It’s Time We Look at the Big Picture With Our Trash

Photo by Silvestri Matteo on Unsplash

We are in a constant state of information overload; always being told to focus on this or that. It can be nearly impossible to know where our attention is best served. Often this turns into a sort of slight of hands. We focus so hard on one thing that something else in our peripheral goes unnoticed. This same phenomenon even happens with our trash and the products we use daily.

An area I specifically see a lot of this is with plastic. These days there are countless brands devoted to the eradication of plastic. It might as well be the devil to them and we end up along for the marketing ride, buying into the same conclusion. My fixation on plastic isn’t any better, and is why I talk about plastic and its recyclability all the time.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the frustration with plastic. It’s a real problem and we need to find solutions. That’s precisely the motivation behind creating content like this. We need to discuss and collaborate to resolve our plastic and waste issues. However, I don’t share the same sentiment as everyone else that by simply removing plastic entirely from our lives, we will somehow solve all our waste issues. Instead, I think we need to look at the big picture.

There are few different ways we can do this. One concept that has exploded in popularity is this idea of a carbon footprint. The idea is that your carbon footprint is the sum of the greenhouse gases generated by your actions. These greenhouse gases are what contribute to global warming so the idea is the lower the carbon footprint, the lower the contribution towards global warming.

Carbon footprints can also be applied to specific products. This is often referred to as a life cycle analysis (LCA) when being applied to products. The carbon footprint or LCA of a package takes everything throughout the product life into consideration. This starts with the raw materials required to make a product, the energy and resources required to convert those raw materials, the waste or end use of the product, and all the energy and exhaust in-between transporting.

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Applying this concept to plastic packaging often tells a very different story than what we are used to. Despite our tendency to see plastic trash everywhere, it’s only as bad as the difference from the alternative. Since plastic comes in a lot of shapes and sizes we need to compare it on a case by case basis. EcoChain did a wonderful job comparing the LCA of a plastic jar to glass. In their study they found that plastic far outperformed glass mostly due to the weight of glass and the challenges transporting it.

Even this data needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Their data suggested a plastic recycle rate of 50% (the current recycling rate in the Netherlands), but here in the US only about 29% of plastic bottles are recycled according to the EPA. Despite this discrepancy, plastic bottles often come out with a superior carbon footprint when looking at the entire LCA. However plastic doesn’t always come out on top when comparing in other segments.

So whats the point of all this? The materials we use everyday are a lot more complicated than we might think. We need to look at the big picture and not rely on one single source. Carbon footprints and LCAs are are great way to compare things apples-to-apples (assuming you can find a trustworthy source on the comparison).

When it comes to deciding the ideal materials to make our products from, the answer is often “it depends.” We can’t say that our issues would be solved if we removed all plastic from our lives. But that doesn’t mean we should stop looking for alternatives.

If you want to learn more about carbon footprints and LCA, there are great resources out there to check out. They offer information on understanding your own carbon footprint and a lot more detail about exactly how LCAs are put together. I highly suggest you read up on these things for yourself! We need to try to stay objective and depend on science to tell us the best options available.