When it comes to talking about trash, you can’t ignore the elephant in the room that is plastic. It is likely one of the first things you think of when you think of packaging waste and it’s many environmentalists worst nightmare. While I understand the concern around plastic waste, it is an oversimplification to label it exclusively as a bad thing.
The first step to making a decision about the pros and cons of anything starts with educating yourself. After all, you can’t label something as bad until you really understand it. As a Packaging Engineer for a flexible packaging company, I know a thing or two about plastic. It comes in a variety of types and formats and overall, it simplifies our lives in a lot of ways despite how negatively it is often viewed by environmentalists. However, plastic is definitely a major issue and its functional value as a packaging material has lead to it being a major pollutant.
It can be hard looking at pictures like this without getting angry about how plastic is washing up on our shores and destroying our environment. However, I look at images like this and see a different problem. A people problem. It’s not plastic that threw itself out a car window or left itself behind after a day at the beach. We did it. Well, maybe not you or I, but people did this. Our constant craving for convenience leaves a trail of waste in our path.
The challenge is that removing plastic from this equation and replacing it with something else wouldn’t solve our waste accumulation. In fact, in many ways if we are going to continue living our lives the way we do, plastic is the better choice. For example compare plastic to glass. Although a lot of people like the more “natural” appearance of glass because they don’t associate it with chemicals, plastic has a lot of benefits. It requires significantly less energy to produce one container, it weighs significantly less which means fuel costs transporting it will be lower, and it is less fragile meaning less wasted products due to broken packaging. On the other hand, glass is infinitely recyclable, while it can be challenging to repeatedly recycle plastic into another package. Instead plastic is often up-cycled into things like carpet or jackets.
The answers to the challenge of the extensive pollution aren’t easy to solve. When we ask ourselves what the ideal materials are for the products we use, the answer is usually “it depends.” It’s not as black and white as we might hope. Plus a lot of items we use aren’t bottles and jars that make comparing glass and plastic even possible. Like all of our waste, it really starts by reducing our consumption and moving to reusable containers whenever possible.
I challenge you to try and go a single day without touching a single piece of plastic. It’s nearly impossible. I didn’t make it past my toothpaste container this morning. This isn’t just meant to point out the pervasive use of plastic in our lives, but also the versatility and flexibility that it offers us. How many plastic items did you need to touch throughout the day? Have any ideas on how we could replace them? I’m always open to learning new ideas.