by Nancy Schneider (July, 2012)
Imagine if George Washington had thrown a plastic cup overboard while crossing the Delaware River in 1776? That cup would eventually have floated out into the Atlantic Ocean, and would still be out there today—over 230 years later.
Interestingly, the same qualities that make plastic a versatile, convenient material, also contribute to its challenges as a waste material and a source of environmental pollution. Whether it's dumped by trash haulers or fishing or recreational boaters, or mistakenly tossed into any waterway or land site, non-biodegradable plastic will be still there for hundreds of years. Right now more than 7 million tons of garbage reaches marine environments annually, with most of the floating waste being plastic. Roughly 85% of total global plastic used is not recycled.
Approximately 270 species of animals and birds are hurt by plastic in their environments, or even their digestive systems, as debris is broken down by waves and sunlight into a sort of "soup" that fish and other wildlife mistake for food.
In addition, the chemical properties of many plastics contribute to risks in highly contaminated environments and in human food chain exposures. A significant contingent of the research community, and a substantial body of published research, suggests that human food and water contaminated by chemicals from plastics is a risk to health, with linkages to endocrine disruption and a myriad of diseases. The fact that these chemicals from plastics are found in human tissue is now clear. How far this undermines human health has not yet been established fully.
So to say we have a plastic problem is a tremendous understatement. Neither individuals nor organizations fully realize how much plastic they introduce into the environment every day. Plastics are overwhelmingly non-biodegradable, only marginally recyclable, and represent a burgeoning tax on ecosystems and human health.
In environmental circles, measuring your "footprint" is usually related to carbon, water or energy. Recently a new footprint has been added—a company's or individual's plastic footprint.
An ecological "footprint" measures how much of the planet's resources you use, and converts this to the amount of resources needed to provide the product and the resources used to assimilate your waste.
For plastic this includes:
- The fossil fuels needed to make and transport the product;
- The water and energy (in addition to oil) used to manufacture, transport, use, and carry away and dispose of your waste;
- And the health impacts of the chemicals related to the plastic as it breaks down in our environment, as well as leaching into our food supply through food packaging.
Several organizations are working toward reducing our Plastic Footprint. One—addressing the plastic footprints of companies—is the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP).
Inspired by a 2009 trip to the North Pacific Gyre, the Ocean Recovery Alliance (ORA) was founded as a vehicle to find solutions to plastic in the ocean, rivers and landfills, focusing on global preventive measures. The PDP was created in addition to the ORA specifically to encourage companies and institutions to make improvements by increasing recycled content, improving recycling programs, upcycling, developing new designs, using less plastic packaging, and reducing supply chain waste. The goal is to establish tracking methods better to understand the scale of use, and to discover opportunities to reduce plastic usage.
Reducing plastic can be beautiful! Lush Cosmetics became the first cosmetics company to undertake an analysis of its plastic use based on the principles of the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP).
One alternative to petroleum-based plastics is bioplastic (PLAs, or polylactic acid), plastic made from renewable, raw materials, such as corn, wheat, potatoes, beets and a variety of other plants. Producing PLAs uses 65% less energy than it takes to produce petroleum-based plastics, making PLA more energy-efficient. They also generate 68% fewer greenhouse gases than fossil-fuel-based plastics.
Manufacturing petroleum-based plastics uses approximately 200,000 barrels of oil per day. Switching to PLAs means reducing dependence on foreign oil.
As they degrade, bioplastics remain non-toxic and will not leach dangerous chemicals into the soil—and they can be recycled. However, most recycling centers are not set up to handle large amounts of PLA, and bioplastics cannot be recycled together with petroleum-based products. This means sorting is critical. If PLAs are accidentally mixed in, they can "spoil" a batch of petroleum-based plastics to be recycled .
Bioplastics are "compostable," but only under specific conditions. To biodegrade, the products have to reach 140° F for 10 consecutive days. This requires a special facility. If your PLA products end up at the landfill, they will not degrade any faster than a petroleum-based product.
Planting sources such as corn for non-food uses is problematic, as most corn planted for industrial uses is genetically modified, and of course requires hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to grow the crops.
Source reduction—the process of reducing the amount of waste that is generated—is often the most direct, cost-effective option. Many manufacturers have done this by removing outside plastic sleeves from cardboard or paper packaging, or changing out plastic packaging for other packaging such as paper.
EccoBella, a cruelty-free organic cosmetics and natural skin care products company, has avoided plastic packaging altogether for its Paperback Duo Compact
Mother Nature News and other consumer websites recommend, among other things, switching from liquid detergents in plastic bottles to powder detergents in paper boxes.
One possible exception to the recommendation of not using bottled detergents is Method brand's new Ocean PCR bottle, 25 percent of which is made from plastic collected from the ocean. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, "This innovation demonstrates what America, California and forward-thinking companies like Method can accomplish when they combine strong business principles with responsible actions to protect our health and the world around us." George might say the same thing.
A scavenger collects plastic rubbish clogging the Ciliwung River in Jakarta, Indonesia. Millions of tons of plastic go into the sea each year. Photograph: Ardiles Rante/EPA