Friday, June 6, 2008

Plastic - Friend or Foe?

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.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget about the issue of pre-production plastic pellets that are polluting the oceans and concentrating toxins in the food chain. You might reuse those plastic bags over and over and make certain that they don't end up floating out to sea and into some sea turtle's mouth, but just the production of plastic in the first place causes all kinds of environmental harm.

Plastic is lipophyllic, meaning that it attracts oil-based substances, and in the oceans the plastic pellets have been found to have a million times higher concentration of oil-based pollutants like DDE and PCB than the surrounding sea water. Small sea animals eat the pellets, thinking they are fish eggs, and then those animals are eaten by larger animals and so on and so on.

There are other freaky problems with plastic I can't go into now because it's 4am Pacific Time and I haven't gone to bed yet.

I'm just saying.


christy b said...

For some reason, whenever corporations write this stuff it just pisses me off. It's an absolution from them that everything is okay - a sure sign that that the opposite it true! I appreciate that they looked into the issue so thoroughly, but...

Wouldn't a real unbiased statement come to the conclusion that making your own yogurt is the best solution? Wouldn't the second best solution be buying locally produced yogurt sold in recyclable glass/ceramic is the solution?

And another thing(!) - While #5 might be the "ideal" choice as far as shipping is concerned what about the "ideal" choice for leaching toxins into the food and then into our bodies? I have yet to see an ingredient label (or foods packaged in plastic) with "endocrine disrupter" listed, yet it's there!!

What about storing fruits and veggies in the freezer in Pyrex? Re-used glass jars? I freeze stuff in my Pyrex al the time and it's fine. However, I am not storing any brussel sprouts for when they are out of season 'cause I ain't eating them at any time of the year (same for most veggies - bad me!).

Alright, lest you think I am writing this from my "no plastic" throne, let me correct you. I am writing this while I have at least 15 containers of yogurt in my fridge (yes, all in plastic). A good thing about when corporations piss me off - it spurs me into action!

I found a recipe for Greek Yogurt (YUM!), on No Impact Man's blog (03-05-07 in case anyone wants to makes some with me!).

After this long rant that I'm sure no one will read (at least I feel better though!), I do want to stress that what we all must do is the best we can do. Whatever that means for each person. I do believe in the "once you know better, you do better" phrase.

Burman Mom - thanks for helping us all know better. Your fantastic posts bring knowledge in a delightful way to many people in a way that spurs them into action. Your example is creating change.

Anonymous said...

First, I read your post Christy B! I'm trying to move my kids away from the single serve yogurt, because the cost of it is getting insane. On the other hand, its a healthy snack for the kids that I know they will eat...

burbanmom- I've been reading you for a few months now. Keep it up!

I debated the freezer storage issue myself. My parents tell me that before Ziplocs, they used wax-coated cardboaard boxes were used. I'll still be using the bags for some things, but I'm considering drying a quantity of veggies for soups and casseroles. Then drying fruit for cereals-- i don't use a whole lot of the frozen fruit and it's taking up freezer space.

From there, I'm going to try to overwinter some veggies both in my garage and in the ground. We'll see how it goes.

leslie said...

What I love about you is the pragmatic approach you take.

In my experience, the attainment of "perfection" is impossible. Trying to attain it will make you crazy.

Learning how plastic, for example, has a horrible impact on the self, the planet, makes a person more aware of the hazards, and guides one to make better choices.

The degree to which one can avoid all things harmful is highly influenced by a persons circumstance.

Live your life with awareness, carefully, gratefully, thoughtfully, gently, without beating yourself up in the pursuit of perfection.

You are always inspirational, Burbanmom.

Lori said...

I agree that making your own or buying locally is always the better choice, and I definitely appreciate all the in-depth information above. However, I also believe that until a major shift occurs in our society, many people will continue to purchase commercial products, including yogurt.

I personally think blogs like this both reflect and help speed the societal shift that will eventually mean that more products are made sustainably and purchased locally. But until the shift really takes hold, it's nice to know that some companies are sensitive enough make decisions about their packaging based on environmental cost rather than initial dollar costs. So while it doesn't solve all our problems, it does help some of us choose between products and reduce our environmental impact in a small way, even if that reduction isn't as extreme as it could be.

