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:
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?
RecycleNation recommends weighing your options and offers pros and cons for each of three common packaging materials (specific to beverage containers sold in supermarkets):
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:
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.
The European Parliament voted for a complete ban on a range of single-use plastic waste across the union in a bid to stop pollution of the oceans. The proposal also called for a reduction in single-use plastic waste for food and drink containers, including plastic cups.
China has long been treated as our planet’s repository for plastic waste. The nation has accepted 45% of the world's total plastic recycling since reporting to the United Nations Comtrade Database began in 1992.
Even before plastic straw bans grew trendy, California was at the forefront of using less plastic and promoting more sustainable living. California pioneered a statewide ban on plastics beginning in 2016, when the state became the first in the U.S. to ban most stores from providing customers with single-use plastic bags, following a successful referendum. [...]