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.

The Rise in Waste Legislation: Part 2

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When we are looking at any issue, it is incredibly important that we look at both sides of the issue. My last blog covered the background of major legislation being considered such as the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA) and the Recycle Act. It also covered many of the positives of these legislative actions, but I want to cover the negatives that I see these legislative actions bringing forth as well. Finally, I will go over my suggestions on what I think would be the appropriate actions.

Cons of Current Waste Legislation

While these efforts might be well intentioned, that doesn’t mean they are the best changes we can make. For starters, these changes would be very expensive. One of the beautiful things about capitalism is that it drives companies to reduce waste as much as possible. Plastic manufacturers are motivated to reduce any waste throughout their process, as well as reduce the amount of material required to make their products, because it saves them money. This is part of the reason you have likely seen an increase in ultra thin water bottles and a shift to more flexible packaging. These products require less material than the alternatives and perfectly align with reduce, reuse, and recycle.

As I have said in the past, the concept of reduce, reuse, recycle is an order of operations. Reducing your material usage and consumption is the most effective way to have a positive environmental impact. This is something that happens as a direct result of our free market model. When we interfere to try and make packaging that is more “recyclable” it will lead to more robust and thicker materials, which likely means more plastic. On top of this, as an industry, we would be putting the bulk of recycling responsibility still on consumers. Consumers will still need to be the ones that make sure the products they use end up in the recycling bin.

Another direct response of thicker and more robust packaging is higher costs. Packaging makes up a varied amount of the total cost of products. This number can range anywhere from 1 to 40% of the cost, but the average is about 9% of the total cost. That means for every $11 you spend on products, $1 goes directly to packaging.

If we require more compostable and recyclable packaging, there would almost certainly be an increase in packaging costs across the board. In my experience, I would estimate this would lead to about 2X the packaging costs. Producers of packaging materials won’t be able to absorb these costs and they will be passed directly onto consumers. This means that everything you have been buying would increase by close to 9% in cost.

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Since the household income of two-thirds of America is less than 100k annually, this would be hugely detrimental to medium and low income families. They won’t be able to afford nearly as much as they can based on the current structure. This will drive more families deeper into poverty by making essential goods more expensive.

On top of all of this, the issues with using thicker materials continue. Switching to either thicker plastic or potentially glass means we will be working with additional weight. Thus, we will be expending additional energy not only to produce these products, but also to transport these goods. Trucks will require additional fuel to carry the extra weight, leading to even higher emissions. What’s more important, the efficiency of how the waste is managed, or all the energy required to produce and transport a good?

Speaking of using alternatives to plastic, would creating a bag tax on plastic really help anything? As I said in the last post, I do believe it is an effective way to drive consumers to use less. If they have to pay for every bag, then it will drive them to use and consume less. However I want to make sure that these bag bills apply to EVERY bag and not just plastic bags. The data tells us that paper bags required 4X the energy to produce as plastic bags so switching from plastic to paper isn’t a genuine solution. If we really want to drive change, these bag bills should apply to all bags in an effort to drive consumers to reuse bags and consume less. Plus this tax could be used for other important issues such as recycling education.

The Conclusion

I’m not going to lie, some of these laws scare me. My entire professional life has been built around plastic packaging and these laws are guaranteed to disrupt that industry. I’m not alone in this either. The plastic industry is the 8th largest industry in the US, estimated to include over a million jobs, and 432 million dollars in shipments. That’s a lot of people directly impacted by these changes. And that’s not even including all of the people that would be indirectly effected such as those in the food and transportation industry.

However as I’ve said before, I don’t think it makes sense to support industries just because people work in them. We instead need to try and be as objective as possible when looking at these issues and take a utilitarian approach of whatever makes the greatest good for the most people. That being said, even if we are going to leverage the power of legislative actions, I think it’s important to have a plan for both the industries themselves to pivot, as well as having plans for alternatives. Removing options (plastic) without viable replacements isn’t a genuine solution.

