart to your kitchen, skip the plastic there. Buy in bulk wherever possible, you’ll save on the per unit price and you’ll save the planet in packaging. If your office has those big jugs of water for a water cooler, see if you can replace it with a tap water system. That could even look like ditching the big jugs of water for a pitcher of water filter system that ya’ll keep in the fridge. Maybe you keep two or three of them in there. 

The key to remember, its not about being perfect, its about being better. You won’t always get it right, and that’s OK, but think of it like brushing your teeth. If you miss a day of brushing your teeth, do you give up on oral hygiene altogether? No, you try again tomorrow.  If enough of us work to be incrementally better each day, we will see a huge impact on people and planet. Continue learning, identify where in your life you find yourself having to throw out plastic routinely and work to find alternative solutions to that one thing. Then once you have a good habit built there, move on to something else and slowly build better habits over time.  

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By Benn Marine, April 5, 2022