The Environmental Impact of Plastic and its Eco-Friendly Alternative: Compostable Packaging
While it might be hard to believe now, did you know that when plastics were invented in the early 1900s, they weren’t intended to be disposed of? Originally, plastic was seen as an eco-friendly swap for animal products such as horns, ivory, and tortoise shells. Many modern inventions, like medical equipment, water filtration, telephones, and more, wouldn’t have been the same without plastic. Many thought plastics were more eco-friendly, because it was easier to transport than glass or metal. Plastic's light weight meant vehicles didn't burn as much fuel, creating less pollution.
Things took a turn for the environmental-worse by the mid-1950s, when manufacturers realized they could boost sales and cut costs if consumers bought and disposed of products in plastic packaging, rather than costly reusable materials - thus, single-use plastics were born. By 1950, the manufacturing of plastic had increased to 2.3 million tons, which would grow by 2015 to 448 million, totaling 8.3 billion tons between those years. Rates continue to worsen over time, with 50% of the world’s plastic ever made having been produced within the past 15 years, and we’ll double our current amount of plastic by 2050.
Eight million tons of plastic scraps make it into our oceans each year, blowing from land to seas, or carried along major rivers until they hit the coast. If plastic stays within coastal waters, it will circulate in the area indefinitely—one particularly bizarre occurrence involves plastic Garfield novelty telephones that have been washing up on the shores of Brittany, France since the 1980s, after they escaped a shipping container. As bizarrely humorous as it might be to think of hordes of the lasagna-loving cat floating along the beach, they—and plastic at large—are far from innocuous. Each year millions of birds, fish, and other marine animals are killed from plastic ingestion, entanglement, or other encounters.
Perhaps more nefarious and mysterious than icons of Garfield floating along the sea is the process of plastics withering down over time to form microplastics, which are bits of plastic smaller than five millimeters. In our oceans, the salt, wind, and sunlight slowly break down plastic. Alarmingly, these microplastics have been found as deep as the Mariana Trench and as high as Mount Everest, and horrifyingly, even in human blood.
The health effects of microplastics are still widely unknown, but we might wonder why the people aren’t more fervently practicing recycling to prevent plastic in our oceans, and us. Unfortunately, recycling in practice and in theory is flawed, and at times baffling.
Everyone has seen the symbol of the three “chasing arrows” in a triangle on plastic products everywhere, but it doesn’t mean that something is recyclable despite popular belief. It’s solely meant to indicate the type of plastic the product is made of, defined by the number within the triangle. The numbers range between one and seven, and often items numbered past one and two aren’t recyclable based on your area’s recycling program. The lack of consistency and availability of recycling programs is one of the main issues with repurposing products. What might be processed, such as number five plastics, at one site might be tossed in a landfill at another location.
This type of confusion often results in “wish-cycling,” or recycling-hopefuls adding something into the recycling bin, hoping that it will be processed. “Wish-cycling” is actually more harmful than adding non-recyclable items in the garbage, because if a batch destined for recycling is contaminated with items meant for a landfill, the entire batch of recycling becomes contaminated. This might cause the whole batch to end up in a landfill, ruining the pieces of plastic that could have been recycled or repurposed. What might be well-intentioned “wish-cycling” of one type of plastic product at one facility, could be a viable recycling product at another, but it can feel like people are walking on broken glass (which is sometimes recyclable, sometimes not) just to trying to be environmentally-conscious. This, in addition to an inequitable recycling infrastructure, is partially why 94% of US citizens support recycling, but only 35-percent actually recycle. Even when individuals sort and recycle the right materials perfectly, there is still a limited market for the materials. They unfortunately might often wind up in a landfill, since it’s cheaper for companies to make their own plastic from scratch, helping lead to only about nine-percent of the world’s plastic ever having been recycled.
So, for the 94-percent of American recycling-hopefuls not able to navigate the recycling industry, is there a way to reduce the amount of plastic that winds up back in landfills and our ecosystems? Yes—there is hope through compostable products.
What is compost? Composing involves the process of combining safe, biodegradable materials with a “bulking” material like wood chips, newspaper, leaves, twigs, and water. Traditionally, these biodegradable materials are organic waste like your leftover food scraps and lawn trimmings, but plastic-free, biodegradable products such as takeout containers, drinking straws, and product packaging are becoming more and more popular over time. They are often made from tree-derived products like paper or cardboard, and plastic-like materials often made from corn and sugarcane. More types of bioplastics are constantly in development, with scientists working on packaging made from mushrooms, the starch found in peas, peels from carrots, seaweed, and whey protein. The benefit of paper- and plant-based, plastic-free products are that, unlike plastics and microplastics that will degrade in our ecosystems for centuries to come, these biomaterials are compostable and will break down much like like food scraps do, reducing the effect of plastic and climate change on the environment. Instead of normal plastic products putrefying the environment, one of the benefits of composting is that the byproduct is high in nutrients and actually enriches soil, making it fertile ground for growing new plants. This and other reasons are why to compost, it allows us to use fewer fossil fuels, keep trash from landfills, lower the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, and so much more. By properly using compostable products, we can move closer to becoming a zero-waste society.
How and what do you compost? There are several different methods for composting, based upon the type of compostable materials or packaging. Composting paper-based products is a breeze, as paper is a commonly-used bulking agent in compost. You can read the Environmental Protection Agency’s guide to easy, pest- and smell-free composting at home that only requires a few easily-accessible materials. If you don’t want to compost at home, see if there are organizations in your neighborhood that organize compost pick-up (much like how your trash and recycling is normally taken) and sign up for their services. You might be surprised to find that your municipal government or trash company already has composting infrastructure. When you live in an area that doesn’t have pick-up vehicles, local organizations usually provide you with a container to drop off your compostable materials to them.
While paper-based compostable products are the easiest to compost, plant-based plastics can be a bit more complicated to dispose of. If a product says that you can compost it at home, then you can take care of it yourself with your at-home compost or compost pick-up service, easy peasy. If you go to a restaurant and get to-go food provided in compostable packaging, ask the restaurant where you can put the packaging. They might even offer to take the packaging back from you to be later composted by their partner company. Otherwise, you can reach out to your municipal government or local trash companies to see who composts plant-based plastics. If composting bioplastics isn’t feasible near you, and you need to purchase plastic products, try to opt for 100-percent post-consumer recycled plastic products. Read our article, The Case for Sustainable Business: The Benefits of Post-Consumer Recycled Plastic, to learn more about post-consumer recycled plastic and its benefits.
Once you establish a composting system for yourself, it can not only be just as easy, if not easier, than recycling, but it will also have a better environmental impact than recycling could ever provide. In addition to your plants being thrilled with some nutrient-rich dirt, composting is a simple way to do your part in making the Earth a little bit greener, even beyond your backyard.
By Elizabeth T.