Hello everybody! Today’s impact post is going to be about plastic.
Yeah, it might seem super self-explanatory, because most people realize today that plastic is not amazing and that the modern waste problem is something that we have to take seriously. Plastic waste is what got me interested in zero waste living in the first place, but since my journey started in 2015, I’ve learned that living sustainably is about much more than the physical trash in our bins. I don’t believe in the trash jar and that you can actually be 100% zero waste, but I believe in conscious consuming, consuming less, refusing, reducing, and giving a damn about the impact we leave behind. BUT, with all that being said, plastic is still an issue no matter how we look at it because we are drowning it in. So this is going to be an overview of the different challenges of plastic, I am gonna spill some tea aka facts you can use next time you’re talking to a climate change skeptic or a plastic fan, let’s go.
About 95-99% of plastic is made from crude oil aka petroleum (the last % cover specific bio-blends), so let’s talk about what that is. Crude oil is a fossil fuel and is made from remains of ancient organisms and bacteria, as well as plants, algae, and even bigger animals whose biological components in the ground have contributed, guys there are dinosaurs in plastic. The creation of crude oil has taken millions of years during which organic matter has been transformed into this carbon-rich substance. Crude oil reserves can be found all over the world but are significantly more abundant in certain places. To extract oil, and natural gas from the ground, we often use fracking, a process that has enormous consequences for the environment, like water pollution and loss of natural habitats, worst of all, fracking emits tons of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than co2. Through a process called cracking crude oil, or ethane, a natural gas formed the same way as oil, is turned into ethylene which is a starting component in plastic production. The impact of producing plastic primarily comes from the emissions from fracking and drilling which release both co2 and methane. But the impact of plastic goes far beyond the resources it requires to make it, so let’s continue.
Although, plastic does have some really important purposes, like in the medical industry, or in the construction industry, or as helpful tools for the disabled, plastic products are misused and overconsumed for unnecessary purposes all the time, constantly. On average we use a piece of plastic packaging for 12 minutes before discarding it, but it will be here forever, but more on that later. As a result of plastic overconsumption, approximately, 8300 million metric tons of virgin plastic have been produced to date aka since we started mass production 70 years ago, 9% of which have been recycled, 12% have been incinerated and 79% is accumulating in landfills still. So it’s crap for the planet, but at least it’s safe, right? Yeah no so much. There are different types of plastic and while some are considered relatively safe, others release harmful chemicals and toxins under certain circumstances. Plastic types like PET, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, and PS can contain BPA, or bisphenol A, a substance which disrupts hormones. They also react poorly to heat and long term exposure to sunlight.PS is used to make plastic foam containers that are often used for takeout and fast food, but that type of plastic will actually release styrene when exposed to heat, and Styrene is a known carcinogen. A good rule of thumb is that if you can smell the plastic, it’s already, and with 100% certainly releasing chemicals that are already in our body. Think about which kinds of plastic products have the strongest plastic smell, it’s toys – which children often put in their mouths. No thank you.
This is where it gets tricky. I have heard and seen countless brands, companies, spokespeople, politicians, and influencers talk about recycling, and how “as long as the plastic is recycled, it’s actually okay” But there are so many variables and challenges when it comes to recycling plastic, first of all, because plastic cannot be recycled forever. In contrast to materials like aluminum and glass which can be recycled over and over again, plastic can only be recycled 2-3 times, and even when it is recycled it’s downcycled rather than included in a closed system. Let break this process down.
- First of all, we need to sort and categorize the plastic because not all plastic types can be recycled together and some, can’t be recycled at all.
- When the consumer has sorted the plastic, it is sent to a recycling facility that uses infrared technologies to sort the plastic again, so it becomes as clean as possible. There are certain things like black plastic which generally can’t be recycled because it does not register in the optic sorting system.
- When the plastic is as uniform and clean as possible, it is ground and melted into plastic pellets, these can be used in new products.
- But a plastic container is most likely not going to be turned into an identical plastic container, instead, it is used to make products like a synthetic plastic filling for winter coats and sleeping bags, or plastic shopping bags. This process of gradually decreasing the value of a product, along with its recyclability, is called downcycling. Recycling=turns a product into material, and then into a new product. Downcycling: turns products into material and then into a worse, or less valuable, product. Upcycling: turns a product into material, and into a better, or more valuable, product.
- When the plastic has gone through the recycling process 2-3 times the material is too soft, weak, or brittle to be used for anything on itself own, so new virgin plastic is added to the material to maintain the quality level. Thus, recycling plastic is still using new plastic no matter what.
