It will take more than recycling plastics

It will take more than recycling plastics

A recent tour of the Cleveland home used for the filming of the movie, “A Christmas Story,” reminded me that years ago people did get along without plastic packaging. In a little more than half a century, we have dramatically increased our use of plastics.

While some of these uses are improvements over old practices such as applications in the medical field, many of the uses today are merely for convenience. We need to ask ourselves, Are these conveniences really worth the sacrifice?

You might say, “Well we can recycle plastic, can’t we?”

We can recycle some of our plastic, but truthfully, according to the 2018 National Geographic article, “Planet or Plastic?” globally about one-fifth of all plastic is recycled, and in the U.S. only 10 percent is recycled.

Of the 448 million tons of plastics produced in 2015, 161 million tons had a lifespan use of less than six months, and 110 million has a lifespan use of less than five years. We are literally drowning in nonbiodegradable plastics.

Recycling can be a good way to save energy. Making aluminum cans from recycled cans rather than bauxite ore saves 96 percent of the energy.

Recycling plastic water bottles to make other items yields a 76-percent energy savings. However, recycling glass saves only 21 percent energy, so these items would be ones to reuse or require a deposit on, according to an article from Popular Mechanics titled “Recycling by the numbers: The truth about recycling.”

There are two major styles of recycling: open- and closed-loop systems. In open-loop recycling, the initial material is recycled usually to become something else, like plastic bottles made into fleece shirts, but in the end the materials eventually end up as wastes in a landfill. Closed-loop systems, like the old-fashioned milkman’s milk bottles, are used indefinitely and are much more sustainable.

Additionally any by-products created in closed loop must be biodegradable. This style maintains a zero-waste cycle and is sustainable. Recycling aluminum cans is an example of this strategy. In the book, "Cradle to Grave," by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, it says, “Each product and all packaging should have a complete closed-loop cycle mapped out for each component so they can be identified and recycled indefinitely or returned to the natural ecosystem.”

The idea of reusing packaging is really a significant step in cutting down on plastics. As I said in a previous article, China is no longer willing to take recycled materials from the USA and European countries. The added cost of sorting and cleaning the recycles is proving too much for China's recycling program.

In an effort to reduce unnecessary single-use plastics and plastic packaging, countries, cities and corporations all over the world are enacting laws and regulations that address reducing the use of these types of plastics, which make up about 40 percent of all plastics.

A recent article in Ecowatch talked about the banning of single-use produce packaging.

A supermarket chain in New Zealand has done away with plastic wrap on all of its fruits and vegetables. Dubbed “food in the nude,” the project was started about two years ago when one of the store managers of New World Supermarkets noticed the increase in fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastics.

After visiting a Whole Foods store in the USA, the manager decided to adopt their naked fruits and veggies displays. Most of his growers and suppliers were happy to switch to the no-plastic system, and he found that sales of fruits and vegetables increased while food wastes decreased.

Recently Proctor and Gamble, Nestle, Pepsico, Unilever, Mars Petcare, The Body Shop, and Coca Cola unveiled a new ecommerce platform called LOOP. Instead of disposal-style plastic containers, the LOOP system relies on closed-loop recycling similar to reusable milk bottles. Your products come in a durable container that is able to be reused again and again. When it is empty, it is sent back to the original manufacturer, cleaned and refilled. In some cases shipping costs are covered by the manufacturer.

This service should be available in spring 2019 in the USA. I have already seen a company, Plaine Products, that is shipping body wash, shampoo, conditioner and hand sanitizer in stainless steel bottles using this LOOP program.

A trip to any local grocery store is enough to convince anyone of our need to question plastic packaging. There you will find both conventional as well as organic produce shrink-wrapped in plastics. You also can find entire display cases loaded with plastic containers of cut-up fruits (melons, cantaloupe, watermelon, oranges). Mother Nature packs these fruits in their own containers, skins, so why do we need to cut them up and then repackage them in a single-use container? Are we that helpless?

Aside from the fact that this practice adds volumes to the waste streams and uses fossil fuels, a nonrenewable resource to make a single-use item, it also adds to the price of the items, contributes to climate change and is leaving local communities with a major trash problem.

Recycling bins used to be our go-to technique to address packaging wastes, but this process does not close the loop. Some countries in Europe have placed a tax on plastics or made requirements that plastic items use a higher percentage of recycled plastics in their production. We also have to find markets that will purchase recycles, but these are becoming harder to find.

We can all do our part to reduce plastic wastes if we demand alternative packaging or no packaging at all. At the very least, let your local grocer know you prefer your veggies and fruits nude. Other choices might include using bars of shampoo and conditioner, buying eggs in cardboard, opting for butter in stick form rather than spread in a plastic tub, or buying staples from a bulk food store using your own mason jars rather than plastic bags.

In the USA alone, over 500 million straws are thrown away each day. It might not seem like much, but there are over 7.5 billion of us on the planet. If we all reduced our plastic use, just think of what a difference we all could make.

“If your bathtub were overflowing, you wouldn’t reach for the mop; you’d turn off the faucet. We need to turn off the faucet for single-use plastics.” — Plastic Crisis Alliance.

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