So what genuine solutions can we actually consider? I believe the Recycle Act hits a lot of the pros without as many of the cons. For starters, based on our current structure, regardless of if we attempt to implement EPR, we will still be putting the responsibility of recycling products correctly on consumers. They will be the ones who need to put the right items into recycling bins in the correct way (clean and dry) . This is even more important if they want their goods to be cheap, otherwise EPR will mean bad recycling habits, which equates to higher cost of goods.

If we want to get at the root of our recycling issue, we need to address education surrounding our waste and recycling. That is the only way we will be able to begin to address the challenges of recycling. One of the simplest ways to achieve this would be a standardized labeling system. This is something I deeply believe the industry is missing. While I believe that capitalism is able to drive change, this is one example where I find it lacking. The plastic and packaging industry is simply too big to get aligned in a timely manner to create a standardized labeling system across the board. If a regulating agency such as the EPA produced a standard it would not only align the industry around a standard, but it would educate consumers. It would also likely drive alignment between producers and waste processors since the labels would need to be in agreement on how they are handled at end of life.

A standardized labeling system coupled with grants to increase education across the country would almost certainly lead to greater education for all consumers. Since this would require additional funding, I believe a bag bill for ALL bags (both plastic and paper) would be an effective way to recover some additional funds from consumers that aren’t willing to change their behavior, with the alternative simply being consumers using reusable bags.

Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

However these recycling pushes need to be coupled with removing ineffective recycling efforts. I am specifically referring to the export of our “recyclables” to foreign countries, since those are rarely fully recycled. Removing the option to ship recyclables to other countries has to be combined with a domestic recycling infrastructure plan because recent studies have found that removing sale of waste to foreign nations leads to our recyclables simply ending up in the trash.

Lastly, I think there is value in understanding the risk factors associated with materials like plastic. Recent studies have shown that certain chemicals and plastics have risks to our reproductive system and general health. These studies need to be expanded so we can get a more precise idea of exactly which materials pose a threat to our health. Once we have that knowledge solidified, we should drive them out of our economy. I don’t however think it is worth shutting down the entire plastic industry overnight in an effort to stop materials that “might” be harmful. That would simply be too harmful to our economy.

So in summary, we should do the following: 1) Develop a standardized label system 2) Offer grants to increase consumer education 3) Implement a bag bill on ALL materials (possibly for any single use item outside of packaging) 4) Stop the shipment of waste and recyclables to foreign nations 5) Create a domestic recycling infrastructure plan (assuming there is a net benefit to this plan) and lastly 6) Fund scientific studies to understand which materials pose health risks and remove those from the market.

Yeahhh, it’s a lot. I love simple solutions as much as the next guy, but sometimes complex issues require thorough and complex solutions. But what do you think? Did I get it all wrong? How do you think we should address these issues? Let me know in the comments.

The Rise in Waste Legislation: Part 1

It seems like I am constantly hearing of new legislation regarding plastic and single use packaging. A lot of the ideas coming out are made with the best of intentions, but I believe we still have some kinks to work out before these are put into law across the country. However, I think it’s important to try to be as objective as possible and look at the pros and cons of both these laws and their potential impact.

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To start let’s look at some of the major laws being proposed right now and breakdown exactly what they would include. The first that I am seeing a lot of coverage from is the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA). This is one of the most extensive bills I have seen and it has come with both strong support and opposition.

One of the fundamental pillars is Extended Producer Responsibility, also called EPR. This is basically the idea that producers of the materials should be responsible for their disposal. In the case of BFFPPA, this specifically applies to plastic producers. This responsibility extends to being fiscally responsible for the collection and recycling or composting. Personally, I don’t think it’s exactly clear how that would work, but thats the foundation of this entire act.

Some of the other items included in the BFFPPA are requiring nationwide bottle refunds, a tax on carryout bags, and a required amount of recycled content in beverage containers. I would imagine the bottle refunds would be paid by bottle manufacturers utilizing EPR. The BFFPPA also includes having the EPA create a standardized labeling system for recycling and composting that producers are required to use. In addition the act would place a temporary moratorium on plastic production facilities until additional legislature is written to control pollution. Lastly, this act would create limitations on the export of waste. So clearly this would be a far reaching piece of legislature.

