Zero waste myths: should we really be avoiding plastic?

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

Plastic v Paper

It’s easy to see how paper bags seem more environmentally-friendly than plastic ones. They are made from trees, which grow in nature, and can biodegrade when they are finished with. But research consistently finds that paper bags have a far higher carbon footprint than plastic ones, because the process of making them uses so much energy. Trees may be in harmony with nature, but the process for mashing them up into paper isn’t.

True, paper bags can decompose, but it’s not exactly zero waste to use so much energy producing something that’s not designed to last. And if you’re 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’re a business and you want to offer something to customers who’ve 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 doesn’t reflect how much it costs the earth to produce them.

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As for the idea that paper is ‘more recyclable’ than plastic, this has now been repeated so many times, that it’s become almost fact. It’s true that paper can be recycled, but 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).

So, in terms of recyclability, there isn’t that much to be gained from choosing paper-based products over plastic ones, and anyway, it’s a 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 co2 it takes to produce it.

The best way to lower impacts from packaging waste is to reduce the amount of packaging you buy, and where possible, buy products packaged in recycled materials.

Plastic v Metal

Stainless steel tins and bottles are something of a zero waste style statement. There is no doubt that they look good, and I certainly love my tins, but the process of producing metals like stainless steel and aluminium releases crazy amounts of co2 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. A stainless steel water bottle needs to be used 500 times before it is better for the environment than a single-use plastic one.

So, it’s really up to you: option 1 is stainless steel products, which are very high impact to produce, but highly durable, or option 2 – plastic bottles and containers, which are have less impact to produce, but tend to wear out more quickly, so that you may end up using more of them in the end. This is essentially a judgement call, based on your personal routines and how much waste you expect to avoid by using your reusable bottle and containers.

Single-use cups v reusable cups

As a guide, a reusable cup needs to be used between 20-100 times to make up for the greenhouse gas emissions of a single-use cup. So, if you would otherwise expect to use many single use cups, this could be a worthwhile investment. For top marks, see if you can pick one up in a charity shop.

Glass v plastic 

In terms of bottled water, a recent study found that, when compared to plastic, water in glass bottles ‘showed the worst results’ due to the increased amounts of raw materials and energy required to produce it.  Glass milk bottles are a popular choice for people aiming to reduce waste, but be aware these need to be reused 20 times before they have a lower carbon footprint than plastic bottles.

As for packaging, the jury appears to be out on this one. 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.

So, I guess if you can reuse or refill jars, that’s your best option. Otherwise, there’s no clear justification for always choosing glass jars over plastic.

Plastic bags v cotton bags

Its a bit of a mystery why cotton has gained a reputation for being an environmentally friendly material. It takes 20,000 litres 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.

Organic cotton may reduce some of these impacts, but it will always be a resource intensive material to produce. The UK government’s research shows that cotton bags have 10 times more global warming potential than any other bag they studied, and it needs to be used 131 times before it becomes more environmentally friendly than a single use plastic bag.

So, don’t buy more new cotton products than you need – there is no reason why reusable bags need to be made from cotton. Get your clothes second hand.  And please don’t use new cotton fabric as gift wrapping – its hard to imagine a more wasteful way to wrap presents.

So, are you saying we should use plastic? What about the turtles? Plastic never biodegrades……

Agreed. We should definitely be cutting out the single-use plastics. Just let’s not try to solve the problem of ocean pollution by switching to materials that contribute to global warming, pollution and water scarcity. It doesn’t make sense to focus on just one material, and just one stage of a product’s life cycle.

Also, studies show that plastic waste in the oceans mostly comes from things like littering, fishing/shipping activity, and waste that escapes from poorly managed landfills into rivers. Only 0.28% of ocean plastic comes from European rivers, so if you are careful to put plastic waste in the recycling and aren’t in the habit of chucking rubbish into waterways, plastics are less of an ocean pollution issue and more of a waste issue.* To reduce our impacts on the environment, we need to consider the overall impacts of everything we consume, or we risk shifting from one problem to another.

Isn’t this making things more complicated? Won’t it confuse people who are trying to do the right thing?

What makes life complicated is searching around trying to substitute plastics for other materials. Reducing your environmental impact is fairly straightforward – avoid anything that is designed to be used for a short time, then thrown away, and reduce your consumption of all stuff wherever you can. Making changes that exchange one environmental problem for another just wastes time and energy that could be used for actions that actually do make a difference, and it’s misleading to claim otherwise.

But plastic is awful! It’s made from a non-renewable resource, and it can’t be recycled forever.

I know, but good luck with finding that 100% recyclable, 100% renewable material that has no harmful effects on the natural world.

