Is Plastic the Problem?

by Jeremy on April 19, 2011

Plastics have come under a lot of fire recently.  There are many reasons why people, especially environmentalists, have such an aversion to this ubiquitous material.  Here’s just a very small list:

Looking at just this small list, it is understandable that many people want to see the end of plastic.  Some people have gone so far as to claim that giving up plastic is one of the best things you can do to reduce your impact on the environment.

Yet, as a card-carrying treehugger, I must say that I wholeheartedly DISAGREE!  Before all you fellow treehuggers put a hit on me, let me explain.

The problem is not with plastics per se.  The primary problem is with how we use plastics.  Approximately 50% of all plastic is used in single-use products.  Use it once and then toss it in the trash.  Unfortunately, it does not magically disappear.  It goes into a landfill.  All this single-use plastic adds up.  Each year we send about 500 billion pounds of plastic to landfills—that’s over 1,600 pounds per US resident (which is like throwing away your own body weight in plastic 7-14 times a year).

So the problem is not that we use plastics.  The problem is that we insist on throwing plastics away.

A lot of the plastics we send to landfills can be recycled into something of higher value.  For example, the 9 billion plastic bottles we send to landfills each year could be used to make clothing, carpet, or backpacks.

I do not write this as an endorsement to drink more bottled water because it can be used to make other products.  I don’t support the use of bottled water for everyday use.  In times of emergencies or disasters (Hurricane Katrina, Haitian 2010 earthquake, the recent devastating Japan tsunami, etc.), it serves a very important purpose.  But in everyday life, there is almost no excuse for not drinking tap water from a reusable vessel (maybe filtered depending on your local source and state of your home’s pipes).

I write this blog post to point out a very certain fact – certain types of plastic are not going away any time soon.  Instead of wasting time and energy trying to get rid of plastic, how about we spend the time and creative energy addressing the real problem: our culture’s insistence on disposability!

We don’t necessarily need to change the product.  We need to change the system and the mindset that created and perpetuates it.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kemp Edwards April 27, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Right you are Jeremy. We need to start thinking with the “end” of a product’s life in mind and begin designing with the intention of prolonging that end or better yet reclaiming it indefinitely. There is already plenty of plastic in existence right now that needs to be repurposed – actually EVERY piece of petroleum based plastic ever produced still exists – somewhere. That’s a pretty scary thought. It’s important that companies develop new business models that convert “once was waste” into functional, useful product with market appeal. Well done. The development and production costs of products such as yours ought to be offset by the companies developing the waste stream to begin with. As extended producer responsibility continues to ramp up and become enforced, this might not become the pipe dream it currently is.

Jeremy April 27, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Well said!

Penny Mains May 15, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Absolutely! 🙂

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