A less extensive but valuable piece of legislature that is also being considered is the Recycle Act. The intention behind this act seems to be focused on building upon our existing recycling system. It would require the EPA to issue grants to help recycling efforts through education and outreach to the community. The EPA would also be required to develop a recycling model for states and communities. Lastly, the EPA would be required to review the recycled materials being purchased every 5 years.

Pros of Waste Legislation

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There is no doubt that these legislative moves would drive change. EPR and BFFPPA would force manufacturers to change the products they produce to both be more recyclable and also include more recycled content. Both of these acts would undoubtedly lead to more recyclable and compostable materials as well. This would create a more circular economy by driving the phase out of less recyclable materials that we could go without.

As someone that consistently advocates the value of education, the Recycle Act and BFFPPA could be huge step in the right direction. There is a major lack in knowledge and information among the vast majority of consumers leading to products being incorrectly recycled and composted. Establishing a standard labeling system for both composting and recycling is a critical next step in making things easier for everyone to understand and dispose of their waste appropriately. The required education level for effective disposal likely won’t happen from labeling alone and incorporating education and outreach would be hugely beneficial to these efforts.

Another major benefit would be the drive to change consumer behaviors. By creating both disposable carryout bag fees and bottle refunds, it will drive consumers to change. Specifically it would drive consumers to reduce their consumption wherever possible due to the increased cost of using more bags (however this doesn’t necessarily address the environmental cost of the alternatives, but more on that later). It would also encourage participation in the recycling process with the introduction of nationwide bottle refunds.

I also believe that restricting the waste we are sending overseas labeled as recycling would be hugely important. Until 2017, Americans were sending loads of waste to places like China. We labeled it as recyclables and were able to make money off of it. This was also an efficient way of keeping shipping containers full as they returned to China to bring us more goods. The problem was a lot of this waste was unsorted and not actually recyclable. Since China has historically been the largest contributor of plastic waste being mismanaged and ending up in the ocean, I would speculate that a major contributor was the amount of plastic waste we were sending them.

Photo by Andy Li on Unsplash

By stopping the export of plastic, I think we will drive two main changes. First off, we will assure that our waste doesn’t simply get sent to China and then ultimately end up in the ocean. By keeping our waste internally, we will be able to handle it responsibly. Speaking of handling our waste responsibly, by keeping it here in the US, we will be forced to become more creative and pragmatic with managing our waste. This is far better in my opinion than simply sending it across the ocean and hoping someone else will deal with the issue.

The last thing I believe could have benefits would be the halt of additional plastic producing facilities until they are reviewed for their risk. This would give regulating bodies such as the EPA more time assess the risk factors of certain plastic materials from production to use. Ideally this would stop the use of additional facilities that work with materials deemed too hazardous to outweigh the value they bring. One question I still have is how will existing plastic facilities deemed “too hazardous” by the new research be addressed? This will likely have to evolve over time and through additional legislative pressure.

In the next blog I will explore the other-side of this coin with the cons of these legislation actions. I will also cover my personal opinion on how we should move forward in regard to this legislation and possible future legislative actions.

Do you think I missed some of the pros of these legislative actions? Let me know what you think in the comments!

The Majority of Your Trash isn’t Disposed of by You

While working on this project of a blog, I’ve spent a lot of time focusing just on the waste that we ourselves put into the trash or recycling bin. We see it every day, how could we not notice it. On top of what we see getting tossed, we’ve all probably seen the accumulation of our waste collecting in oceans and rivers around the world. But what if I told you that is only the tip of the iceberg? Pun intended.

If you are like me and millions of others, you have a Netflix account. And if you have spent any amount of time on Netflix over the last few weeks, you’ve likely seen promotion for a new documentary: Seaspiracy. To give you the cliff notes of what the film claimed, industrial fishing is destroying our oceans and the environment in general.

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Between the amount of fishing gear tossed into the sea, the amount of unintended animals caught (bycatch) such as dolphins, turtles, whales, and sharks, and the destructive use of certain fishing styles such as trawling, we are causing irreparable harm. I know, it’s a lot. And the film goes into depth about a lot more of these issues, but you get the gist.

The ultimate conclusion of the film is that we can reduce the amount of damage being done by the fishing industry by reducing or completely stopping our consumption of fish. This is similar to other ideas i’ve discussed. If fishing is really as damaging as the film portrays, by large amounts of people changing their behavior, they can force the entire fishing industry to respond due to financial pressure.