You can find your nearest UK packaging-free shop here.

* Since I posted this, I’ve had a number of people get in touch to say that since China used to import plastic waste from around the world, some of the plastics in the ocean today could still have originated in countries like the UK. To be clear: China stopped importing plastic waste at the beginning of 2018. This is not a good reason to avoid all plastic. Yes, let’s cut out single-use plastics like straws, bags, bottles, and toothbrushes. Get involved in beach clean ups. Support organisations that are dealing with the problem of ocean pollution. But it would be a mistake to simply swap plastics for materials like paper, metal and cotton without first considering how these might impact other parts of the natural world, such as the habitats of animals that live on land.

If you have a spare 18 minutes, I totally recommend this TED talk by Leyla Acaroglu, Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore.

Note: I’m still getting feedback from people concerned that this post in some way ignores the problems associated with plastic use. Please put your pitchforks down, I agree with you 100% about the need to reduce the use of plastic and prevent plastic litter from getting into the sea. However, consider that two things can be true at the same time:

  1. There are many serious environmental problems associated with the use of plastic.
  2. There are many serious environmental problems associated with alternatives to plastic.

Therefore perhaps we should find a way of addressing these issues which don’t simply swap one problem for another.

So while it’s always great to get feedback, if you are an anti-plastic activist preparing to leave a comment explaining that plastic doesn’t biodegrade, is harmful to sea creatures, is made from fossil fuels, or that it can’t be recycled forever, allow me to reassure you that this is all quite well known, and is not disputed in this post.

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34 thoughts on “Zero waste myths: should we really be avoiding plastic?

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  8. Thanks for taking the time to offer feedback and respond to some of the comments above.

    You are right that metal is efficient to recycle, however I have attempted to address the question of recyclability this in the post: ‘it’s a 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’

    With regard to your concerns about plastic pollution, I agree with you on this also, and tried to make this clear in the post:

    ‘We should definitely be cutting out the single-use plastics.’

    ‘avoid anything that is designed to be used for a short time, then thrown away’

    ‘let’s cut out single-use plastics like straws, bags, bottles, and toothbrushes. Get involved in beach clean ups. Support organisations that are dealing with the problem of ocean pollution.’

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  9. It’s great to get people thinking beyond just how these materials are disposed of. In saying that, I’m not surprised you’ve had lots of people concerned about your post.

    In terms of Plastic v Paper, telling people if they’re careful to reuse and recycle a plastic bag, it should be possible to prevent it ending up as litter or in the ocean, is misleading. No matter how carefully people dispose of their plastic bags, they are made of a lightweight material and escape easily.

    It’s reassuring that you go on to let people know that reusable bags are the best option.

    Plastic v Metal: Stainless steel is pretty well indestructible and should be able to be passed on from generation to generation. As you mentioned, plastic is far less durable. However, I’m surprised that you don’t seem to mention the fact that metals are infinitely recyclable, unlike plastic. All plastic will end up in landfill or polluting our environment.

    Plastic bags v Cotton Bags: A well-made cotton bag should be able to be used way more than 173 times.

    Once more, you reassure your readers that if they are “careful to put plastic waste in the recycling and aren’t in the habit of chucking rubbish into waterways, plastics are less of an ocean pollution issue”. Again, plastic is lightweight and easily escapes into our environment to cause harm. No amount of plastic pollution is acceptable, in my opinion.

    Plastic pollution aside, burying our rubbish underground is not a great option for dealing with waste, so whether or not an item is landfill-bound is an important consideration in what we consume.

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  10. Biodegradable items do not break down in landfill (no oxygen in landfill). Instead, they emit methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more damaging to our climate than carbon dioxide. This is why composting is really important. If you are required to bag your landfill waste, you’re better off using a plastic bag. Would be great if your council would rethink their waste policy though.

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  11. Sue King

    I’m planning on making a lot of bags for various uses, but, because I’ve already got a big stock of supermarket bag-for-life strong carrier bags – much-used but still with lots of life in them, the particular bags I’ll make will be about the size of the plastic bags supermarkets supply for filling with loose fruit and vegetables. (And that’s what I’ll use them for.)
    But, I shall use bits of material I’ve already got – old clothes not fit for using as clothes any more, old net curtains, etc. And/or, I shall buy the same sort of thing from charity shops. So the material will be what might otherwise at best be destined for textile recycling.
    And the other thing is if I get into the swing of making these bags I can give them away or sell them on the fund-raising stalls we have at various activities I go to. Or perhaps I could give them to a charity shop to sell (with a label explaining their intended use as reusable substitutes for plastic bags.

