Plastic is often labeled a villain by environmental activists. Because it is used in packaging and single-use products, plastic seems to symbolize our "throw-away" culture. Plastic products also are criticized because they do not biodegrade and because they are manufactured from nonrenewable resources. That popular view of plastic overlooks plastic's true place in the environment. How should people concerned with protecting the environment think about plastic?
Plastic has features that benefit the environment. For example, plastic reduces food waste by about 1.7 pounds for every pound of packaging. Plastic allows us to store food and leftovers for longer periods of time. And because it can be transparent, plastic packaging allows us to check for spoilage or damage before we buy or use a product.
Plastic conserves energy by requiring less energy to make than other forms of packaging. And because it is light and less bulky, plastic reduces the amount of fuel used by trucks and vans that transport goods from factories and dairies to stores.
Plastic packaging often produces less pollution during its manufacturing process than the forms of packaging it replaces. Compared to a paper cup, for example, manufacturing a plastic foam cup produces much less air and water pollution.
This doesn't mean plastic is always better than other types of packaging. But oftentimes, plastic is better for the environment than other types of packaging. Campaigning against everything made of plastic doesn't help the environment, and it surely doesn't help consumers.
Running Out of Room?
Some people think plastic packaging is causing us to run out of room to put our solid waste. But plastic packaging amounts to a very small fraction of municipal waste - less than 5 percent by weight, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Plastic food and drink containers, often singled out for attack by environmentalists, amount to less than 0.5 percent of all municipal solid waste, less than phone books alone. Old clothes and shoes equal 11 times as much!
Plastic is made from petroleum or natural gas, but using plastic packaging isn't likely to cause us to run out of oil or gas. The production of plastic accounts for less than 3 percent of the oil and gas consumed each year. And the world's oil and gas reserves keep growing as new parts of the world are explored. For example, known reserves of oil and gas rose by nearly a factor of 10 during the past 40 years - from 30 to 250 million metric tons. One expert estimates that total fossil fuel resources could last 650 years at current rates of consumption.
Most plastics do not biodegrade, but in a modern landfill, neither does most of the paper and other kinds of packaging. Modern landfills are nearly airtight and have sophisticated systems to prevent moisture from entering or collecting in the waste. Consequently, paper and even organic waste (like discarded food) are preserved or biodegrade very slowly inside a modern landfill. New landfill technologies mean a material's ability to biodegrade is less important than how much room it occupies. Since plastic packaging is often thinner and lighter than other kinds of packaging it has an advantage over heavier but biodegradable materials.
It is a myth that plastic can't be recycled. In fact, 49 percent of plastic soft drink bottles are being recycled, which is about the same as the recycling rate for glass bottles and steel cans, whose recycling programs have been around for much longer. Additionally, thousands of products are being produced from recycled plastics each year. These products include clothing, office supplies, construction materials, and packaging.
An honest evaluation suggests that plastic is not the villain some people say it is. The truth is that plastic plays only a small role in the nation's solid waste problem, and many of plastic's features actually benefit the environment.
We should not assume that a plastic package is less "environmentally correct" than a paper, glass, aluminum, or steel package. Each kind of package has advantages and disadvantages, and some are better for some uses than others. This balanced view will help both consumers and the environment.