Plastic waste gets a lot of attention when photos of dead whales with stomachs full of plastic bags hit the news. Pieces of plastic also litter cities, and tiny plastic particles are even floating in the air.
Largely overlooked is how making plastic in the first place affects the environment, especially global warming. Plastic actually has a big carbon footprint, but so do many of the alternatives to plastic. And that’s what makes replacing plastic a problem without a clear solution.
Plastic is just a form of fossil fuel. Your plastic water bottle, your grocery bag, your foam tray full of cucumbers … they’re all made from oil or natural gas. It takes lots of energy to make that happen.
How about the carbon footprint of things that would replace plastic — things such as paper, canvas or glass.
One thing that waste experts agree on is that there’s too much trash, whether it’s plastic or paper or something else. And people are making more of it than ever.
Plastic pollutes at every step
Plastics are treated as a product that miraculously appears from nowhere and goes to nowhere. Few of us think about where our plastic comes from or where it ends up after we throw it “away.” In reality, plastic causes serious problems at every stage of its life.
Plastic begins as fossil fuels like oil and natural gas. That means that the health and climate impacts of oil and gas extraction and transportation are also part of the lifecycle of plastic. Next, these fuels are converted into the chemical ingredients for plastic at plants that release a slew of toxic emissions into the communities in which they are built – resulting in higher rates of asthma, cancer, and other conditions.
Many of the plastics we interact with include other chemical additives or coatings. These additives can leach out of plastic and into humans, causing even more health consequences.
Ultimately, a small percentage of plastic gets recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, in the environment, or being burned. Whether on land or in the ocean, plastic pollution threatens the stability and biodiversity of whole ecosystems, from the top to the bottom of the food chain.
Long before it reaches the environment, plastic harms people and the planet. Our plastic obsession has serious consequences from production to disposal.
Not all plastic is created equal.
Plastic is a remarkably useful material, but too much of plastic is used just once and very little of it gets recycled. Identifying and eliminating these single-use, low-value plastics is the first step to ending plastic pollution.
There are hundreds of varieties of plastic, each with different properties and recycling value. Some types of plastic are easier to recycle into other usable products, and therefore command a high value on the recycling market. Because of their value, these “high value” plastics are more likely to be captured and recycled.
Other products have such little value that it isn’t economically feasible to recycle them. This can be a result of the type of plastic used, the size and shape of the product itself, and the conditions of the global recycling market. Plastics with low or no recycling value are far more likely to end up in landfills, in the environment, or being burnt.
Some products, particularly certain food packaging, is made from multi-layer plastic. This means that plastic is bonded to other materials like foil or cardboard. For example, did you know that many hot beverage drinks – like Starbucks coffee cups – aren’t recyclable or compostable due to a thin layer of plastic coating the paper? Once plastic has been bonded to another material to create multi-layer plastic, it can almost never be recycled.