Why is this not working? There are many reasons, the biggest one is sheer and utter quantity. Consumers generate way too much plastic, so much so that no recycling facility can keep up. Many Western companies and facilities often end up outsourcing the waste management to other countries, who then has to deal with both their own trash and trash from halfway around the world. In Denmark, we talk a big game about not using landfill and burning our waste to produce energy, which we also do. But we also outsource large amounts of waste. Danish plastic waste has been found in both Poland and Malaysia in an open landfill, and this is a global issue, and it happens every day, in many Western countries who do not know how to manage their waste problem. To reach the desired level of sustainability we cannot keep solely relying on recycling because it is clearly not the only solution, instead, we also have to reduce our waste, and companies have to take more responsibility for the waste they produce. I don’t think I can stress this enough, this is not solely a problem caused by consumers. 71% of global emissions come from the same 100 companies, and I can assure you, they have a role to play in the waste problem as well.
Normally I stop my impact video after recycling or disposal, but with plastic that’s not really an option. Because plastic is here to stay. Plastic is based on a fossil material it won’t ever biodegrade, it will simply become smaller pieces of plastic – aka microplastic. One of the first things I learned when I got into zero waste was that every piece of plastic I’ve ever used still exists in some shape or form, yeah, that’s terrifying.
See the thing is even when we burn plastic, it’s not disappearing. The remains of the material are caught in some large filtered used to filter smoke and particles during incineration and those filters are buried deep underground in lack of better options. When it comes to landfills, plastic is left outside, exposed to wind and weather – and sunlight. And when plastic is exposed to direct sunlight it will start to emit methane and co2. Furthermore, it can also leak harmful chemicals that can affect wildlife, natural habitats, groundwater reserves, and so on. Plastic pollution in our oceans is also a huge problem, both for nature, animals, and yeah us. There are several ways plastic can up in the ocean. It can fly out of bins or drag out of bins by animals, it can be littered by dingbats or dumped by cooperations aka bigger dingbats. It is estimated that a truckload’s worth of plastic waste is dumped in the ocean every second, and a lot of it is consumer waste from all around the globe. Plastic is rather light, which means that it floats. In the ocean currents, the plastic gathers together and forms islands of garbage, the biggest one is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, collectively the garbage island is 3 times the size of France, but is often edited out of satellite photos, legally, because they are not organic landmass.
Consumer waste accounts for 49% of ocean pollution, but that category includes different products, all things we know from daily life. A study from the EU found that the top ten consumer products to wind up in the ocean are these:
- Water bottles, lids, and caps
- Cigarette buds
- Cotton swabs
- Candy wrapper and snack bags
- Hygiene products like tampons, pads, and insertion sleeves
- Plastic bags
- Single-use cutlery and straws
- Plastic cups and lids
- Balloons and balloon sticks
- Plastic containers like fast food packaging
To combat ocean plastic, straw bans have been introduced many places in the world, but it is actually quite counterproductive to demonize a tiny small plastic product, especially if we choose to use that as a green alibi and ignore the big picture. Straws on their own only account for 0,025% of the world 8 million tons of ocean pollution, soo. If you want to know more about the consequences of straw bans, check out my video about eco-ableism. When it comes to plastic in the ocean, the largest uniform category of waste comes from the fishing industry. 20% of ocean plastic comes from ghost gear – lines, traps, nets, etc left behind or dumped by fishing boats. So if you’re interested in reducing ocean pollution, not eating fish is a great place to start.
It is basically impossible to avoid plastic altogether, and plastic does actually have advantages, in certain situations, it enables us to be safe, for people with disabilities, it means struggling less in their daily routine. I don’t think anyone should shame another person for using or buying a plastic product, instead, we should take that energy and focus it on the industry that produces reckless amounts of plastic. Many people today are overconsuming and misusing plastic, and that needs to stop. But we also need the polluting industries (watch my greenwashing video for detail) to take responsibility for their products and not let it be up to the consumer to deal with the impact. There are tons of ways to minimize plastic, and I think that we should, but we should also look at the big picture. Plastic packaging only accounts for a small part of a product’s impact, so you’re trying to reduce plastic but simply can’t refuse it altogether, or perhaps you want take out someday and it comes with plastic, don’t beat yourself up, that solves nothing. The best we can do? Stop supporting the companies that create the waste in the first place, and look at the entire impact of a product rather than only packaging, I know, just as we thought sustainability for easy, right? If I had to choose between meat in a jar, no plastic, or plastic-wrapped tofu, the tofu would still be more sustainable.
I prefer other materials like recycled aluminum, glass, or cardboard over plastic and will always choose those in situations where I have a choice. Reducing plastic is great, do that as much as possible, but remember that physical trash is only part of the impact!
- Pick up trash if you see it on the ground or in nature
- Bring your own reusables to reduce plastic
- Buy seasonal greens, those tend to come with less packaging
- Ofc still recycle what you have, just don’t let recycling be your only green action
- Refuse pointless plastic-like free samples, freebies, balloons, plastic-wrapped sweets, etc
- Say to no to plastic like straws if you don’t actually need them
- If you have plastic containers or other products at home, keep using them, just be aware of the heat issue, waste is not waste until you waste it.