I wanted to give it some time before making my first knee jerk reaction. Right after watching the film, I was feeling a bit defeated because this issue that I was completely unaware of seemed insurmountable. Plus, as someone that has been trying to be conscience of my red meat consumption and reduce it where possible, I couldn’t help but feel like no matter what choice I make, I’m causing damage somewhere.

While its true there are tradeoffs in everything we do, we can still make changes in the right direction. The motto is progress over perfection. Everything we do might not be perfect, but as long as we keep taking steps in the right direction, we will make things better.

After the first week of the movie release, I wasn’t surprised to start seeing counter arguments. One of the biggest complaints was that the film was simply vegan propaganda and misrepresenting data for their advantage. While I found some of these counterarguments to hold some validity and make solid points, they seemed to be just as guilty of approaching with a bias as the film.

One of the issues I was most concerned with was the amount of fishing gear that is simply disposed of into the ocean. I never realized that a large portion of plastic found in the ocean is caused by fishing nets and gear (duh, makes sense). The statistics vary quite a bit depending on how you measure. Some sources claim that 86% of large plastic (greater than 8″) in the great pacific garbage patch is fishing gear. Other sources claim that 46% of the mass in the garbage patch (greater than 2″) is from fishing nets. Regardless of how you are measuring and the exact percentage, it’s a lot!

Photo by Dave Robinson on Unsplash

The biggest problem with this large amount of fishing nets in the ocean is that they continue to do what they are designed for even after being discarded: kill marine life. Your plastic straw or water bottle are of littler concern by comparison. However, every time you purchase fish and products derived from them, you are supporting this industry and more nets being tossed overboard. Each dollar spent is a vote for the behavior to continue.

While the film may not have been perfect, I would say the sentiment that if we reduced our fish consumption, we accumulatively would reduce these issues (even if the data are skewed) is true. There are definitely people that need fish to survive, but for those of us that can go without, shouldn’t we? I live in the desert and going to all-you-can-eat sushi just seems excessive. I know this is an industry that holds peoples livelihoods, but just like I wouldn’t advocate to keep the coal industry going over green energy just because it’s peoples livelihoods, I wouldn’t advocate for keeping the fishing industry going for that reason alone.

If you want to see more information about that film you can visit the website where they have a dedicated fact page listing sources of all the data they represent in the film. Did you watch the film? I’d love to hear your feedback about what you thought about the film and what would be the best approach to solve these issues.

Being Objective in a Financially Driven World

 The reality is that we live in a capitalistic world. And by that, I mean money is the center of it all. Whether we like it or not, money ends up being the catalyst that gets things done and allows change to happen. It’s how businesses and individuals alike make decisions. It’s how people decide what products to buy and how businesses decide what products to market. After all, a customer isn’t going to buy a product they can’t afford, and a business isn’t going to try and market a product that doesn’t sell. It’s cost, price, and money that drive these things. I’m not saying this is good or bad, but simply an observation.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Things get a bit complicated when we turn our attention to conservation efforts. Fossil fuels and products derived from them, such as plastic, get a lot of hate. And understandably so. The fossil fuel industry can be taxing on our environment. However, this portrayal that the fossil fuel industry is the boogieman and everyone in the industry is in cahoots against you is false. I don’t think the industry is all aligned in some mischievous way.

The reality of why the industry has been so successful? It’s cheap. The fossil fuel industry for decades has figured out and continued to optimize the things you need in the cheapest way possible. Need an easy way to transport yourself? Heat your home? Protect the products that you use daily? They’ve got you covered and they usually do it for way less than the alternatives that have been created historically. Are there solutions without environmental cost or sacrifice? No. And we should keep striving as a society to be better than the day before. But that change is not going to happen overnight by shutting down all oil rigs or simply closing the door of any company that produces plastic products.

For me and many others, the fossil fuel industry has been our livelihood. Out of self-preservation, it’s not surprising that those same people work to defend the industry. Nonetheless, that’s not a reason to push to keep an industry afloat. Perhaps some of my opinions about these issues are rooted in self-preservation to some extent. I might even be guilty of confirmation bias when it comes to some of these issues, but I can assure you: I am doing my best to be objective.

