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.

Photo by Rob Curran on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Nick de Partee on Unsplash

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.

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!

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?

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

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!

Those Electronics Don’t Belong in the Trash

Photo by Chris Ried on Unsplash

In our modern world, it’s nearly impossible to go without electronics. They’re built into every component of our lives. Whether it is the cell phone we use as our alarm clock in the morning, the computer we use to write and read content like this, or even the electric cars that are beginning to power our commutes. Electronics are inescapable, and for good reason. They power lives. They offer greater connection, allowing us to do things our grand parents couldn’t have dreamed of.

Though, there’s one important thing that we tend to forget about; what happens once these electronics have finished serving their purpose? I have seen countless drawers over the years at friends’ houses with a collection of cellphones, MP3 players, and spent batteries that we no longer knew what to do with. However, these are all items that still have value if you dispose of them properly.

You’ve probably seen symbols like this one on various electronics around the house:

WEEE: Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment

This logo is put on electronics to try and communicate exactly what it looks like: Don’t put these items in the trash with everyhting else. This logo, also called WEEE, stands for Waste from Electrical and Electric Equipment. And you guessed it, the logo goes on electrical equipment.

Rolled out in the early 2000’s in Europe, the WEEE directive to put these logos on everything was started for an important reason. Not only is it incredibly wasteful for us to just throw our electronics in the trash, they can be dangerous. Many of the batteries that power the items we use daily are full of toxic chemicals that can leach into our environment and water ways.

In addition to this, many of these products have valuable resources within them that can be recycled. Those toxic and dangerous chemicals often need to be mined. When we recycle out batteries, we can harvest the valuable resources in the recycling process and reduce the amount of additonal mining we need to do. But keep in mind these items don’t belong in your curbside recycling bin.

The most important question: If not in the trash or our regular recycling, where do these items belong? Well, lucky for us, there are electronic waste facilities all over. One of the easiest places to start are the same stores that you buy your electronics from. Think of places like Best Buy or your local hardware stores. There are other great resources like Call2Recycle and Earth911, which both have a ton of additional information and a recycling location finder.

Realistically you aren’t going to run to the store every time you have a battery to get rid of. This is why it’s important to have a place to store them in the meantime in your home. Try to create a place where battery terminals won’t touch. Think of how batteries are bought, all on their side without the ends touching. Even though the batteries don’t have the power to charge your devices, they can still be dangerous when all compounded together. Having a storage space set up will make it easier every time you have another battery or old cell phone to toss.

Have any ideas on getting rid of electronics that works well for you? Share them below! New ideas are always appreciated.

Daily Dose of Waste. Part 1.

Quickly after thinking up this trash blog project, I got to wondering: How much trash do I really throw away? I mean, I like to keep the environment in mind. I have to be keeping my waste to a bare minimum, right? I figured, what better way to get to the bottom of this than to collect all the trash I created during 1 day.

1 day of trash accumulation

           

24 hours later, this is what I had to show for it. 8.2lbs. in all. I can’t say whether you think this looks like a lot of trash, but personally, I was somewhat appalled with what I had to lay out in front of me. When you multiply this by 365 days in a year and the nearly 330 million people that live in the united states, the amount of trash is staggering. According to the EPA the exact amount of waste is about 292 million tons annually. That means the average person produces almost 1,800lbs. of waste annually. Based on what I happened to produce today, I am far above that number at 2,900lbs.

Municipal solid waste (MSW) breakdown by materials

It’s easy to forget all the small things we get rid of on a daily basis from the cotton swabs and floss picks to start out the day to the countless wrappers and packages we receive our products in. Throughout this process I had to stop myself from instinctively just tossing these things into the garbage. This served to show me how second nature our trash is to us. We often don’t give it much thought at all. We simply toss it in the bin and other than maybe moving it out to the curb, it’s mostly forgotten. This is precisely why I think our environmental issues have grown to the state they have. Out of sight is out of mind.

I also had an unexpected lesson from this process: you can tell a lot about a person from their trash. Looking through it, the daily decisions I make become a lot more apparent. It was evident that many of the pieces of trash I had accumulated were a result of using a product/service that was a more convenient option. While I love the convenience of an at home meal delivery kit, there is a lot of individual materials that end up getting tossed because of this desire. Really the direct to consumer products (the things shipped directly to ourselves) are likely the largest contributors to the total trash creation in my case.

I would challenge you to do something similar for yourself. You don’t need to actually collect your trash like I did, but in order to think differently, you need to approach your day-to-day life differently. Spend at least a day or more taking a mental note of every little piece of trash you throw away. Think about was this piece of trash really necessary or was there another way you could have avoided it. Through small actions like this, we can collectively reduce our consumption and thus make a large impact on our total waste production.

Unpacking Our Environmental Dilemma

While I was in college I had a professor that told me I would make trash for the rest of my life. To most people that would be an insult. However, to me and the thousands of others that work in the packaging industry, it’s a reality (thanks for the insight Dr.Batt!). We make products that accomplish exactly what they are designed to do, but we often aren’t successful in the end of life for these packages.

Packaging is typically designed to accomplish a few things. Specifically, to contain, protect, promote, and transport a product. By this measurement we are effective, but I would argue there is a major over-site. We aren’t always designing with the packages end of life in mind. I want to change that.

Once our packaging is utilized, it’s tossed in the trash and that’s the end of it. My hope is to inspire both others in the industry and consumers using these products to think differently. But this isn’t just about packaging. This is about everything we use. Only through a holistic perspective can we improve the complex world we live in.

As environmental concern has grown over recent years, consumers have demanded more, and rightfully so. Like many others, the packaging industry has begun to answer that request in a variety of ways and is continuing to develop new materials and methods to do so. However, this request for brand owners and manufacturers to solve this dilemma alone is futile. It’s you and me. It’s the consumers of these products that also have a responsibility to use our products and dispose of them in an appropriate manor. We have the power to buy from brands that we believe in. Brands that keep the environment in mind when creating their products and packaging.

You see, this isn’t a blog just for my packaging industry colleagues. They likely already know much of this information. This is an opportunity for anyone to educate themselves in everything trash. Knowledge is power, even if it’s just on garbage. I will be exploring things ranging from some of the foundational information about what our products are made out of to some of the complex and creative ways different industries are solving this environmental dilemma we find ourselves in. So let’s unpack this box of environmentalism knowledge and see what we can learn together. Careful, this might get dirty.