A World Without Plastic: Heaven or Hell

I feel like I can’t escape the topic of plastic. I’m sure you also feel that way too with how often we see and use plastic products. It unsurprisingly makes up a substantial amount of our waste at 12.2%, about the same amount of our waste by weight of yard waste. However, despite how much plastic we see, it makes up far less than things like food and paper products, which amount to 21.6% and 23% respectively.

This hasn’t stopped plastic from being a main target of environmentalists, many of which would like to see a plastic free world. This might sound like a novel idea. I’d say we would all like to see no floating trash in the ocean or litter buildup in our communities. Yet, is removing all plastic the solution to this dilemma? I certainly have a lot of concerns in regards to the repercussions of removing all plastic from our lives. I thought it would be a good exercise to explore what our world would look like if we removed plastic.

Many of the same people advocating for the removal of plastic altogether will say things like, “humans lived a life without plastic, and we can do it again.” This is a major oversimplification. It wasn’t until the late 1940’s that plastic packaging similar to what we are used to seeing started to become prevalent today. This was when products like Tupperware were brought to market. Despite the short history that plastic has, a lot has changed since then.

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For starters, the world’s population has changed a lot. At that point, the world’s population was estimated to be about 2.4 billion people. Since then the population has exploded to approximately 7.9 billion people. That’s a lot more mouths to feed! The milkman might have been able to get the job done back then, but I am not so sure about today.

Speaking of the number of mouths we need to feed and the milkman, one alternative to our current packaging structure that is often discussed is switching back to a returnable system like we had with the milkman. I’m honestly open to this idea. I think there could be value in reusing our packaging materials and it could be a great way of reducing the total waste footprint.

Nonetheless, the data on removing plastic from the equation tells us that reusable would likely be more effective if plastic was the material choice rather than glass. Plastic weighs a fraction of glass alternatives and it is considerably more durable, meaning reusing plastic would allow for fewer emissions from breakage and transportation weight. Plus with all the people in the world, the extra transportation emissions would be compounded.

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Even if we didn’t switch to a reusable system, there would be major challenges with our food packaging if we removed plastic. Plastic offers an effective way to protect and transport food products. Since food often requires more resources such as water and energy, it’s better to waste items like packaging rather than than the food itself.

I’m specifically focused on the food-packaging component as a packaging engineer but plastic is spread out in a wide range of places in our lives. Plastic is used everywhere from the pipes in our homes that deliver us water to the parts of our vehicles that make us safer in car accidents. Were things really better before plastic? When we had lead pipes like we see in Flint, MI? Or when we had cars made entirely out of metal that were more deadly in car accidents?

The reality is that removing all plastic isn’t a real solution. I am not going to claim that plastic is the go-to material choice in all instances or that our plastic waste isn’t an issue. I simply believe that plastic is part of the equation for a waste solution. It has too much value and too many advantages to shelf just because of our plastic waste. What do you think? Would we really benefit from creating a world without plastic? What challenges do you think we would run into removing plastic from our lives? Let me know in the comments.

One Way to Handle Trash: Burn It.

Everybody is familiar with the idea of recycling and landfills. Most of us just assume that whatever we put in our garbage can ends up in a landfill. However, you might be surprised to learn that over 10% of our waste is incinerated for energy production.  Often referred to as Waste-To-Energy (WTE) it can be a major source of energy production. There are other countries like Sweden that are burning closer to 49% of their waste and are able to produce large amounts of their energy requirements.

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You might be wondering how exactly waste incineration works. The process starts with preparing the waste. Large items and recyclables such as metal are removed and the remaining waste is typically shredded before being sent into the incinerator. The waste is then combusted in an oxygen rich chamber. Temperatures from 1,800-2,200 degrees Fahrenheit are used to assure that nothing but gas and ash is left behind.

The gas created in this process is cooled using water, which creates steam. That steam is used to power electrical generators. The gas is then processed with various filtration methods. Any solids made from this process, along with the ash from incineration, are sent to landfills.

People often wonder if this process is bad for the environment. However, from everything I have read, the filter systems incinerator facilities use keep toxic gases below any standards set by the EPA. There are even some studies that claim that Incinerators are a better environmental option than landfills. Despite this, incineration isn’t a viable option to replace all landfill waste. We still need a way to dispose of the by-products of the incineration process.

However the positives of the incineration process shouldn’t be overlooked. Electricity production still amounts to the largest contributor of greenhouse gas production at 25% of the total production according to the EPA. With alternative sources of energy production such as incineration, we have less damaging ways to produce our energy needs. It is also a great way to reduce the total mass sent to landfills. It’s estimated that only 15-25% of the weight after incineration is left and sent to the landfill.

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Incineration and the waste-to-energy process aren’t a perfect long-term solution. Many people have claimed that incinerators detract from recycling and waste reduction efforts, since the business model of an incinerator is based on the need to be consistently fed waste. The facility themselves are expensive to establish and need to be consistently running in order to be financially viable. This has led to countries like Sweden importing trash for them to burn. This can deter waste from being sent to recycling and reduces the pressure to reduce waste production.