Photo by Roman Khripkov on Unsplash

This seems to be where a lot of us are lacking, both in and out of the fossil fuel industry. Most environmentalists are fine demonizing plastic without truly adequate alternatives being offered. Consumers are comfortable buying products in brown natural looking packages regardless of if the products really are any more environmentally friendly.

And those within the industry blindly defend it too. I was recently on a call discussing recyclable VS. compostable products. I advocated for the importance of looking at the data and pivoting if needed. Even if we are working to improve recycling rates, if composting turns out to be more successful for consumers, we need to be willing to pivot as an industry to what is most successful. Others on the call didn’t feel the same and advocated for pushing recycling because they “believe in it.”

At the end of the day we need to be as objective as possible and let the data speak for itself. We need to be willing to be surprised and accept that sometimes our expectations are wrong. Most importantly, we need to think beyond dollars and cents. The decisions and actions we take have more than a financial cost associated with them. They also have external costs, for example, environmental damage beyond the small price tag on some fossil fuel resources. In an effort to circumvent some of these environmental externalities, we likely will require government intervention to motivate change to occur more rapidly.

From my understanding, I’m optimistic about things like the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act and their ability to effectively solve some of our issues. These initiatives are data driven and don’t try to eliminate plastic all together, but allow us to leverage its value in the meantime by pushing the industry to be more creative in its design while also increasing true recycling rates.

However, governments and organizations will only take the appropriate environmental action if we make them. We should vote for politicians that listen to the data and science about the best choices we can make today. We can also leverage the number of people supporting certain products by voting with our dollars. Every dollar spent supporting businesses that make positive environmental change only gives them more money to keep making greater and greater change.

But what do you think? Should we be making sweeping change like eliminating plastic or do you have another idea? Let me know in the comments!

Breaking Down Compostable packaging

Over the last several years, there seems to be significant increase in compostable plastic packaging. Although it might seem like a no-brainer to make our packaging compostable whenever possible, this increase in popularity wasn’t a smooth road to the prevalence we are starting to see today. In fact, one of the first widely known compostable plastic packages went on to also be one of the most loathed packages.

Perhaps you remember the noisy chip bag scandal from a few years back? In 2009 Pepsi-co launched a bio-based sun chip bag made from PLA (polylactic acid). The best part about this bag was that it was also compostable and would biodegrade just about anywhere. This was Pepsi’s effort to address both littering and offer a more environmentally friendly alternative.

For this, I commend Pepsi for their efforts because not every brand owner is willing to invest in trying to make their products more environmentally friendly. However, a lot of people didn’t feel the same way as me. Consumers quickly became annoyed with the noise that these bags made. All chip bags crinkle a bit, but customers couldn’t handle noise coming from this bag. It was so bad that sun chips ended up being the butt end of jokes for months and even lost market share.

SunChips image by theimpulsivebuy via Flickr.

There are some valuable lessons to be learned from this whole fiasco. For starters, I think it shows how concerned with convenience we have all become. I mean, come on; we couldn’t be inconvenienced with a compostable chip bag because it was too noisy? Seems a bit silly. Despite most peoples tendency to self describe as environmentally conscience, they aren’t even willing to make minor sacrifices. Eventually Pepsi was able to redesign the material and bag to not be quite as noisy and the whole ordeal was quickly forgotten.

Pepsi’s Sun Chips bag was just one example of many compostable packaging products on the market today. Nonetheless, there are several challenges with consumers understanding of these products. For me, a lot of these issues start at the labels.

There are various labels that companies have started using. Most of them are tied back to the regulatory agency testing and approving the compost-ability of these products. While I am all for having an authority body determining what is compostable and what isn’t, having multiple authority agencies is contributing to the confusion. I think our government officials would be able to make a much larger impact if they would focus on setting a single labeling system that informs consumers rather than just broad plastic bans.

Current labels often just say they are “compostable”, but they don’t differentiate on if they are industrial or backyard compostable. There is a very big difference between the two.

