Solutions to the Problems with Plastic
Missed last week's lesson, "The Downstream Impacts of Plastics"? Find it here!
Extract, produce, consume, and throw it away: This has been the common flow of resources in our society for decades. When it comes to plastic, this linear system—in which products are commonly treated as waste after they are used—results in the continued extraction of fossil fuels for production of new plastics. Meanwhile, cities, rivers, oceans, and communities are overwhelmed by plastic waste. To truly curb the problems with plastic, we must strive for a different approach altogether: a circular economy.
What is a circular economy?
In a circular economy resources remain in circulation through reuse, redesign, reduction, sharing, or “bottle-to-bottle” recycling (i.e., the waste from a product becomes the feedstock to make that product again.)This is in contrast to “linear economy,” in which products (and all the resources used to produce them) go straight to the landfill or are downcycled into another item that goes to the landfill at the end of its life (e.g., a plastic bottle is turned into a carpet that cannot be reused or recycled).
A circular economy is the goal because not only does it use our resources most effectively, it also reduces or eliminates waste, demand for virgin resources, negative effects on climate, and social inequity. Glass, steel, and aluminum are infinitely recyclable, so as long as recycling infrastructure and markets are available, old bottles and cans are able to become new bottles and cans for as many times as we keep recycling them (ideally, infinitely).
Cartons, such as those that hold milk, soup, and juice, are not inherently as good at being recycled as glass, steel, and aluminum.However, the carton industry took financial and infrastructural responsibility for the recyclability of their products; cartons are now widely recyclable and often get turned into long-term products such as building materials.Industries taking responsibility for their packaging decisions is the goal of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)—a policy approach in which producers are tasked with the management of waste after their product has been consumed. Given this responsibility, producers may become incentivized to redesign their products and packaging to reduce waste or invest in community reuse and recycling centers.
Plastic, on the other hand, follows a linear path. One main reason for this is that the plastics industry does not buy back their own product, unlike other industries. Instead, producers opt to make new plastic from virgin resources—namely, oil and gas—because it is cheaper, as these industries are subsidized. Not only does this linear system result in major waste, it also promotes the growth of plastic production and the fossil fuel industry.
Week Four Activity: Try these DIY recipes to avoid plastic packaging
So many of the items we use daily are packaged in plastic, and plastic packaging accounts for 40% of plastic production! To reduce your plastic use, shop at bulk stores and farmers markets, or make your own products! Click here for a variety of recipes for common food items that too often are only sold in plastic packaging, including energy bars, granola bars, crackers, bread, and hummus. Or, try one of these DIY recipes for personal care products that exfoliate with natural ingredients – they will help you avoid microplastics AND plastic packaging!
Week Four Tips: Support Widescale Change
What can we do, as individuals and as a society, to turn the tide of plastic that is flooding the planet?
As consumers, we can do a lot to reduce our plastic use. But to make a greater impact, we must also hold the plastic industry responsible for the products and packaging they create. In February 2020, a groundbreaking new federal bill was introduced in Congress: the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act — the first comprehensive bill in Congress to address the plastic pollution crisisthat would make producers of certain products, including plastic packaging, beverage bottles, food containers, and single-use products, responsible for these products after consumer use. Take action and support this bill today!
TIP #2: Support businesses that are part of the solution.
Bulk stores and farmers markets have traditionally skipped plastic packaging in favor of reusables—or no packaging at all. Seek out your local bulk stores and farmers markets to support businesses that don’t heavily rely on plastic packaging! Check out this Bulk Finder app from Zero Waste Home to help you find locations near you with bulk buying options:
Support businesses that are listening to consumers’ concerns over plastic waste and innovating ways to reduce plastic packaging. For example, Only Natural Pet—the nation’s leading brand of natural petsupplies—is reducing plastic packaging used to hold pet foods, and Organic India, maker of wellness supplements to support body, mind, and spirit, chooses glass packaging over plastic.Whenever possible, purchase from businesses that are reducing their use of unnecessary plastic.
Loop,which launched in select cities in 2019, reimagines the modern shopping experience, bringing back the old “milkman” system where new items from dozens of brands are delivered to your home, and at the same time old containers are picked up, washed, and refilled again and again. This platform shifts the responsibility of packaging from the shopper to the producer. Sign up for Loop, available in the northeastern US, or request that Loop offer services where you live. Are you a Denver resident? Check out Infinity Goods— a plastic-free groceries delivery service!
TIP #3: Find and Use Plastic Alternatives.
Beyond reducing our own consumption of single-use plastics and plastic packaging (and not just the non-recyclable ones), you can vote with your dollar to support non-plastic alternatives in the marketplace. We don’t need plastics for many of the applications in which we use it. Medical plastics? Definitely necessary. Shrink-wrapping a cantaloupe and putting it on a polystyrene tray? Nope, don’t need it.
Click here to see all Plastic Free July Challenges.