By Ann Lee-Jeffs, Founder, Sustainability Collaborative
A life without plastics in the 21st century society is a life that is unimaginable and unthinkable for most of us. Plastics are ubiquitous and they are an integral part of our lives: we eat with them, we sleep with them, we learn with them, we save lives with them, we wear them, we recycle them, we raise our kids with them, we ride with them and we do so many other things with them. They are in our homes, offices and communities. Our modern way of life and engineered plastics are inseparable; the value of the global market for engineering plastics is estimated to have increased to $90 billion by 2020, due to growing demands for lighter and more efficient materials.
Plastics improve the quality of our life and, at the same time, pose many levels of challenges to all living things on the planet. Plastics save lives; seat belts in passenger vehicles saved an estimated 12,174 lives in 2012. However, plastics can also cause harm to life; plastic garbage in the ocean kills as many as 1 million sea creatures every year.
As a society, we spend significantly more time and resources on making plastics into amazing products, compared to the time and resources we spend on repurposing, recycling and reusing spent plastics. We recycle only a few percent the total plastics we produce every year, and an increasing amount of spent plastics make their way to our ocean, causing harm to marine life. Green chemistry and engineering is one of the key pathways in which to design and develop solutions to innovate new products and, at the same time, significantly increase the rate in which we repurpose, recycle and reuse spent plastics we produce every day.
Imagine the world with a closed-loop system on plastic products enabled by policy, education, community and business to eliminate plastic waste altogether. A world with a closed-loop system on plastics may be as challenging for us to imagine as a world without plastics.
One small step we all can take in our lives at personal, professional and organizational levels is to evaluate some of the myths and have a better understanding of facts. Here are a few myths and realities on plastics that may help you to start to take this very important step:
Myth: Most, if not all, plastics are made with oil.
Reality: Seventy percent of plastic is made from natural gas. Eighty-five percent of the plastic bags produced in this country are made from domestic natural gas – not imported oil. Wegmans only uses bags made from natural gas and when recycled, they are made into new bags.
Myth: Paper bags are more eco-friendly than plastic bags
Reality: Paper bags consume more energy and water to in manufacturing, and produce more greenhouse gas emissions than plastic bags. While they are compostable, the recycling of paper bags results in a lower quality paper material and cannot be made into a bag again. Plastic bags have a lower environmental footprint in production and use, but can cause problems if not disposed of in a proper way. Reusable canvas bags may seem more eco-friendly, but you have to use the bag over 131 times to see the benefits. Reusable non-woven polypropylene or polyethylene bags (your typical synthetic reusable bag) may be the best bet—they are the most efficient choose after only 8-11 uses.
Myth: Recyclability is the primary factor for eco-friendly packaging.
Reality: There are many factors for eco-friendly packaging, and recyclability is one major demension. Take the example of yogurt producer Stonyfield Farm, which uses plastic #5, Polypropylene (PP), to package its products. Plastic #2, High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) is recycled more than PP. However, Stonyfield found that using PP resin resulted in 30% less plastic required than if it went with HDPE. That amounts to 100 tons of additional resin per year that would need to be manufactured, just to improve the chance of recyclability. Going with PP also reduced the weight of the cups, meaning less energy is required to transport the cups to stores.
Myth: All plastics collected to be recycled get recycled.
Reality: Not all plastics collected to be recycled get recycled. Take the example of spent healthcare plastic (e.g., packaging), even though they are collected and sent to the recyclers, there are a few factors that will prevent the collected healthcare plastic to be recycled. The factors include red-bag hospital wastes such as used syringes mixed in with the plastic packaging, or significant amount of paper adhesive tapes used in the packaging. The recycling centers are usually not equipped or licensed to decontaminate the plastic wastes before recycling, thus, if there are suspected contamination, they are sent back to the hospitals or an approved incineration facility for disposal. The paper tapes need to be taken off prior for the plastics are to be processed, and, generally, traditional recycling facilities do not have manpower to take the paper tapes by hand, as such, if there are excessive paper tapes, they are sent to a municipal waste facility.
Myth: Microbeads in some of the cleansing products some of us use to clean our bodies are the main cause of micro-size plastics in our rivers and ocean.
Reality: Small size plastics in our rivers and ocean cause harm to marine life; fish eat them thinking that they are food, and these tiny-size plastics are often coated with biomass which tend to accumulate contamination such as heavy metals. Majority of micro-size plastic particles in our rivers and ocean are result of the big plastic pieces (e.g., water bottles) breaking down by sun and the environment into small pieces. Microbeads of the cleaning products some of us use in our bathrooms are a very small part of the small size plastic particles in our rivers and oceans.
Myth: Bio-plastics are bio-degradable.
Reality: Landfills are designed so few items break down—even items labeled "biodegradable" or "compostable." Some packaging marked with those terms requires an industrial composting facility that maintains high temperature (usually 160°) for an extended period of time. That won’t happen in a landfill or backyard composting system, and there are very few industrial composting facilities where Wegmans has stores. At this time, a better packaging choice is often made of a renewable resource or recyclable material, which is then recycled by the consumer.
The points above represent only a sampling of the complex picture of plastics. Companies, scientists and consumers must make the best choices we can as we collectively work toward a cleaner, greener ecosystem for plastics. Consumers can increase our efforts to recycle (and reuse), companies can make educated decisions on lowering their overall plastic footprint and scientists will continue to find the most sustainable ways to produce and reuse resins.
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