As the name implies, backyard compostable products can be broken down in a simple back yard compost set-up or even a small local composting facility that operates just on a larger scale. Industrial composting facilities are bit more of an exact science. They not only operate on huge scales, but also tightly control the size of the inputs by grinding and control the heat, water, and air that the compost is exposed to. This allows industrial facilities to operate at higher temperatures and breakdown items that might not breakdown at home. Regardless of which type is used, the end result is valuable nutrient rich soil.

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

The differences between industrial and Backyard composting are exactly why it’s so important for consumers to understand the labels. Industrial compostable items won’t breakdown in the backyard and neither material will breakdown once in a landfill so it is critical that items end up at the right place in order to be effective.

Unfortunately, we all don’t have access to industrial compost facilities near us. There are ways to find local composting such as this site. And lucky for us, the number of facilities is increasing as people begin to see the value. Keep an eye out for these composting logos. I’d love to hear if you think the labels communicate effectively.

Going Back to Our Roots With Bio-Based Plastic

Do you know what one of the first plastics was? Would you guess that it was plant based? It was actually cellophane, a bio-based film. Cellophane got its name from Cellulose (the raw material) and diaphane (a word that had roots implying it was transparent). As you could guess, with a raw material of cellulose, cellophane is made from the same raw material as paper products, typically trees.

Photo by Emily Bernal on Unsplash

After being invented in 1908, cellophane dominated the packaging world for decades. It wasn’t until the 60’s, when polyethylene, a common fossil fuel based resin, was created. Sourcing from cheap resources like oil and natural gas made it hard for products like cellophane to compete with polyethylene.

Today polyethylene is still one of, if not the most, popular plastics. It’s used for a lot of plastic bags and bottles in some way, shape, or form. However, in a surprising turn of events, many plastic manufacturers are adopting bio-based plastics such as cellophane again. The negative association many people have with fossil fuel based plastic has been the driving force back to bio-based plastic.

The concern of working with fossil fuel based materials is understandable. Fossil fuels are a finite resource that won’t last forever. There are also a lot of concerns with the leaching of chemicals both during the processing of the plastic raw materials and in the end use when they are in direct contact with consumer products.

Bio-based plastic can be a good solution to a lot of these concerns. One of the most popular bio-based plastics today is PLA, or polylactic acid, which is typically derived from corn. Other Bio plastics are made from other starchy/sugary plants like sugar cane or potatoes. These sugars are eventually converted into the polymer chain that makes the finished plastic. This allows us to make plastic from things that can be regrown every year and thus are made from a renewable resource. This also means that as those crops grow, they process and convert CO2 that will be created later in the process, helping bring them closer to carbon neutral.

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

On top of this, when it comes time to disposal of a bio-based plastic, it can often be composted. This is really important when it comes to flexible packaging because it is currently really challenging in most places to dispose of plastic in an environmental way effectively since recycling has proven to be such a challenge. It’s important to note that this is not always the case and the compost-ability of bio-based plastic needs to be tested and validated on a case-by-case basis.

While this sounds great in theory, there are still shortcomings. One major concern is the amount of land required to grow the required crops to create enough raw materials. Growing crops specifically for bio-based plastic would require huge amounts of land that would likely encroach on wildlife habitats. One alternative that some companies have taken is to use only food scraps from places like potato processing facilities rather than growing crops directly for bio-based plastic. However, there are definitely not enough food scraps to create the plastic we need. Another important thing to consider is the crops used to grow the raw ingredients used for bio-based plastic take away from our ability to grow edible food. With so many people going hungry in our world, it’s critical that we do everything we can to make sure they are fed.

Additional aspects that a lot of people don’t consider when looking at the branding of bio-based plastic is their performance. Alone, it can be challenging for them to offer the appropriate barrier properties and protection to the food and other products they contain. The industry has found work-arounds to this by creating super thin coatings either from metals or fossil fuel based resins. Lastly, many of these bio-based resins are recyclable. The polymer chains simply can’t hold up to the reprocessing.

On top of all of this, bio-based plastics are expensive. They can be as much as 4X as expensive or more. This might not seem like a big deal when we think of how cheap plastic usually is, but you would be surprised how sensitive both customers and brand owners can be to this. Many customers, while claiming to be eco-conscience, often don’t want to pay anything extra. This means brand owners would be forced to absorb the cost if they want to make the change.

