5 Myths About the Environmental Impacts of Plastic

From the University of Michigan and Shelie A. Miller:

“Stand in the soda pop aisle at the supermarket, surrounded by rows of brightly colored plastic bottles and metal cans, and it’s easy to conclude that the main environmental problem here is an overabundance of single-use containers: If we simply recycled more of them, we’d go a long way toward minimizing impacts.

In reality, most of the environmental impacts of many consumer products, including soft drinks, are tied to the products inside, not the packaging, according to University of Michigan environmental engineer Shelie Miller.

And when it comes to single-use plastics in particular, the production and disposal of packaging often represents only a few percent of a product’s lifetime environmental impacts, according to Miller, author of an article scheduled for publication Oct. 26 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

“Consumers tend to focus on the impact of the packaging, rather than the impact of the product itself,” said Miller, an associate professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability and director of the U-M Program in the Environment. “But mindful consumption that reduces the need for products and eliminates wastefulness is far more effective at reducing overall environmental impact than recycling.

“Nevertheless, it is fundamentally easier for consumers to recycle the packaging of a product than to voluntarily reduce their demand for that product, which is likely one reason why recycling efforts are so popular.”

The mistaken belief about the central role of plastic packaging is one of five myths that Miller attempts to debunk in her conventional wisdom-shattering paper, “Five misperceptions surrounding the environmental impacts of single-use plastic.”

The five common misperceptions, along with Miller’s insights about them, are:

  • Plastic packaging is the largest contributor to a product’s environmental impact. In reality, the product inside the package usually has a much greater environmental impact.
  • The environmental impacts of plastics are greater than any other packaging material. Actually, plastic generally has lower overall environmental impacts than single-use glass or metal in most impact categories.
  • Reusable products are always better than single-use plastics. Actually, reusable products have lower environmental impacts only when they are reused enough times to offset the materials and energy used to make them.
  • Recycling and composting should be the highest priority. Truth be told, the environmental benefits associated with recycling and composting tend to be small when compared with efforts to reduce overall consumption.
  • “Zero waste” efforts that eliminate single-use plastics minimize the environmental impacts of an event. In reality, the benefits of diverting waste from the landfill are small. Waste reduction and mindful consumption, including a careful consideration of the types and quantities of products consumed, are far larger factors dictating the environmental impact of an event.

In her review article, Miller challenges beliefs unsupported by current scientific knowledge while urging other environmental scientists and engineers to broaden the conversation—in their own research and in discussions that shape public policy.

“Efforts to reduce the use of single-use plastics and to increase recycling may distract from less visible and often more damaging environmental impacts associated with energy use, manufacturing and resource extraction,” she said. “We need to take a much more holistic view that considers larger environmental issues.”

“Miller stresses that she is not trying to downplay environmental concerns associated with plastics and plastic waste. But to place the plastic-waste problem in proper context, it’s critical to examine the environmental impacts that occur at every stage of a product’s lifetime—from the extraction of natural resources and the energy needed to make the item to its ultimate disposal or reuse.”

(Continued)

Life-cycle assessment, or LCA, is a tool that researchers like Miller use to quantify lifetime environmental impacts in multiple categories, including climate change and energy use, water and resource depletion, biodiversity loss, solid waste generation, and human and ecological toxicity.

It’s easy for consumers to focus on packaging waste because they see boxes, bottles and cans every day, while a wide range of other environmental impacts are largely invisible to them. But LCA analyses systematically evaluate the entire supply chain, measuring impacts that might otherwise be overlooked, Miller said.

Packaged food products, for example, embody largely invisible impacts that can include intensive agricultural production, energy generation, and refrigeration and transportation throughout the supply chain, along with the processing and manufacturing associated with the food and its packaging, she said.

Miller points out that the well-worn adage “reduce, reuse, recycle,” commonly known as the 3Rs, was created to provide an easy-to-remember hierarchy of the preferable ways to lessen environmental impact.

Yet most environmental messaging does not emphasize the inherent hierarchy of the 3Rs—the fact that reducing and reusing are listed ahead of recycling. As a result, consumers often over-emphasize the importance of recycling packaging instead of reducing product consumption to the extent possible and reusing items to extend their lifetime.

“Although the use of single-use plastics has created a number of environmental problems that need to be addressed, there are also numerous upstream consequences of a consumer-oriented society that will not be eliminated, even if plastic waste is drastically reduced,” she said.

“The resource extraction, manufacturing and use phases generally dominate the environmental impacts of most products. So, reduction in materials consumption is always preferable to recycling, since the need for additional production is eliminated.”

*Bold emphasis added

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation’s Environmental Sustainability program under Grant No. CBET 1804287.

Read the entire publication : https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.0c05295

Practicing Water Awareness

My wife and I took some time this morning to water our ‘urban farm’ where young fruit trees grow roots deep into the ground and carrots push their orange tops above the soil line. I was reminded of the majesty of rain and how much less work it is for us when God’s irrigation system nourishes our plants. It’s easy to take water for granted until the earth cracks and life around us is parched. We have had a good summer here in the Bluegrass of Kentucky with regular storms to keep things growing while also experiencing very little of the flooding that quickly drowns life out of the soil. The more hours I spend in the garden, the more I appreciate this life-giving balance of just enough water but not too much. What an incredible gift from the Creator!

But it is not all good news around our magnificent planet. In the last 12 months, we have seen historic droughts (and flooding) in so many places around the world. Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan had their wheat crops destroyed by sustained drought. Australia, which is an arid continent at the best of times, is still badly affected by a record drought spanning much of the early 2000’s. Closer to home, Texas just experienced its driest 12 months on record (ending in July).

While we may not be able to enact grand plans to prevent this kind of global devastation, there is one thing we can all do. Each and every day we can make a difference by simply paying attention to the way we use water. As we become aware that water is a gift from the Creator, we will change our wasteful habits and we will be formed into the proper stewards we were made to be. Here are a few things we do in our home to foster this kind of awareness:

  • Capture water in rain-barrels for the garden…you can even just put out containers when it rains to water your house plants.
  • Place a tub in your sink to wash dishes…you don’t need a whole sink full of water to wash the dishes!
  • Keep the faucet off while brushing your teeth…this has been a tough habit for us to break but it will save you gallons of water each week.
  • Use a Bucket to capture “grey water” in the shower…our family and friends in Australia habitually place a bucket in the shower that catches water for the garden or lawn.

These practices help conserve a precious resource. They also form us as disciples of Jesus and lovers of this blessed earth. Next time you turn on a faucet, I encourage you to say a prayer of thanks for the precious gift of water.


Geoff Maddock makes his home with his wife, Sherry and 8-year-old son, Isaac in downtown Lexington, KY. He is a missionary in his neighborhood and serves on the board of Seedleaf (www.seedleaf.org ) while also working part-time for Blessed Earth.