Of course, it helps that my suburban single stream system does take and recycle #5 plastic. Turns out, they make it into those recycled razors and other useful (recyclable) products.

organicneedle said...

I have been wondering about the whole glass verses light plastic thing for awhile. I have the same attitude about plastic. I am trying hard to get rid of the disposable plastics that have practical replacements. Ziplocks are tough to replace in the freezer. Food waste verses plastic. I go with reusing the bags as much as possible. If you buy the real ones, and not the knock offs I find they last for dozens of uses. But even for toys, I still buy plastic. My boys LOVE Legos. (I could write about 10 pages as to why Legos are perhaps the greatest invention for little, and big, people ever.)

Christy...I don't think companies have to be all one or the or profit seeking. I do believe Stonyfield tries to offer convenience without totally disregarding environmental issues.

MamaBird said...

I hear you on the ambivalence - I have been mightily influenced by Beth and her nuuuuurdles but also hear the production side aka the Stonyfield farm apologists' side. Apparently production wise a milk gallon jug (plastic) uses less energy to create than a glass milk bottle. But man, I love the comment about how you never see 'endocrine disruptor' on an ingredient label. It's all pretty difficult to sort out. Especially since I am a recovering Ziplocaholic. Damn convenient little suckers. Just pulled a mason jar of beef stock out of the freezer only to realize I was about to make French Onion Shards o Glass soup!

Melissa said...

I too like your pragmatism...if using a ziploc (especially if it's reused over and over) allows you to eat local organic foods in the winter, then that's the way it is. I personally don't have enough freezer space to fit pyrex and stuff in there; the ziplocs use the least space and let me store the most stuff. We all have to figure out what works for us, and I think you're doing an admirable job of it!

green with a gun said...

First up, the practical: to know what to do without plastic, look at what people did before plastic. They preserved stuff.

Fruit and vegetables can be bottled and preserved. Freezing is much less work than bottling them, but there you go - driving is less work than cycling, eating takeout is less work than making your own dinner from scratch, and so on. Low impact means some labour, unfortunately.

Meat can be salted and smoked. Plenty of my Greek neighbours have ham hocks hanging in their garages. But if you're aiming at reducing your impact on the Earth you won't be eating as much meat as before (maybe 25lbs a year down from the average Westerner's 250lbs) so meat preservation won't be as much of a problem.

Anyway, the daily practical stuff aside...

Plastic does indeed have many good and fine uses. But then, so do explosives, doesn't mean we're not wary of them.

The two main difficulties with plastics are the toxins associated with their production, use and destruction, and that most are not genuinely recyclable.

They can't be recycled into the same thing again, usually. An aluminium can gets melted down and made into an aluminium can again, same with glass bottles and jars. But not most plastics. They're not recycled, they're downcycled.

Doesn't have to be this way. There are plenty of plastics formulas which have no toxins involved, and which can be entirely recycled. But companies don't bother with those unless forced to by law.

Something similar: in Germany it was made law that whitegoods (fridges, etc) could no longer go to landfill, the companies making them were responsible for them. They wailed and howled that they'd be bankrupted, but then went ahead and figured it out... now, most of their parts are interchangeable between different models. So if they have 30 different fridge models, they no longer have 30 different screw types and 30 different door hinges and 30 different compressor hoses. They're designed to be reused. Once they set their minds to it, it wasn't difficult.

Likewise, our plastics can be designed to be recycled.

Things come out the way we design them. So what's needed are laws which help design "reduce, reuse, recycle" into things. Our laws promote increase not reduction, are pretty ambivalent about reuse, and are decidedly confused about recycling. It's all rather muddled. A few simple ones could do it,

- every company producing an electrical appliance is responsible for it after its useful life is ended
- no plastic or paper product is permitted unless it can be entirely recycled into the same product, and this recycling done without toxins being discharged into air, earth or water

christy b said...

Mamabird - try to find Yohki glass storage jars by BODUM

I freeze homemade ice cream, stock and other goodies and have not once had any problems with them. I found that Pyrex also freezes very well.

Organic Needle - you are totally right, it doesn't have to be all or none. However, I don't think that a company is off the hook just because they declare that their solution is best. Really it's up to us as consumers to drag out the critical thinking cap and figure it out!

arduous said...