Despite all of this, I believe bio-based resins have a place in our plastic packaging. They might not be the silver bullet that we are looking for, but they certainly bring a lot of value. But what do you think? Do you think we should be switching to bio-based plastics? Or do you think there are better approaches? Let me know in the comments.

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.

Are Plastic Bags Recyclable?

If you didn’t already know, those plastic bags you get from the grocery store and the pouches a lot of your beloved grocery store items come in can’t be recycled at your house. People frequently make this mistake and toss anything plastic into the recycle bin and assume, “they’ll sort it out at the recycling facility.” Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Recycling facilities try their best to sort out good recyclables VS. contaminants, but it’s a hard and expensive job. Employees and machinery spend all day next to a conveyor belt looking for things that don’t belong. But if you can’t tell what’s recyclable when you can get a good look at a package, how do we expect someone to spot bad/good items when hundreds of items are coming down a conveyor?

There are a lot of things that get tossed in recycling that aren’t actually recyclable, but plastic bags are a major culprit. According to the EPA‘s most recent numbers, we create almost 37 million tons of plastic waste. Of that 37 million, only 3.1 million tons are recycled. Meaning we aren’t even recycling 10% of our plastic waste. Now some of that is due to the type of plastic being used, which you can read about here, but there are some simple ways we can change our recycling habits to make a huge impact.

One of the biggest ways we can improve our recycling habits is by putting recyclables in the right place. The easiest place to start? Keep plastic bags out of our recycling bins. Plastic bags and flexible packaging in general can cause a number of problems when they get mixed in with recycling bins.

For starters, they make it really challenging to sort other recyclables. It’s really easy for other bottles, cans, or paper to get stuck inside of bags. This not only makes it really challenging to separate the different materials, but can lead to mislabeling those items stuck in bags. This can lead to paper or aluminum contaminating the plastic recyclables. Unfortunately these bags and any items trapped inside can end up just being sent to the landfill.

Photo by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash

The main concern when it comes to plastic bags is that they can’t be ground up in the same equipment used with other recyclable plastic. In fact they can get tangled up in the machinery, gumming things up and damaging the machinery. This is why it’s so important to keep your bags out of recycling bin. We are talking about thousands of dollars in damage because you put the wrong thing in the recycling bin. This can make it challenging for these operations to be profitable, which in turn makes it hard to charge low prices for the outputs after being processed. It hurts the entire recycling industry. So keep those bags out of your recycling and NEVER bag your recyclables.

This isn’t all doom and gloom though. These plastic bags still have value and can be recycled in their own way. As we have talked about in other blog posts, the How2Recycle program offers a lot of great information on how to handle these bags. These programs have a system of drop-off locations. So simply collect those bags at home and bring them in to one of their locations to be recycled. They will be turned into things like Trex lumber to give them a new valuable purpose. But remember, this only applies to bags that are appropriately labeled or listed on How2Recycle’s website as acceptable. Things like cellophane, biodegradable, compostable, or frozen food bags cannot be brought to these locations. They are made from incompatible materials.

I know at my house we all collect our grocery bags and other acceptable flexible packaging in our pantry. Then every couple weeks we bring them to grocery store close by that accepts store drop offs. So next time you have a bag and you are reaching for the trash or recycling, think again and start a bag collection of your own! Let me know if you have any questions about where your flexible packaging should go. I’d be happy to help!

WAIT, All Plastics Aren’t Recyclable???

Have you ever found yourself finishing something in your fridge and wondering if the package you are left with is recyclable? You’re not alone. You and countless others run into this issue constantly. Often people resort to wish-cycling, which refers to wishing or hoping the item you are placing in a recycling bin is recyclable. Unfortunately, this frequently ends up resulting in recyclables being contaminated with things that are in fact not recyclable. It might not seem like a big deal for a few things to slip through and contaminate a collection of recyclables, but it is. It often results in the entire lot being rejected and sent to a landfill or incineration. That’s a lot of valuable resources wasted in my opinion.

