Universally, we all know that single-use plastics are no-no. But is that all exactly? Are there more to them than meet the eye? Do we need to know something else?
Apparently, the answer is yes.
Let’s say we’re walking through aisles at the supermarket. We see countless colors of conventional plastic, paper, and metal can. From there, we can easily decide which one more eco-friendly and choose that instead.
As for the single-use plastic, we prefer the ones with “recycled” or “recyclable” labels. We believe that if we pick those, we can minimize environmental impacts, right?
It’s not as simple as it sounds in reality. According to Shelie Miller, University of Michigan’s environmental engineer, most of the environmental impacts of many consumer products (like soft drinks) are from the products inside, not the packaging.
Also focus on the inside, not just the outside
In the new article published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Miller says that single-use plastics shouldn’t be the focus.
Why so? Because most of the time, production and disposal of packaging represents only a few percent of a product’s lifetime environmental impacts.
“Consumers tend to focus on the impact of the packaging, rather than the impact of the product itself,” said Miller, the author of the published article.
The associate professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability and director of the U-M Program in the Environment added, “But mindful consumption that reduces the need for products and eliminates wastefulness is far more effective at reducing overall environmental impact than recycling.
“Nevertheless, it is fundamentally easier for consumers to recycle the packaging of a product than to voluntarily reduce their demand for that product, which is likely one reason why recycling efforts are so popular.”
Five common misperceptions
There are common mistaken beliefs about the absolute evilness of plastic packaging. Miller chose five myths about them and she attempts to debunk them in her paper.
Titled “Five misperceptions surrounding the environmental impacts of single-use plastic”, the common myths regarding single use plastic are:
Plastic packaging is the largest contributor to a product’s environmental impact. Miller argues that the product inside the package usually has a much greater environmental impact.
Any other packaging material’s environmental impacts are lesser than plastics. Actually, plastic generally has lower overall environmental impacts than single-use glass or metal in most impact categories, according to Miller.
Reusable products are always better than single-use plastics. We’ve talked about this in an article I made here.
Well, the fact is that reusable products have lower environmental impacts only when they are reused enough times to offset the materials and energy used to make them. Looking back at that article I linked above, us humans tend not to do this.
Composting and recycling are the things we should do more and more in the future, starting now.
In the paper, Miller says that the environmental benefits associated with recycling and composting tend to be small. That is, when we compare them with efforts to reduce overall consumption.
Efforts that eliminate single-use plastics like “Zero waste this/that” minimize the impacts of an event. In reality, the benefits of diverting waste from the landfill are small.
As briefly mentioned above, waste reduction and mindful consumption are more effective on dictating the impact of an event. This includes a careful consideration of the types and quantities of products consumed
It may seem like Miller is one of those “deniers” or something like that. But let’s not jump to calling her that yet. In her review article, Miller simply wants to challenge beliefs unsupported by current scientific knowledge.
At the same time, the director of the U-M Program in the Environment is also urging other people. Meaning, she wants to environmental engineers and scientist to broaden the conversation, in their own research and in discussions that shape public policy.
“Efforts to reduce the use of single-use plastics and to increase recycling may distract from less visible and often more damaging environmental impacts associated with energy use, manufacturing and resource extraction.
“We need to take a much more holistic view that considers larger environmental issues,” said Miller.
Miller stresses that she’s not trying to dismiss or downplay environmental concerns regarding plastic and plastic waste. She only wants to place that problem in the right context by critically examining the environmental impacts at every stage of a product’s lifetime.
That begins from the extraction of natural resources and the energy needed to make the item to its ultimate disposal or reuse. Miller wants us to not just look at it from the end stage.
Assessing plastic’s environmental impacts
Researchers like Miller use a tool called life-cycle assessment or LCA. They use this tool to quantify lifetime environmental impacts in multiple categories.
It includes climate change and energy use, water and resource depletion, biodiversity loss, solid waste generation, and human and ecological toxicity.
As consumers, it’s easy for us to focus on the outside (packaging waste) because it’s evident. We see boxes, bottles, cans, and bags every day, but we can’t see the environmental impacts of the things invisible to us.
Hence, LCA analyses can systematically evaluate the entire supply chain, measuring impacts that might otherwise be overlooked, Miller said.
In packaged food products, LCA can see the largely invisible impacts from many things.
For example, a food can have intensive agricultural production, energy generation, and refrigeration and transportation throughout the supply chain, along with the processing and manufacturing associated with the food and its packaging.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
We hear and see this slogan/motto all the time. I’m sure whoever made that means well, but according to Miller, that provides an easy-to-remember-but-somehow-jumbled hierarchy of the preferable ways to lessen environmental impact.
Most environmental messages don’t emphasize the inherent hierarchy of the 3Rs. Reducing and reusing are on the first two while recycling is the last one.
As a result, consumers often over-emphasize the importance of recycling packaging instead of reducing product consumption to the extent possible and reusing items to extend their lifetime.
“Although the use of single-use plastics has created a number of environmental problems that need to be addressed, there are also numerous upstream consequences of a consumer-oriented society that will not be eliminated, even if plastic waste is drastically reduced.
“The resource extraction, manufacturing and use phases generally dominate the environmental impacts of most products. So, reduction in materials consumption is always preferable to recycling, since the need for additional production is eliminated,” Miller said.
What do you think about this? Should we recycle less and reduce more?