What’s the carbon footprint of your dinner? Does your breakfast granola come in a recyclable package? Do you want paper or plastic? Consumers are looking closer than ever at what they buy today, making choices based on a growing list of cause-based options. And among all of the charity and planet-saving routes one can take at the register (and in their home), one cause we hear so much about is that of “going green.”
Indeed, our planets’ health is critical to our long-term survival, but just how accurate are our perceptions? What factors truly outclass others in terms of actual energy and new material consumption? And finally, just how good or bad is plastic? From consumers who are only looking at their piece of the puzzle, say the end of the life cycle for a plastic milk jug, to packaging manufacturers and retailers that use plastic in their processes, thinking needs to be much wider, taking into account both the positives and negatives of plastic along with the true costs of what might be used as an alternative.
The answers to these questions are somewhat complex and, in many cases, politically-charged. A consensus can be hard to come by. However, there are some generic and broad items of understanding from both recent and long-term studies on plastics worth repeating here as we strive to represent both sides of the plastics argument. Also included in this exploration are some good moves that manufacturers, retailers and consumers can make to firmly reduce their environmental footprint (hint: it’s not just about a bag choice in the checkout line).
Beginning with a Tough Look at Plastics
There is a good bit of material out there today condemning plastic. Indeed, plastic gets a pretty bad rap, given how long it takes to decompose (50-1000 years, depending on the type). Further, the fact that our landfills are receiving 262 tons of new garbage each day…with 20-24% of it plastic…isn’t a good thing. Here is one view from Jeff Bridges, representing the Plastic Pollution Coalition:
Video Courtesy: Plastic Pollution Coalition
Now, there are many legitimate facts put forth in the above video. Indeed, here are some back-up facts from BanTheBottle.net, talking about the burgeoning issue of plastic water bottles:
There is little doubt that a re-usable water bottle is a better choice for the planet vs. buying and discarding plastic water bottles on a daily basis. However, this is only one case and plastic is used prolifically in many other areas where swapping in another material may actually prove much more detrimental to the planet.
Weight and Virgin Materials
The next point to consider when looking at plastic is what materials would be swapped in if we were to move away from its use? Often we hear that using glass or metal is a much better choice in packaging as these materials have much higher recyclable properties. Gram for gram, this may be true…yet what is almost never explained is the factor of weight. To replace a plastic package with an alternative material such as glass (or metal) the weight and physical space of the new package will be MUCH GREATER than that of its plastic rival. The result? An enormous increase in energy and environmental cost associated with the far heavier, bigger packaging. In contrast, and because our transportation system is fossil fuel dependent, lighter weight packaging (plastic) means less trucks on the road and less fuel burned. In a recent study conducted by Trucost and featured on PlasticsNews.com, the following was noted on these points:
The article goes on to cite results from the study conducted by Trucost, titled Plastics and Sustainability:
A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs
and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement. In that study I found the following graphic most-compelling:
Looking deeper into Trucost, they state the following about what they do on their website:
Further research into the remarkable transportation cost savings realized when comparing plastic to its alternatives yielded the following graphic from Dupont:
Efficiency, Efficiency, Efficiency
To further frame our point today, let’s first take a small step back and look at the world of charities. One popular way these institutions are rated is on how many pennies of each donated dollar actually get to the charity recipients. Some are far more efficient than others. And when it comes to the environment, and the tremendous push to minimize our footprint and be “green,” the choices we make in our daily activities and the buying decisions we face too can have very different (and oft misunderstood) impacts.
A shopper may feel they are doing their part by picking paper over plastic in the checkout line. They may feel extra good that they also chose some products with recyclable packaging that they diligently plan to place in the appropriate bin. Heck, they may have even brought along their own, re-usable bags. And yet, while such choices may yield a net-positive environmental effect (and are important), they are but a small element in the much bigger picture of consumption and the true energy and resources it takes to get the products we choose from onto the store shelf.
So, we’ve taken a look at plastics from the perspective of true environmental costs up against the alternatives. We’ve studied the pros and cons and now have a deeper understanding of just how important plastic is to items like protecting food from contamination, extending shelf life and reducing waste volume. Yet the story doesn’t end there.
With plastic being an unarguably critical item for use in all sorts of products, from medical applications to food production, processing and packaging, hard research is being done to create plastics that decompose much faster than the present carnations. Some of these plastics are already available and should bring some promising, environmental changes going forward. Read on about these advents in this article about so-called “bio-plastics.”
Meanwhile, try to spread the word about the reality of plastics and the true cost of alternatives. Try also to reduce food (and other product) waste and to recycle. To this point, new research from Mintel (a global marketing research firm) notes that “80% of US food shoppers agree that reducing food waste is as important as reducing packaging waste. In an effort to limit waste, half (52%) of consumers prefer to buy foods with minimal/no packaging.” Further, the report from Mintel notes, “As they look to extend the life of the food products they buy, 81% of consumers say that they would choose resealable packaging over non-resealable packaging, and more than half (54%) would pay more for packaging with added features such as being resealable or portion controlled, with three in 10 (30%) often reusing food packaging for other purposes. However, recycling food packaging is far from a universal behavior, as just two in five (42%) consumers report recycling most of the food packaging they use.” Lastly (from the Mintel report), “…only 13% of consumers make an effort to avoid foods in packaging that cannot be recycled.”…and…”36% of Americans are interested in packaging that allows food to be eaten on the go.”
So, there are several clear opportunities out there for manufacturers to produce products that not only attract consumers, but that positively impact the environment from several different standpoints. Most agree that consumers, by and large, are feature-driven…as the report from Mintel backs up. And with plastic being not only better from a weight/environmental cost perspective, but also an ideal material for achieving many of these sought after features…well, we don’t expect plastic to be going anywhere anytime soon. Indeed, there are many things we can do as manufacturers, retailers and consumers to positively impact the environment that doesn’t require moving away from this quite versatile material. In fact, doing so may actually bring greater harm.