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July 08, 2009

Plastic: What is it good for? Absolutely Lots!

Image from fakeplasticfish.com
My anti-plastics environmentalist friend, Beth Terry in her plastics waste costume!

OK, so I'm engaged with the 'anti-plastics' environmental movement. Typically, the people who HATE plastics. I observe this group because their strong feelings have the potential to do the industry harm AND because so many of their facts are not true or highly distorted. That said, I found one anti-plastics person whom I like. Beth Terry from fakeplasticfish.com.

While committed to her cause, she isn't all wrapped up in the 'hate' emotion I see from many. We had a great discussion the other day which she blogged about briefly and she asked her readers seven questions related to the topics we discussed.

So I thought I'd answer her questions from my perspective as an industry person. Keep in mind our site is not paid to promote plastics, but as an individual I've been very active and concerned regarding these issues. I worked in recycling for many years, patented and commercialized a recycle process, and was an original founder of the SPE Recycling Division (Now the Environmental Division).

What do you see as the major problems with plastic?

  • Bad product design (wasteful)
  • Ocean gyre issues
  • Inadequate of industry-led solution activity
  • Littered plastics hang around
  • Recycling is at odds with bio-degradable
  • Wasteful use of plastics (ie. packaging)

What uses for plastic (if any) are necessary and beneficial to society?

Herein is one of the misconceptions many activists have.  I don't like a no-plastics discussion because they usually seem based in severe ignorance of facts. I love a plastics versus other-material discussion because nothing should be made out of plastic without good reasons.

The fact is that with today's population level and technology level, plastics are not just needed but are required to maintain civilization without going back to a pre-industrial era or without doing WORSE harm to the environment.

So we don't (most of us) really want to get rid of plastics. We want them used responsibly and with care towards the environment and waste.

Would you like to see a world without any plastic at all? What would that look like?

This is my biggest point for simple 'anti-plasts'. What do you think is the alternative? If you want to go back to a pre-industrial era, so be it, but with today's population most of us will die from starvation and disease.

If you simply want to make everything out of anything BUT plastics and live happily ever after, it simply isn't possible.  The absolute fact is that if most things that are made of plastic were made of alternative materials, it would cause massive pollution, have huge global warming effects and would lessen the quality of life of virtually everyone.

The reason things are made of plastics is almost always this: it's cheaper. We don't care about that, its just businesses getting rich, BUT, the reason plastics are cheaper than alternatives is because they use less overall energy than the alternatives. Now this HAS to interest us.

When a product uses significantly less energy to manufacture, distribute and use then it also uses less oil, gas etc. to produce (less pollution), less oil, gas, etc. to distribute (less pollution), and less oil, gas, etc. to use (less pollution).

An example; automobiles. Many plastic parts in an auto replace MULTIPLE metal parts with one part with the energy to make ALL of the previous parts being much more energy-wasteful than the one plastic part. I can't barely imagine a car without plastics other than a primitive, heavy monster.  Now for the distribution, plastics cars weigh less than the alternatives and everything made has to be shipped. The shipping of ALL manufactured goods has a huge effect on pollution and it is weight and volume based. The less wight or volume, the less pollution created in the shipping stages.  Lastly in usage, an auto that is much lighter due to plastics uses less fuel. Less fuel means less pollution.

This example repeats itself over and over with virtually all use of plastics. Less pollution (energy) to make, ship and use than the alternatives.

So can we do without plastics? Not without making things worse. I'd like to see intelligent debates of plastics versus alternatives, not just anti-plastics. What is better on a case by case basis then multiplied by the entire population doing it?

A world without plastics would require unbelievably massive amounts of additional animals for leather, wool, etc and plants, for cotton and so on. And the effect ALL of the additional animals raised and grazing and forests cut down for crop land is staggering. I saw someone do the math once and it occurs to me that no environmentalist should be anti-plastics for just this reason.  We either cut way back on population and go to a sustainable civilization based on lower technology or we find responsible ways to use plastics and solve environmental issues.

Do you trust the plastics industry to tell you the truth about their products? Why or why not?

Well, personally I don't trust governments or large corporations to tell the truth always. There's too many instances of the opposite to have blind faith. Also, most plastics organizations have an agenda to promote and protect themselves. It's good to have a healthy skepticism.

Do you trust the American Chemistry Council to tell you the truth?

Same answer, see above

What questions would you ask a plastics professional if you could?

This happens everytime I talk to myself!

What role do you think the plastics industry should play in solving the environmental problems associated with plastic?

A leading role, and right now I see way too much defense of indefensible positions and simply promotional campaigns designed to make you appreciate plastics. Bah! The industry needs to admit the serious environmental and health issues, help study them and develop solutions.  Companies do this when there is a profit motive but the industry as a whole seems to be all deny, deny, defend, defend. I don't see much of an effort to acknowledge and lead here.

What else would you like to share?

Summaries. questions, replies to Beth's commenters, facts or opinions not covered

  • Plastics will be made in the future with algae, bacteria, plants, etc. Running out of oil is not a plastics future problem.
  • Wasteful use of plastics, think packaging,ought to be a crime. There is nothing defensible about idiotic design using copious amounts of plastic that just gets tossed.
  • There are applications where alternatives are preferred over plastics. Approach it on a case by case basis as to what is responsible, what is better than alternatives.
  • Beth and I agree that wasteful design and wasteful consumption of plastics is a very bad thing.
  • Plastics should not be used when an alternative that scales up to the population is environmentally better.
  • I think ALL material choices need to be defensible environmentally versus alternatives, not just for profit or other benefits
  • Tameson, you can't fix the ocean gyre problem by simply fishing for plastic as most of it is tiny and you'd get plankton as well.
  • Tameson, plastics aren't more biodegradable or recyclable because enough of the public isn't demanding it. I recommend demanding it rather than just saying 'Plastics are Bad'
  • May, a world without plastics is not as simply as 'look back at old photos' because the population has grown to a point where the alternatives are worse for us now.