Thanks for bringing this up Burbs. It's a good question, and I don't know what the answer is. I've heard from several sources too about how glass is heavier and therefore uses more energy to ship, etc.

I think plastic does have it's place, and I will continue to buy some plastic, but mostly I'd rather buy stuff in reusable containers than recyclable. For example, milk in glass bottles, the bottles are REUSABLE. They don't have to go through the energy to recycle the bottles.

But yeah, I love my Ziplocs. But now I only have to buy them once every year to year and a half.

Anonymous said...

Arduous wrote: "I've heard from several sources too about how glass is heavier and therefore uses more energy to ship, etc."

Maybe the issue is short-term problem solving vs. long-term. Global warming seems like an immediate problem that must be fixed as quickly as possible. Thus, the emphasis on fuel used to ship products.

But I fear that relying on plastic to solve the short-term problem is just going to create horrendous long-term environmental problems. Plastics that are created now in order to ship more lightly will remain in the environment forever, attracting toxins (if they are not already toxic themselves.) Even if we get our carbon emissions down, the plastics will still be here to dog us.

Perhaps, instead of shipping in plastic to save energy, we all should just consume less. I know that readers of this blog are, for the most part, already on the low consumption bandwagon. Or trying to be.

I just watched "What Would Jesus Buy?" this weekend and man, I am seriously wondering how we can possibly get people to stop buying so much crap!

organicneedle said...

Green with a Gun...great example about the government stepping up in Germany and forcing companies to be smarter. The problem with the alternative ways of preserving is that, besides things maybe not tasting the way you want, a lot of nutrients can be lost too, not to mention added sodium, etc. etc.

Eric said...

I've been interested in the plastics issue lately too. I found through some simple research that #5 is one of the most re-usable and most recyclable plastics. #2 is pretty good in that respect too. Also Freezer Bags (but not the dinky bags) are recyclable when they reach their end of life. That was a fact I didn't know before!

George Bittner, Ph.D. said...

Recently, numerous publications have been writing about the dangers of BPA and phthalates and many companies are jumping on board promoting baby bottles and other plastics as BPA free.
Moms everywhere are ditching their baby bottles, binkies and sippy cups for newly marketed BPA-free ones. However, BPA and phthalates are just two of several hundred chemicals that exhibit estrogenic activity (EA) in plastics. Estrogenic activity occurs when chemicals are ingested that mimic or block the actions of naturally occurring estrogens, the female sex hormone. Studies have proven the fetus, newborn and young child is particularly vulnerable. Health-related problems as a result of estrogenic activity include: early puberty in females, reduced sperm counts in males, altered functions of reproductive organs, obesity, altered behaviors and increased rates of some breast, ovarian, testicular and prostate cancers.
Chemicals having EA leach from almost all plastics sold today. That is, plastics advertised as BPA-free or phthalate-free are not EA-free. Almost all these plastics still leach chemicals that contain EA. In fact, our data at PlastiPure show that all the plastics commercially available today do release chemicals with easily detectable EA. The FDA has yet to examine this broader problem. The amount that leaches from any one item may be small, but the cumulative effect of leaching from many items is significant and can be detected in the blood and tissues of almost all of us. And our children are the most susceptible.
Unfortunately, current legislation is attempting to solve this problem by removing chemicals having EA like BPA and phthalates just one at a time. This approach is ineffective since thousands of chemicals still used in plastics exhibit EA, not just BPA and phthalates.
The appropriate health-driven solution is to manufacture safer plastics that are completely EA-free. This is not a pie-in-the-sky solution, as the technology already exists to produce EA-free plastics that also have the same advantageous physical properties, as do almost all existing plastics on the market today. In fact, some of these advanced-technology EA-free plastics are already in the marketplace. The cost of safer, EA-free plastics is just pennies more than EA-releasing plastics when both are used to manufacture the same product in similar quantities.

jimmycrackedcorn said...

Stonyfield's study starts with the modern false assumption that it is a given that any packaging choice will be discarded in one way or another. They didn't give a moment's thought to reUSEable glass containers. Just 15 years ago (or less in some areas) many soda bottlers were still refilling and reusing glass bottles. It doesn't take any extra fuel to carry the empty bottles back to the factory...the trucks are going there anyway.

Anonymous said...

please not wood puzzle... what about no toys at all. instead some good food, so we all go for the real purpose of it: eating a decent