The Nuance of Plastic

Not everything about plastic is bad. Here is a look at the gray areas of our use of plastic.

One of the goals of “Sustainable We” has been to explore the choices we have around the many issues that do not have black-or-white solutions. With all the decisions we make in a day, we do tend to want an easy “right” and “wrong” choice — but sometimes that isn’t possible.

In the case of microbeads, there has been a relatively easy choice to make. Do we really need tiny bits of toxic plastic in our personal care products that get into our water and impact the fish we eat? No. So… legislation around that has built relatively quickly.

In the case of pesticides, where you come down on the decision to use glysophate/Round-Up, for example, comes down to whether you value uniformly green lawn compared to its impact on pollinators and stormwater run-off into our lakes and rivers. An easy decision for some. A contentious issue when neighbors disagree — or when residents and Park Board decision-makers disagree — as we discussed at “Sustainable We” forum #1.

At “Sustainable We” forum #2 — about the life cycle of waste — we focused on consumption habits. How it is our purchasing that drives the biggest waste of resources — not simply what we toss in the garbage at the end of its life.

While we touched on it, one big consumption habit we did not talk about deeply is Plastics.

Why Plastics Is Not a Black/White Choice

As Madalyn Cioci, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, has explained it: “Plastics sure aren’t perfect. They generally have chemicals in them that can leach into our food and drinks. And, left in the open environment — like in oceans and lakes — they don’t degrade.”

Cioci also sees the flip side, however. “One of the reasons that plastics grew to be so popular as packaging is that they resulted in so much resource conservation. Lightweight packaging in the latter 20th century and into the 21st has resulted in much lower tonnages of waste over time than we would have had if everything now in plastic was still packaged in heavier steel/tin and glass. And less material means less overall environmental impact — less mining, less energy needed.

Points raised by Green Divas, juxtaposed with questions about how to be a more Sustainable We:

  • Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century. The question: what should our alternatives be?   
  • Of the plastic we use, 50 percent of it we use once and throw away — plastic bags, sandwich bags, water bottles. How can we extend its life: to hold garbage, wash and re-use, replace with a thermos or water bottle we use again and again?
  • Of all the plastics, we recycle only five percent of the plastics we produce. There are a lot of plastic streams that the industry has not developed recycling systems or collection systems for. Little Tykes, for example, doesn’t collect its toys for recycling. Who is finding new purpose for plastics? Can we phase out plastics that don’t have a recycling purpose? Can we support only those companies that offer re-use options?
  • The average American throws away about 185 pounds of plastic per year. On the other hand, if our packaging was still made out of tin or glass, it would be much heavier and require more raw materials to make.
  • The production of plastic uses around oil — but less understood — is that much of that is made from byproducts (a re-use of sorts) of oil refining and natural gas production. More fossil fuels are used to make paper or aluminum or glass than is used in making or becoming plastic.
  • It takes 500-1,000 years for plastic to degrade.

One of the biggest issues with plastics is using them poorly, such as making silverware that could be biodegradable, but is not. And then, continuing to buy those plastics instead of the biodegradable version.