What you need to know
Disposable plastics may be labeled an environmental villain, but in some cases remain the lesser of two evils.
Plastic is bad. For many, this statement has become a rallying cry against humankind’s destruction and depletion of the earth’s natural resources.
And yet it fails to capture the science and rationale as to why plastics became so integrated in our lives in the first place, and presents a danger of rushing to embrace seemingly greener alternatives that actually have a more profoundly negative impact on our envionment.
In a quest to find out more, guanxi (關係, Chinese for “connections”) led me to Dasdy Lin (林佳蓓), Sustainability Consultant at Taiwan’s Plastic Industry Development Center, a nonprofit under the Ministry of Economic Affairs that aims to assist in the development of the national plastics industry, to help break down some of the complexities around plastic.
According to Lin, when we evaluate the comparative life cycle assessment (LCA) of plastic products – their overall effect on the environment, from the initial extraction of resources to their ultimate disposal – against their green companions, we find cases where plastics still have a lower environmental impact than their alternatives.
Food packaging and mixed layers
- More than 40 percent of plastic is used just once, then tossed.
- In the United States, packaging makes up the largest category of municipal waste.
- Globally, the largest market for plastics today is for packaging materials. That trash now accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste generated globally; most of it never gets recycled or incinerated.
- Plastic breakdown in the environment is estimated to take between 450 years to forever.
Health bars, instant noodles, and the other deliciously unhealthy snacks we all enjoy are sealed in plastic packaging. But it goes beyond that one layer of packaging that meets the eye – your favorite chocolate bar is protected by many thin layers of differing materials all stacked on top of one another with scientific precision. Its purpose: to prolong the life cycle of your food.
"Depending on the food inside, the layer can contain different types of plastic and aluminum to block it from heat and light," Lin says.
Layer One: Heat Resistant Layer
“The PP (plastic layer) can resist heat temperature up until 120 degrees Celsius, so that the product will not change its form or melt,” she explains. With microwavable frozen foods, the PP layer protects the food from being chemically altered while still allowing heat to penetrate and warm it up.
The pH value of food, which affects its appearance, texture, flavor, and nutritional value, is also important. “If it’s sour or hot or something flavory, then it probably needs a plastic layer to prevent the sourness from [chemically] reacting with the aluminum foil layer,” she continues.
Layer Two: Light Blocker Layer
Then, there’s the issue of light. For “most foods, we are advised not to put it under direct sunlight," says Lin, “[because] the quality will be altered.” So while the plastic layer protects it from heat, the aluminum layer blocks light.
Layer Three (and Four): Label and Ink Layer
Then, there’s the marketing. “The outer layers are for printing purposes,” Lin says. One plastic layer is for the label and logo, and “then another plastic layer covers the printing materials so the ink doesn’t touch the food or consumer’s hand.”
The layers are so thin that you can only see one, making it “impossible for consumers to manually separate them” for recycling purposes, she adds. The only option: throw it away.
Take a look at day five of the author's endeavor to go plastic-free for 12 days month in the video above.
The myth of biodegradable plastics
Given this reality, can biodegradable packaging be our saving grace? While some Taiwanese companies have experimented with biodegradable packaging – green hair-care company O’Right, for example, made tree-in-a-bottle shampoos that decomposed and released seeds into the ground – the current trend is to stay away from the material. Here's why:
Recycling means re-heating something (if chemically possible) so that it melts and molds into something else. Recycled bioplastics, however, are very low quality, making it difficult for use in new products. “Although it is theoretically true [that they can be recycled], we are not doing that in Taiwan just because the quality after you re-pelletize them is really bad,” explains Lin.
Moreover, there are no industrial facilities available to convert them into compost due to the steep cost of land. Biodegradable plastics are unable to decompose if they are thrown into the landfill with other waste.
Biodegradable plastics need to be separated and managed in an industrial facility at a certain temperature and humidity, and through the addition of microorganisms.
“So in the end, [biodegradable plastics] go into the incinerator. Businesses then ask why [they] pay a more expensive price for a cup that’s going to end up in the incinerator and that’s going to have negative effects on the environment anyway?”
The plastics manufacturing community went back to producing PP, both cheaper and of higher recycling value then biodegradable material.
O’Right stopped its tree-in-a-bottle production, replacing the biodegradable material with recycled PP plastic from boba milk tea cups collected by Da Fon, Taiwan's largest environment technology and recycling company, enabling them to retain their "World's Greenest Shampoo" tagline in good faith.
“Until there's a new technology to make a recyclable plastic that has the capacity [to fulfill the role of] all the multi-layered films, I don’t see any other way,” Lin concludes.
Read More: Plastic Fantastic: A Potted History of Taiwan's Plastics Industry
And here's more footage from day six of the plastic-free challenge.
A holistic look at plastic: Considering all environmental costs
For scientists, assessing the impact of plastic packaging at its stage of use or disposal isn’t enough. Instead, a life cycle assessment (LCA) is conducted to measure the environmental impact of a product from its creation to its disposal and deterioration.
For plastic, this means evaluating the impact of crude oil extraction from the earth, assessing energy-use and pollution generated in the conversion of oil to plastic and transportation via freight trucks and ships to market. Then, determining plastic’s impact on marine ecosystems, groundwater streams, and climate change through methane-gas release in the ocean, landfill, or incinerator, respectively.
"We ask people to look at things not individually, by itself, like plastic. We ask people to see the whole life cycle of it and how it affects the quality of human life," says Lin.
Think about it in terms of baby diapers. “I have a two-year-old toddler at home and I use disposable diapers,” Lin explains. “My friend once asked me, 'Why don’t you use the Haas diaper [labeled as 100 percent organic and reusable]? It’s more environmentally friendly, and you are working in the sustainable department. Why do you choose disposable?'”
For Lin, it’s all about life cycle assessment. “[W]here did [the cotton] come from? Planting a cotton tree. During the planting stage, farmers [use] a lot of pesticides to make the cotton grow faster and so they can gather more cotton at the planting stage. At that material stage, it’s already consumed a lot of water and [caused] a lot of [environmental] damage due to the pesticides.”
“When we pick the cotton, it has to be weaved into fabric. [The weaving stage] consumes a lot of energy and also will put a lot of chemicals inside the production process,” she says. “And now, when I get the cloth diaper, after my baby pees, I have to use detergent to wash the cloth diaper and that’s more water consumption and chemical use that negatively impacts the environment.”
“But with the polymer, the disposable diaper,” she continued, “yes, at first, you will see plastic, but actually, at the using stage, it’s not going to cause any energy or any water consumption at all, so at this stage of the product life cycle, it’s actually zero negative impact to the environment. So really, when you add up all this LCA, it’s really hard to say which wins.”
Every choice has an effect. Every product exists in a cycle of life and death, creation and deterioration. People, like plastic, exist in tandem with processes that must consider all things – the good, the bad, the short-term, the long-term, the monetary price, and the environmental cost.
“Plastic isn’t evil,” concludes Lin. “It’s just being used the wrong way.” So when you make a decision, think of the whole picture. Right now, when you go to the store, all you see is what’s on the shelf, the marketing on the product. Few people know what happens before or after. It’s time to change that.
Read Next: OPINION: Why We Must Support a Ban on Plastic Straws
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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