Our plastic waste may outlive us all
In Mexican culture, the dead live on in the memories of those who are still alive. Only until the last living person forgets you do you remain alive. Modern packaging technology has created items that will not only outlive us and our descendants, but possibly civilization as well.
The pathway from kitchen to stomach for most of history was a pretty direct one, with packaging only popping up in its current form during the 20th century with the discovery of oil and its derivatives. Cardboard and paper were considered too flimsy to hold food, and glass was considered to fragile and heavy, so plastic was substituted for both for most food containing needs.
The problem we're discovering in the 21st century is that plastic packaging may be more convenient, but it has serious environmental drawbacks. The making of plastic is an energy intensive process, and it adds to the carbon footprint of the food energy, one that is currently a big concern with climate changes worldwide. The other problem is that these containers, most of which are only used once for a fleeting moment, end up in landfills where they don't biodegrade for thousands of years, sometimes leaching poisonous chemicals for the entire time.
Things appear to be changing worldwide in how we view these containers of convenience, as worldwide new laws are popping up to rein them in. Here are the three worst offenders.
Styrofoam is a favorite with restaurants, food vendors, and fast food establishments. It's cheap, light (95% air) and retains both heat and cold better than paper or simple plastic. Styrofoam is a type of plastic called expanded polystyrene. Hazardous chemicals like benzene are used in the production of Styrofoam and carcinogens like styrene can be found as the material is being used, as traces have been found to leach into hot beverages in Styrofoam cups.(Never microwave a Styrofoam container)
Another property of Styrofoam is that it crumbles into smaller pieces easily. This doesn't mean it breaks down, but rather that birds, fish and other animals will eat it and be poisoned by scraps that find their way into nature. It's estimated that it takes 500 years for the material to completely break down, but since it's only been around for less than 100 years that's just a guess. Some studies estimate up to a million years for it to finally decompose.
Over 14 million tons of Styrofoam is produced every year, and the vast majority of it ends up in landfills, taking up some 30% of landfill space. It's extremely hard to recycle, and most recycling centers will not accept it.
The tide may finally be turning against polystyrene containers. In 2019 Maine voted to ban them in food containers. Other states, like Maryland, Colorado, Vermont and New Jersey are considering partial or complete bans on the containers in their states.
I love to get soda from the fountain at gas stations, almost all of whom use foam cups. For the past few years I keep a large Tervis tumbler in my car and refill it with whatever I want to drink. I'm more careful about fast food and restaurant fare as well. For the sake of the environment, we need to consider finding alternatives to this featherweight poison, and let stores and restaurants know how we feel about it.
2- Plastic Bags
For much of history, people used cardboard boxes, cloth bags, and paper sacks to carry merchandise after purchasing it. In the 1960's a new type of bag made of polyethylene became popular and spread to grocery stores and retail establishments around the world.
Plastic bags became popular because of their unique strength, flexibility, and durability. They are light, thin, and can carry items while also protecting them from getting wet.
Like Styrofoam and other plastics, polyethylene bags are made from fossil fuels- petroleum and natural gas, and in their production hazardous chemicals like dioxin and phthalates are produced. There's not as much concern about dangerous chemicals contaminating foods from plastic bags, but a great deal of concern about how they damage the environment after they are discarded.
It's estimated that less than 1% of all plastic bags produced end up being recycled. Most recycling centers will not take them. Most end up in landfills, where they can take centuries to degrade, again leaching chemicals as they do. It's estimated that up to a trillion plastic bags worldwide are consumed, which adds up to about 140 for every man, woman and child on the planet.
Because of their light weight, plastic bags can be carried by winds and waters for many miles, and they've become a problem in natural areas, where wildlife can get tangled in them or die eating them. Plastic bags float on top of the ocean water, and are a serious danger to fish, sea turtles, and birds. Third world countries are particularly strangled with plastic bag pollution, and some are fighting back with new laws.
Eight states have enacted bans on single-use plastic bags in stores since 2014, including big ones like California and New York. Many cities have also imposed bans or taxes on bags with success, though ten states have passed preemptive laws forbidding municipalities from doing anything about it. Fifteen African countries, China, and much of the European Union have enacted bag bans or taxes because of pollution concerns. The momentum is increasing against the bag that on average is in use only 12 minutes and with us for centuries afterwards.
The best answer for consumers is to either opt for paper bags, which aren't as strong but are definitely recyclable, or bring their own reusable bags on any shopping outing. I recommend keeping a few in your car just in case you need them.
3- Plastic drink bottles
I may be dating myself, but when I was growing up, there was no thing as plastic water bottles. Other drinks like soda and beer came only in glass bottles, and we had to bring them back to the store to be reused when we were done with them. The glass bottles were heavy and breakable, so beverage companies were looking for cheaper and more durable containers in the 1960's and later.
High density polyethylene was developed from petrochemicals and made available to the beverage industry (along with aluminum cans), and the days of the glass bottle were numbered. Most soft drinks now are sold in either plastic bottles or aluminum cans, but the plastic bottles because the plastic bottles are less recyclable. While both plastic and aluminum are welcome at recycling facilities, only about 30% of plastic bottles are recycled versus 50% of aluminum, and much more can be made from recycled aluminum because of its properties.
The big jolt for plastic bottles came in the 1980's and 1990's with the dawn of the bottled water industry. Companies like Perrier touted their purity and panache, and eventually the big beverage companies like Coca Cola (Dasani) and Pepsi (Aquafina) went into the business, now a $16 Billion business. Bottled water has now passed soda as the largest beverage category, with each American drinking an average of 40 gallons of water a year.
The rise of the bottled water industry is a victory of marketing, as studies have proven that in most cities, the water contained is neither tastier nor safer than tap water. There is some concern that the chemicals that make up the plastic can leach into the water while it is stored in there, especially if left in the hot sun, but I could find no definitive information other than a lot of theories. Some 50 billion plastic bottles were used by Americans per year, and only about 25% of those are recycled, leaving the rest in landfills or litter.
For plastic beverage containers, the best response in the past was to pass bottle bills, which require deposits at the point of purchase to encourage people to return them. Ten states currently have some form of bottle bill, but the beverage industry has fought other attempts, and none have passed in decades.
The personal solution here is to use metal or reusable water bottles with caps. Many good varieties are available, and can be toted in cars and at work. For those concerned about tap water quality, water filters can be used to remove sediments and contaminants.
The bigger solution may be to go back to glass bottles, aluminum cans, and mandatory deposit fees on all beverage containers.
The clever scientists who invented plastics and adapted them for human use were not monsters. They meant well, but their inventions have become Frankenstein monsters that clutter streets, oceans, and much of the planet. This problem will not go away, and more effort needs to be put into reversing it. One of the more promising things discovered is creatures that actually consume plastic to drastically speed up the degradation process. Bacteria, caterpillars, and worms have been discovered that can eat plastic and convert it into other materials. If we can learn to close the loop that was opened 50 years ago, we are back on the path to sustainability and success.