Zero waste myths: should we really be avoiding plastic?

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Zero waste myths_ should we really be avoidingnbspplasticFirst of all it also must be said that “zero waste” is a myth itself. There is no such thing as “zero waste”. It will never be possible. Having said that, however, does not mean that we should not reduce waste, especially in way of packaging, and waste that occurs also through planned obsolescence.

Images of ocean plastic pollution are causing so much revulsion that many people are switching to some supposedly more “environmentally friendly” materials to try to reduce their impact. But does this actually work? How much greener are the alternatives?

Also, there is plastic and then there is plastic. Single-use plastic, in my opinion, is a bad idea. We should, with the exception of may be a few things, avoid any kind of single use altogether. Other plastics, for plastic products intended to last for a long time, are a different story and here the material, quite often, is the appropriate one, unless we return to (more) natural materials.

Plastic vs Paper: It is easy to see how paper bags are seen as and appear to be more environmentally-friendly than plastic ones. They are made from trees, which grow in nature, and can biodegrade, in fact compost, when they are finished with.

Research, however, consistently finds that paper bags have a far higher carbon footprint than plastic ones, because the process of making them uses so much energy, and not just energy but also lots of water. Trees may be in harmony with nature, but the process for mashing them up into paper is not.

True, paper bags can decompose, but it is not exactly zero waste to use so much energy producing something that is not designed to last. And if you are careful to reuse and recycle a plastic bag, it should be possible to prevent it ending up as litter or in the ocean, whereas every single paper bag will have made a hefty contribution to global warming, regardless of where it ends up. The best option, of course, is to avoid the problem of single-use waste altogether by using reusable bags.

If you are a business and you want to offer something to customers who have forgotten their own bags, consider doing as Arjuna Wholefoods in Cambridge does, which is to invite people to drop off their old plastic bags to be reused. Alternatively, bags made from recycled materials is the next best thing. Just please don't hand out new single-use bags for free, as this does not reflect how much it costs the Earth to produce them.

As for the idea that paper is “more recyclable” than plastic, this has now been repeated so many times, that it has become almost fact. While it is true that paper can be recycled, the quality of it degrades in the process. Plastic can also be recycled, although some types of plastic are easier to recycle than others, and packaging that mixes plastic with other materials can be more tricky to recycle (single-use coffee cups are the most well-known example of this), but also here, in the main, the quality deteriorates and to make good new plastic from recyclables a great deal of virgin polymer needs to be added to the mix. So, there is no such thing – generally – as 100% recycled plastic, with a few exceptions, maybe. .

So, when it comes to recyclability, there is not that much to be gained from choosing paper-based products over plastic ones, and anyway, it is actually a big mistake to be overly focused on how recyclable something is, when most of the impacts of the stuff we consume is in the process of producing it, rather than what happens to it at the end of its life. This is true regardless of the material, but in terms of paper, we need to factor in how much carbon it takes to produce it.

The best way to lower impacts from packaging waste is to reduce the amount of packaging that we buy, and where possible, buy products packaged in recycled materials. Though it has also be said that often we, as consumers, do have little choice as to the amount of packaging of any kind, be this paper, cardboard (often laminated with foil), or plastic except by voting with our wallet and not buying over-packaged products. This can be a difficult undertaking, however,

Plastic vs Metal: Stainless steel tins and bottles are something of a zero waste style statement. There is no doubt that they look good, but the process of producing metals like stainless steel and aluminium releases scary amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. This means that reusables made from metal will need to avoid a lot of waste before they save more resources than it took to produce them.

The choice is really up to each of us: Option one would be stainless steel (or other) products, which are very high impact to produce, but highly durable, or option two would be plastic bottles and containers, which are more environmentally-friendly to produce, but tend to wear out somewhat more quickly, so that you may end up using more of them in the end. This is essentially a judgment call, based on your personal routines and how much waste you expect to avoid by using your reusable bottle and containers.

Single-use cups vs reusable cups: Several studies have looked into how many times a reusable cup needs to be used before it saves more resources than it took to produce. As they are carried out by academics, there is no simple answer – it depends on which type of reusable cup you are using, which type of single-use cup you are trying avoid, and which environmental impact you are considering – but it seems to range from 5-16 times. So, if you would otherwise expect to use at least 17 single-use cups, consider investing in a reusable one. For top marks, see if you can pick one up in a charity shop or other kind of secondhand store.

Glass jars vs plastic packaging: The jury certainly appears to be out on this one still. Glass tends to lose points compared to plastic because of the high carbon emissions involved in manufacturing and transporting it (think of how much more glass weighs) but can redeem itself by being more efficient to recycle than certain types of plastic. Glass jars, for instance, if we want to be thrifty in the way our grandparents and their parents were, also have a great reuse potential for us, whether as storage jars for all kinds of things or as drinking vessels, etc. And the reuse thought should always come well before any thought of recyclability.

If you can and will reuse or refill jars, the that is your best option. Otherwise, there is, apparently, no clear justification for always choosing glass jars over plastic.

Plastic bags vs cotton or other textile bags: Its a bit of a mystery why cotton has gained a reputation for being an environmentally friendly material. It takes 20,000 liters of water to make 1kg of cotton, and much of it is sourced from countries where water is extremely scarce. Worldwide, cotton production causes pollution and biodiversity loss. But there are alternatives to cotton and cotton bags, such as hessian, aka burlap, canvas, and others, including, though it is oil-based to some extent, woven and non-woven polyester bags.

When it comes to plastic there are – if I may put it this way – good plastics and bad plastics and I am not putting so-called bio-degradable into the category of good necessarily either. Also, as far as plastic water bottles, the reusable kind I mean here, are concerned not all leach chemicals. It all depends on the plastic. The Dutch designed (and produced?) “de Dopper”, as an example, does not, and is also of a rather ingenious design.

The biggest problem is plastic packaging and the over-packaging of products, often products that do not need to be packaged in such a way at all. That is where the changes have to happen and we must force industry to make the change.

© 2018