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.
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.
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.