Waste-To-Energy is clearly a complicated issue, but has a lot of potential value to offer when it comes to our waste. But what do you think? Does Waste-To-Energy sound like a better alternative than simply using landfills? Let me know in the comment section below.

I Found the Solution to Reducing All of Our Waste!

Taking one look in your trashcan it’s easy to see that we need to be responsible with the disposal of our waste. That’s precisely why I’ve been so hyper focused on this aspect of our waste. But there is an important step that comes before any of this: the purchase.

There is a very simple solution for all of us to reduce our waste dramatically, which is to just buy less stuff. Our consistent need to buy new things, particularly of the cheap throwaway variety, is horrible financially and environmentally. Don’t get me wrong; I can be guilty of it too, but I am consistently trying to be conscientious with the purchases I make.

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One of the easiest places to start is: If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. This requires separating our wants from our needs. Do you really NEED that new pair of shoes or do you just WANT them? Do you really NEED all those gadgets and knickknacks or did you just WANT them?

Sometimes in an effort to make our life convenient and simpler, we actually make things more complicated. I have a friend that has every kitchen gadget imaginable. They have things like avocado scoops and egg cutters. We really don’t NEED these things. In fact, I would imagine that they actually only make our lives more complicated. We could just as easily get by using a knife and spoon to remove the avocado peel. Oftentimes they don’t even remember these specialty devices, so it just creates extra clutter in the house. By keeping it simple it results in less things to keep organized and it forces us to think about what we really use.

I would argue that clothes and fashion are the exact same way (that might just be because I’m uncultured). A lot of people feel the need to have the next season’s most up to date fashion trends. The question is what happens to most of this in a few months when it is no longer “trendy?” I would guess that it either ends up in the trash, donated, or resold.

Some estimates of the fashion industry believe it makes up 10% of carbon emissions and nearly 20% of wastewater. So this is an easy place for us to direct our attention when we are making purchase decisions.

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I feel like companies like Patagonia have done an excellent job taking this into consideration from a holistic perspective. Not only do they advertise in educational formats, but they also seem to back up what they say. One of the things that I appreciate that they do is making robust clothing that lasts, a lot of which is covered by a lifetime warranty. So once you buy one of their products you know you will get a lot of life out of it. This is good for both the environment and your wallet in the long run.

If you don’t have a big enough budget to afford premium clothing, you can always take a play out of Macklemore’s playbook and go to a thrift shop. This is another way to take an environmental approach by utilizing clothing that will otherwise be thrown away. Plus you can get it for much cheaper. Once again I’m probably not the one you want to turn to for fashion advice but I love several of my thrift shop finds.

Regardless of what you are buying, remember to ask yourself: Do I NEED this? We all buy things sometimes that we might not need, but simply try to keep that to a minimum. If you decide to buy something be sure that you get the most life out of it. If that means patching a hole or replacing a button, it’s worth it. Is there anything in your life that you’ve realized you can live without? Let me know in the comments. We can all learn from each other.

Environmentalism: The Power of the People

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Often times as individuals, it can feel like we have no impact on the environmental issues that seem to be plaguing us. I mean, how can I make any impact when there are billions of other people? Especially, when a lot people don’t care to make changes within their lives for environmental reasons. This is something I have reflected on immensely. However, I’ve started to believe that through our collective voice we can create change and even if we can’t, I still stand behind it because it’s just the right thing to do.This really boils down to integrity. I was told growing up that integrity is about what you do when no one is watching. Your decisions to change need to be changes that you commit to regardless of others.

I recently heard a quote from an unknown source that carries a lot of relevance on this. “Taking comfort in the idea our actions mean nothing if our neighbors continue to do as they’ve always done will be the hardest obstacle to overcome. The smallest gesture, the most insignificant of resolutions are a step in the right direction towards a healthier world.” This feeling of helplessness on environmental issues that we all seem to share is no justification for us not to change our behavior. If we aren’t going to change our own behavior then who will? And at the end of the day, do you really want to be contributing to the problem?

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We need to lead the way and make changes in our day-to-day lives because small changes by huge amounts of people make massive impacts. Our change in behavior drives business behavior. So generically, if consumers decided not to purchase from a current company, that will force 1 of 2 things from that company. That said company will either go out of business or they will modify their behavior to match the desire of their consumers.

I imagine you might be asking yourself, what changes can I make? Well, like most issues, things aren’t black and white, and there isn’t one correct answer. One fundamental understanding is that money drives our world. Your decisions on what you do and don’t support drives the behavior of others. Essentially, you vote with your dollar. This means, for example, being intentional about purchasing from companies that use sustainable resources and use packaging that is recyclable, compostable, or made from bio-based resources. You also want to avoid supporting companies that actively oppose conservation efforts or refuse to invest in environmental alternatives. The question for you to answer is what are the most important issues to you? Let me know in the comments below!