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  12. Erika Baker

    I’m a bit puzzled by the statement that plastic is not biodegradable. What about the biodegradable bin liners and dog waste bags you can buy?

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  13. Sylvia

    – DT: Hmm, I wonder whether your council might be amenable to re-thinking the “tied bin SACK” stipulation and accept smaller – but still tied – bin bags?
    I use the plastic pouch from inside cereal boxes as bin liner in the kitchen and put those straight in the wheelie bin when full. There’s just 2 of us at home usually so I can get nearly a week’s waste into one pouch if I compress the rubbish (it would take me a couple of months to fill a bin SACK! – old food wrappers would stink by then!). I don’t usually tie them, as I don’t think it’s a requirement where I live.
    I do the same with any other plastic wrap of adequate size, e.g. wrapper on pack of 12 toilet paper rolls (and these have pull-handle so can be tied before putting in the outside bin).
    Vacuum cleaner contents goes on my compost.

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  14. If you would expect to use a bag that many times, then go ahead and use it. The post simply recommends not to buy more cotton than you need – I don’t suggest boycotting cotton bags altogether.

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  15. Esther

    Just to put an example:

    “”The UK government’s research shows that cotton bags have 10 times more global warming potential than any other bag they studied, and it needs to be used 173 times before it becomes more environmentally friendly than a single use plastic bag.””

    Ok, did you notice that that’s a half year?? Normally, a person uses it every day and it will last a lot of years!! How many plastics bags can you avoid with that, and the resources to product them??

    Ok, producing one cotton bag is more environmentally expensive than producing just one plastic bag… but it’s not more expensive than produce thousands…

    The same with glass and stainless steel…..

    I think this reading can be so harmful…

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  16. I bet if we invest more in biodegradable technologies, we could come up with a new single-use bag that is far more eco-friendly than what we currently use. We already have “bioplastic” made from corn starch available, but it is not being widely used because it can’t be recycled the same way that “traditional” plastic bags are. Thank you for sharing!

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  17. DT

    Great idea and has given me pause for thought however I just checked on the council website and it states that rubbish needs to be bagged. “You must bag your rubbish in tied, disposable plastic sacks. If you put your rubbish out in bins, it still needs to be bagged.” Any thoughts on the best bin bags gratefully received!

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  18. Henry

    Consider what you are putting into the bin bag and whether you need to put the bag itself into the wheelie bin. If it is general non recyclables (plastic wrap, stuff from the vacuum cleaner etc.) why can’t it just go loose into the wheelie bin? If there isn’t any food or food covered items then it won’t smell, shouldn’t be sticky and you can use the same bin bag multiple times or just periodically wash your bin.
    Even if the bin bag was branded bio degrqadable this is usually only under certain conditions (direct sunlight etc.) which it is unlikely to find when it is at the bottom of a pile of other bags in a hole…

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  20. DT

    I’m wondering what the best solution is when it comes to bin bags for the kitchen bin I’m reducing but haven’t eliminated my waste…Can anyone recommend strong yet bio degradable bin bags that they’ve trialled themselves?

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  21. Stacey

    It goes back to the manufacturers when I was little (back in the 70’s) yoghurt and ice cream came in waxed cardboard containers toothbrushes in a little cardboard box with a cellophane window and the toothpaste in a metal tube. Now everything is in plastic

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  22. Mel

    Additional tax on non recycled/ non biodegradable/ single use plastics at the production point and companies who use it for their goods. Ring fence tax into research and development of better products and to bring down production costs. The individual companies cannot afford to do the research. Could this be a viable option?

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Sol

    Interesting article. It would have been good to have a piece about hemp, as it is often touted as a more environmentally friendly alternative to both paper and cotton.
    🙂

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  24. Sourcing metal from the right place is important too. Aluminium from Norway is processed using all renewable energy. If it requires more energy to produce paper bags then the answer is to use renewable energy more in producing them.

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  25. No matter what we choose in terms of bags or packaging, it all comes with an environmental footprint that is impossible to avoid. Certainly, things that can be reused and recycled are the way to go and anything that is ‘single use’ should be avoided as much as possible!

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  26. I find this post very interesting. It is hard I find to do “the right thing”. Because we think we are doing well and find out an article later we aren’t. Throwing away less and think more is important. But about plastic bags, the problem was that being free and too accessible made them too easy to chuck away in the nature and people got used to take a plastic bag even if they didn’t need one.

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  27. Interesting post – thank you! You hit the nail on the head here, it’s the single use plastics that are the issue, and by focusing on one thing we risk potentially causing issues somewhere else. With all the focus on plastic in the media at the mo, this is a conversation that needs to be continued.

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