Is “Going Plastic Free” a Good Thing?
Plastic is a game-changing innovation for its versatility, technical properties, and its energy- and cost-effectiveness. All of those beneficial characteristics have led to the exponential growth of plastic production and with that a growing environmental threat. With the now ubiquitous plastic pollution headlines it’s easy to demonize plastic across the board. But before brands and consumers ditch plastic entirely, it’s important to consider the full picture. Spoiler alert: the answer is far dirtier and less-satisfying than an all-out end of plastic, but the result could mean more effective plastic action for the environment.
A growing environmental concern
Today, less than 10% of all plastic produced in the US annually actually makes its way back into the circular economy. Pretty dismal performance when compared to materials like paper (68% in 2018) and aluminum (34% in 2018, with aluminum cans being recycled at 50%). There are numerous reasons for this lackluster performance, but much of it boils down to a few overarching culprits: the growing number of plastic types, single-stream recycling systems, consumer confusion, and recycling capacity. Combine these low recycling rates with the fact that 40% of all plastic produced is for single-use and it’s easy to understand how plastic waste continues to pile up.
The reality is that all plastic isn’t created equal. Two polymer types are making up the bulk of the existing recycling effort with Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET ) and High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE ) both being recycled at close to 30%. Additionally, in the United States, municipal recycling facilities (MRFs) have varying levels of what they’re able to accept and it’s ultimately on consumers to invest the time to educate themselves about their local recycling programs.
The common misconception that any plastic marked with a numbered triangle (known as a Resin Identification Code) is recyclable, exacerbates this problem. When recyclable and non-recyclable plastics are commingled, the process of sorting and cleaning becomes more complicated and intensive. The result is a more costly process where a larger amount of valuable recyclable material slips through the cracks and into landfills, where billions of dollars worth of usable plastic is currently estimated to be trapped.
Is it time to throw in the towel on plastics?
So, if plastic is so bad for the environment and so tricky to recycle consistently, should we just ban it all and use alternative materials? The truth is more complicated.
First, many plastic applications lack a proper alternative. Simply think of the advances to food safety and stability, medical technology, and the automotive industry enabled by the undeniable benefits of plastics unique combination of technical properties - strength, lightweight and flexibility. In many instances there’s no true substitute.
In addition, there are some surprising trade offs when comparing the carbon footprint of plastic against other alternatives. For example, a 500ml plastic bottle typically weighs in at 12.7 grams, while a glass equivalent tips the scales at 259 grams. That’s a full 20 times heavier. If you were to extrapolate that across an entire truckload full of bottles that delivery run is using substantially more fuel to get to the store shelves. Factor in the additional carbon emissions and energy use required to manufacture those glass bottles and the contrast grows. If every plastic bottle globally were replaced with a glass one, it would generate additional carbon that amounts to the equivalent of 22 large coal-fired power plants annually.
Interestingly, this isn’t the only example of plastic providing carbon savings when compared to its alternatives. A white paper published by the Imperial College of London took a closer look at carbon emissions as the result of production of materials that are often mistakenly cited as more environmentally friendly. What they discovered was in most instances a transition away from plastic would produce more carbon, not less.
Plastic-free vs. virgin plastic-free
Instead of focusing on blanket plastic free goals, the focus should be on shifting much of the conversation to responsible plastic sourcing and waste management. The vast majority of the plastic that the world needs (projections based on historical data) already exists and hesitancy to incorporate recycled plastics is often unfounded. The bottom line is that recycled plastic is “as good” or “good enough” in nearly every use case. Even those products demanding the highest quality standards have options available to them, such as blending, single-source recycling, and quality-enhancing additives.
Have you ever noticed those plastic egg cartons in the grocery store? A common initial instinct is it’s a wasteful use of plastic given the ubiquitousness of natural pulp egg cartons. Why go backwards? But perhaps it’s worth stopping to consider the costs and benefits of natural pulp cartons. Pete & Gerry’s did exactly that when designing their carton. It turns out the carbon footprint of their 100% recycled cartons is not only comparable to existing egg cartons, but they are increasing demand for material that might otherwise end up in a landfill. The biggest win, however, was significantly less breakage due to the structural nature of the rPET design resulting in a reduction of food waste across the board. Simply put, by looking at the full picture, Pete & Gerry’s “made [their] decision based on science over perceptions and assumptions.”
An article published by Columbia University Climate School came to the below conclusion after weighing the overall impact of single-use plastic bags, single-use paper bags, and reusable cotton totes:
“Generally speaking, bags that are intended to last longer are made of heavier materials, so they use more resources in production and therefore have greater environmental impacts. To equal the relatively low global warming impact of plastic bags, paper and cotton bags need to be used many times; however, it’s unlikely that either could survive long enough to be reused enough times to equal the plastic bag’s lower impact.”
Rather than paint plastics as evil—even a necessary evil—we must move the public conversation to investing in recycling technologies, proper waste management, and responsible plastic sourcing. While it might be too much to expect the production of virgin plastic to end overnight, as consumers we can choose brands prioritizing the incorporation of recycled plastic into their products, and brands can truly move the needle by shifting their production and formulations to use more and more recycled plastic.
Where do we go from here?
We’re not getting rid of plastic any time soon, so we must adjust our expectations. There are obvious and undeniable costs to plastic’s existence, especially in the form of pollution, but it is important to ensure as many of the known costs and benefits are being accounted for. The goal is to reduce the use of new virgin plastic by incentivizing reuse and the return to the plastics circular economy.
Consumers and brands can work to reduce the amount of single-use packaging and prioritize products that have incorporated high percentages of recycled content.
Governments can also take a more proactive role in establishing regulatory and market incentives to encourage brands to switch to recycled plastic, even where it is more expensive.
Further, when alternatives to virgin plastic simply don’t exist, brands and consumers have the option to fight the global plastic pollution crisis by funding the recovery of at-risk plastic thereby returning this material to commercial supply chains and driving the flywheel of the circular economy. Learn more about IMPAC+ by Oceanworks.