The Good Stuff
One example where plastic plays an important role is food packaging. Storage and packaging plays a crucial role from harvest all the way through to final consumption of the foods we eat. Even if some consider the final phase of packaging (from retail to home) to be unnecessary, it is likely it has played an important role in preserving food from the farm to the retail stage. It protects foods from pest and disease, significantly increases shelf life, and maintains food safety. Studies have shown that when we compare environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions, energy, water and resource use, plastic packaging tends to have a net positive impact. The impact of plastic production and handling is lower than the impacts which would result from food waste without packaging.
I also found the emissions stats concerning plastic production quite enlightening. It turns out that plastic production has significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, energy, water and fertilizer inputs than alternatives such as paper, aluminium, cotton or glass. To bring this point home, a grocery bag would have to be reused 5 times to have as low an environmental impact as a standard LDPE (Low-density polyethylene) single-use plastic bag. Likewise, an organic cotton bag would have to be reused 149 times to equal a LDPE’s greenhouse gas emissions, and 20,000 when impacts such as eutrophication, water and ecosystem impacts are included.
In addition to the food packing industry, the medical industry also really benefits from plastic use. The infection-resistant properties of medical-grade plastics can prevent cross-contamination. For example, in experimental environments, they can help speed the process of researching and developing important new medicines by eliminating the need to restart a compromised study. Also, patients who are allergic to or whose bodies reject the presence of medical devices made from traditional materials have fewer worries when using hypo-allergenic plastic medical devices. The result is a reduction in skin irritation, agitation of the immune system, pain and discomfort. Doctors and surgeons have already begun the switch to plastic medical devices and implants, and the results have been nothing short of exceptional.
The Bad Stuff
Really, where things take a turn with plastic is in regards to waste management. What makes plastic so harmful to humans, animal and plant life and our environment is that they’re non-biodegradable (Actually, plastic does degrade...in about 700 years. Ouch.)
The sun and wind do begin to break down plastic sooner than that, however. But they don't turn it into some other form that gets absorbed by nature. It photo-degrades, which means it only breaks down into smaller toxic bits of itself (cue microplastics). These bits of plastics get into our water, eaten by animals (which we then eat) and, therefore, into our bodies.
So, obviously, the landfill is a poor choice for plastic waste disposal. But what about recycling? Recycling is definitely a better option than landfills, no question there. But, it's not without its own challenges. Firstly, only about 25 percent of plastic is attempted to be recycled. Recycling facilities also commonly receive low-quality (contaminated) materials which needs to be sorted before it can be recycled. Because of the cost associated with this process, The United States and other western countries have tried to outsourced recycling for many years, sending a lot of their contaminated waste to China. However, In 2018, China closed its doors to the West’s contaminated recycling. Rather than increasing domestic recycling capacity, the United States now sends the waste to other countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. But some of these countries have started to turn down Western recycling, too. So, the recycling infrastructure is just not currently in place to solve the problem.
As mentioned in "The Good" section, although air pollution isn't really a big deal in regards to the production of plastic, it certainly is in regards to incineration. Since the percentage of recycled plastics is so low, much ends up in the incinerator. According to the CIEL report, U.S. emissions from plastics incineration in 2015 were 5.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Based on projections from the World Energy Council, if plastics production and incineration increase as expected, greenhouse gas emissions will increase to 49 million metric tons by 2030 and 91 million metric tons by 2050. And to top it all off, incineration facilities are disproportionately built near communities of color and low-income populations. Claire Arkin, communications coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, aptly says, “The people who are subjected to the pollution from these incinerators often are the ones who are least responsible for the waste in the first place and have to bear the brunt of the impacts.”
What can we do?
Wha? Wait! Didn't you just say that it's pointless to recycle? No! Not at all! Recycling is definitely a better option than the landfill. And, even though the infrastructure isn't quite in place to handle it if we were all recycling, we're not even close to that yet! So, just take the time to clean your plastics before tossing them in the recycling bin - this is a good first step!
2. Wean yourself off disposable plastics.
Ninety percent of the plastic items in our daily lives are used once and then chucked: grocery bags, plastic wrap, disposable cutlery, straws, coffee-cup lids. Take note of how often you rely on these products and replace them with reusable versions.
3. Stop buying water.
Each year, close to 20 billion plastic bottles are tossed in the trash. Carry a reusable bottle in your bag. If you’re nervous about the quality of your local tap water, look for a model with a built-in filter.
4. Opt out of plastic ware.
Food delivery apps often ask if you need cutlery with your delivery. Just say no! This is an easy way to make a difference.
We're doing our part