There are few common misconceptions about single-use plastics and their environmental impact. A new article from the University of Michigan highlights a few:
MYTH: Plastic packaging is the largest contributor to the environmental impact of a product.
REALITY: The products on the inside of the packaging typically have a greater impact on the environment. Food waste is the most common material in landfills.
MYTH: Plastic has the most environmental impact of all packaging materials.
REALITY: Plastic has a lower overall environmental impact than single-use glass or metal. Aluminum cans and glass bottles are very heavy, compared to plastic, leaving a very large carbon footprint during transportation. Moreover, if glass ends in a landfill, it can take one million years to decompose. Aluminum cans are made from bauxite ore. Mining for bauxite ore leaves a large carbon footprint.
MYTH: Reusable products are always better than single-use plastics.
REALITY: In order for reusable products to be more environmentally friendly than single-use items, they must be used enough times to offset the materials and energy used to make them. For example, a reusable shopping bag (made from polypropylene) must be used 37 times for it to be more effective.
The author of the article, Shelie Miller, an associate professor at the School of Environment and Sustainability and director of the U-M Program in the Environment, said with this article she aims to place the plastic-waste problem into context.
Miller and other researchers rely on the life-cycle assessment (LCA) to determine the lifetime environmental impacts in different categories. These include climate change, energy use, and water and resource depletion. Many consumers tend to focus on packaging waste because it’s most visible to them. But there are many environmental impacts overlooked in the process.
Using single-use plastic items can have less of an environmental impact than other materials. When recycled properly, these materials can be turned into a host of new products. You never know, that recycled bottle might return as a shoe or backpack.