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Hi Greg,
thanks for pointing out to the additional animals and plants needed to replace plastics; I had only thought of that in what concerns to the possible raise in food if the same animal/plant materials are needed for other uses (the same worry I have about biofuels). But you're right, the impact would be huge.

I agree that plastics are energy-efficient, and that we cannot simply decide to live without them. I also agree that its use should be approached case by case.

Something else just popped into my head: renewable energies will be used soon in all world (I hope really soon), and those are unlimited sources of energy, really efficient. So when this happens, energy-efficient products will no longer be necessary. We'll have electric trucks so we'll be able to transport everything we want in glass jars, for example, and then even transport the jars back to the industry for them to be reused. This is just a dream now, but I believe it will be more than that someday.

Finally, I sincerely hope that people like you will actively try to make a difference in the plastic industry and adress the problems of toxic chemicals leaching from plastics, and plastic wasteful packaging. While governments ought to participate in this areas too, I don't really think they will any time soon. But maybe you could propose a law which makes wasteful uses of plastic a crime. This would be awesome...

Wow Greg, glad you listened. Deep in my heart I know you can't fish the oceans for plastic and get all of it, but we really do need to do something about the size of it. I live in New England and one thing I know about is shoveling. I know that I can move a 20 foot snow bank all by myself if I shovel a little at a time. Can we at least pick up a bit of this trash a little at a time? Can't we temporarily filter the worst parts and maybe kill off some plankton in the process if it will save a few animals from injesting our garbage?

I am not a plastic hater. I'm an irresponsibility hater. I'm all for newer plastics made from non-petroleum ingredients. I'm all for lightweight cars and squeeze bottles, and waterproof boots.

Demand is such a strong word...I'm asking nicely, pleasy-please can we strive for more recyclability in our new plastics?

Thank you

I am an anti-plast I guess.. but I have defined my stance as against all unncecessary plastic -for instance, in the case of poor package design. I think there are some very good uses for plastic, like in health care, etc. I also think that everything has consequences. For instance, I'm a parent, and if you go into toys r us virtually everything you look at is made of plastic, and will be here for thousands of years after we are gone (In fact pretty much everything I've ever owned in my entire life, from birth til now, that's made of plastic still exists somewhere - which is a pretty sobering thought). However, if you replaced it all with toys made of wood, you have deforestation- everything is cause and effect. So I'm not against plastic per se, just against one use disposable plastic. Which leads to why I am pro "less is more"- I realized that our whole lives are programmed to buy buy buy - and everything we buy will take forever to degrade. So buy less, reuse more, get things second hand etc. - We all need to be aware and more responsible about our own waste, and ask the people packaging the things we buy to be aware and responsible as well.

I guess I would be an anti-plast if the world is divided in to pro-plast and anti-plast. But reading your posts, it seems we are more kindred spirits than you would think from those labels. I'm against those plastics we don't really need - the wasteful packaging, the disposable plastic water bottles, disposable plastic cutlery and food containers, etc. - because there are alternatives. Like a reusable stainless steel bottle for water. Or a reusable tote in lieu of a plastic bag. But certainly there are plastic uses that make more sense than the alternatives for items or products that we can'd do without. I'd rather have a plastic car child safety seat than not. I'd rather have plastic medical equipment, safety equipment, and lots of other things for which there aren't other good material options as of yet. So perhaps instead of being anti-plastic I'm anti-unnecessary plast?

That being said, I don't think we need pleather (vinyl chloride).

And I also think that a lot of folk think they "need" something that they really don't. Diposable single use plastic toothbrush come to mind. Or plastic beads in body scrubs.

As consumers we need to do the research. There is a lot of confusion about plastic bottles and which is compostable, biodegradable, and degradable. PLA plastics are compostable...in a commercial composting facility. Commercial composting facilities are far and few between and that means most PLA plastics will end up in a landfill. PLA plastics won’t biodegrade in a landfill any faster then regular PET plastic.

The other two plastics current used for water bottles are both made from PET plastic one is biodegradable the other is oxo-degradable. The ENSO bottle with EcoPure, is a biodegradable plastic bottle that uses organic compounds to promote biodegradation though microbial digestion which only occurs when the biodegradable bottle is placed in a highly active microbial environment. When the ENSO bottle biodegrades it produces biogases and humus. Biogases can be collected to produce clean energy. The ENSO bottle has the same physical properties as standard PET and does not fragment, degrade or break down from environmental conditions such as UV, moisture and oxygen.

The other PET plastic bottle current available on the market is made from Oxo-Degradable plastic. It is a PET plastic with an additive that causes it to degrade into smaller and smaller pieces. The plastic doesn't go away; it just gets too small for us to see.

Plastics are an important part of our lives and we need them. However, we also need plastics which are more environmentally friendly, plastics that aren't harmful for us and future generations. Biodegradable plastics are one solution toward improving our environment.

As usual this was a thoughtful submit today.

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