So obviously last month's challenge got me thinking a lot about plastic. Mostly, I was amazed to discover that this simple polymer that was first discovered less than 100 years ago is now so ensconced in our daily lives.
Plastic is so pervasive it is difficult, if not damn near impossible, to avoid in day-to-day life. It is the packaging around our foods, the gadgets in our kitchen, the fibers in our carpet, the decals on our shirt, the toys our children play with, the skins on our electronics, the dashboards in our cars, the decorations in our homes. It is the bench we sit on, the floor we stand on and the mattress we sleep on.
Not only that, it is in our landfills, strewn by our roadsides, and littering our oceans. It is choking fish, suffocating birds and poisoning children. Why, then, do we keep creating, purchasing and using it?
- It's cheap. Sure it's cheap now, but not for long... plastic is a polymer that is derived from oil. Oil prices, as we all know, are skyrocketing out of control and, IMHO, it won't be long before the price of plastic follows suit.
- It lasts forever. Yes and no. The individual molecules do take a very, very long time to break down, but the toy itself? In my experience the toy (or whatever the object is) generally falls to pieces, breaks or simply gets discarded in a relatively short period of time.
- It's convenient. Well, you got me there. Some of it really is.
So if it's so nasty, why is my post titled "Plastic - friend or foe"?
Plastic is bad, I know, but does it occassionally serve a greater purpose? I'm not talking plastic tubing used in hospitals to save lives -- that's a no-brainer in my book. If I've got a choice between a flexible plastic catheter or a straw fashioned from recycled aluminum, I'll opt for the non-recyclable #5, thankyouverymuch. But here I'm talking about day-to-day plastic that we use like garbage bags, food packaging and, oh, I dunno... maybe ziplocks.
Example: I have begun purchasing as much locally grown produce as possible, in order to reduce the amount of oil used to transport my food. This works out great in the summer, when bounty is at its peak, but what do I do in the winter? The simple answer from a "food miles" perspective -- to preserve as much food as possible, either by canning or freezing. The most efficient way to freeze these items? In a Ziplock bag. They take up minimal space and I can easily remove most of the air from the bag, resulting in less spoilage.
So does that make Ziplocks good or bad? Can you tolerate my use if I label them all and reuse them next year? What about for two years? Five?
And what about those yogurt cups? You know, the non-recyclable (in my area, at least) #5 plastic? Stonyfield yogurt did a whole buttload of research on the issue of using various packaging materials (AKA a Life Cycle Assessment) and found that "...the lightest-weight package, per unit of delivered end product, is generally the lowest-impact product". This would indicate that lightweight plastic actually beats out heavier materials such as glass, when it comes to environmental friendliness.
In fact, the Stonyfield study goes on to say that "The concept of source reduction-reducing the amount of material in a product-has been overshadowed by the tremendous enthusiasm to recycle. Recycling is very important, but it can be more environmentally advantageous to reduce the amount of material generated in the first place. The solid waste hierarchy teaches us to first reduce, then reuse, and finally recycle."
"After examining our options (including glass, poly-coated paper, and plastic), we chose a lightweight plastic. Glass, which is widely recycled and made from recycled material, was rejected as the environmental costs of transporting the heavy material outweigh the benefits. The energy (fossil fuels) used over the entire life of the glass package for its manufacture and transport exceeds the energy that goes into the manufacturing and transporting of a plastic container."
So, personally, I think I'll continue my current love/hate relationship with platics. I'll still avoid as many disposable plastics as humanly possible. I'll definitely shun polystyrene and disposable bags, and I'll opt for more durable toys for my kids, but I don't think I necessarily view all plastic as evil. It does have its advantages. Although, I do think that with the rise in oil prices, it may be a moot point soon.
Who knows. Maybe when oil hits $200 a barrel, McDonalds will start filling their Happy Meals with little wooden puzzles instead of plasticrap. We can only hope.