One interesting thing about this wish-cycling behavior is people that care about the environment the most also end up doing it the most. Think about it. Is your uncle Larry that doesn’t give a rats-a** about the environment going to put in the extra effort to put something in the recycling? No. He’s just going to throw it in the trash with everything else. You on the other hand will likely hope the item is recyclable. However, I don’t want you to just hope. I want to educate you so you are able to know the difference and dispose of these things correctly.

The first step to making sense of recyclables is starting with something that is often mis-recycled: Plastic. Plastic is one of those things that a lot of people just assume is recyclable, but that’s not always the case. There are a lot of varieties that are in fact recyclable though. The best way to start to learn the difference is to start taking note of those recycle codes on the bottom of your packages. So here is a brief overview of the 7 categories and their codes.

A super common code you will see is the #1, which is often just called PET, polyester, or its full name polyethylene terephthalate. This is the most common material used for things like water and soda bottles. This is also one of the most recyclable items you will see. It can both be recycled (turned into another bottle) or up-cycled (used for components in jackets and carpeting). Whenever you see this logo on a package, it’s safe to say it can be recycled.

#2 is also a super common code you will see. This code represents High Density Polyethylene. It is used for rugged containers like laundry detergent bottles, milk jugs, or even grocery store bags. Although those items are recyclable, they are not always recyclable in your curbside recycling bins. Things like the milk jugs and detergent bottles are both recyclable at home, but HDPE flexible packaging should be taken to a store drop off. Flexible packaging refers to anything that’s really thin and malleable such as grocery bags or pouches.

The #3 code is probably one you don’t see as often. PVC stands for Polyvinyl Chloride. This is the same PVC that, you guessed it, PVC pipes are made out of. It is also used for things like garden hoses, blood bags, and those really annoying packages that scissors come in that require scissors to open (blister packs). While PVC can be very valuable to our day-to-day lives, its not so recyclable at the moment. In fact the vast majority of recycling facilities won’t accept PVC in their recycling. The chloride, or chlorine, component can be hazardous to work with once they break it down.

The #4 recycling code represents LDPE or Low Density Polyethylene. This a small variation in chemical structure that leads to some different properties. These changes lead to LDPE mostly being used for bags such as bread bags or even squeezable bottles. Just like with HDPE (#2), although LDPE is recyclable, only rigid containers are recyclable at your typical curbside. Well its unfortunate flexible packaging likes bags and pouches can’t be recycled on the curb, you can collect those items at home and drop them off at store-drop off locations.

The #4 recycling code is for PP, or Polypropylene. This plastic is often used for things like bottle caps, tubs (such as cool whip or sour cream containers), or straws. PP can often be recycled curbside, but this varies from area to area so its best to check with your local waste facility. The most recent information I have seen says to leave items like caps attached because when they are loose in recycling they can easily get mixed with other materials.

We’re almost there, only a couple more codes to go..

The last of the solid material types is #6 PS, or Polystyrene. This is what styrofoam is made out of. So it is used for the takeout containers, foam in shipping boxes, as well as things like plastic utensils. This is another plastic that is not recyclable and thus should always be tossed in the trash if you see it. One trick I use to remember this number is because the abbreviation is PS, I think of “P.S.” at the end of a letter to remember this is the last solid material code.

The last recycling code is #7 and really just refers to everything else. Often times manufactures will layer multiple plastic materials together to get the best properties from each of them and those will be listed under a #7 code. This code can also refer to other plastics not listed in the other 6 codes. Items with this code on them are never recyclable. There is simply no way for recycling facilities to separate the different materials out. Items such as baby bottles, fiberglass, or even small bags/pouches can be labeled #7.

Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of what to do when you see these numbers on the bottom of your packages. Try to see if you can find these numbers on the packages you use in your day to day life. Remember to clean and empty anything you put in the recycling bin and that not all plastic is recyclable. These numbers are there to help you sort out what goes where. When the wrong thing ends up in the recycling bin it can lead to a lot of extra trash and waste being created. Feel free to reach out to your local trash/recycling provider to check their rules. If you don’t see a number, toss it in the trash. It’s safer that way. There’s an easy rule to follow here: When in doubt, throw it out!