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

A Picnic for All Occasions

For Mother’s Day this year, my family knew what would bring me the most joy: a picnic. My husband, Matthew, served as sous chef. Our daughter, Emma, made the fruit salad and homemade bread. Clark brought his wife, Valerie, along with her extraordinary storytelling abilities. The evening air was punctuated with cheers from a friendly baseball game in the park and the familiar chatter of well-fed robins and squirrels. After the meal, each member of my family shared three things they most appreciate about me. I cried more than once.
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Throughout the seasons, picnics make an ordinary meal anything but routine. Matthew and I picnicked on some of our first dates, and we’ve continued to dine alfresco regularly for three decades. Most meals have been sublime in their simplicity—a blanket spread in the backyard makes even PLT (pickle, lettuce, and tomato) sandwiches taste special.
When we travel by car, I try to pack picnic meals—a cheaper, healthier alternative to fast food. We’ve picnicked at the beach, in the woods, in fields, in cemeteries, at rest stops, in parks, and on playgrounds.

For our thirtieth anniversary, Matthew and I packed up homemade crab cakes and ate them on the grounds of a local estate. The historic buildings are closed in the evening, but the grounds are left open. We had the gardens to ourselves—with extra ambience supplied by friendly fireflies.
Since moving from the suburbs to the city, we have been picnicking more than ever. Within easy walking distance, we’ve discovered three parks with picnic tables. The park closest to us also has a gazebo, where we’ve enjoyed slices of seedless watermelon after our family Friday night dinners.

Picnics also make for easy entertaining. Recently, we picnicked with friends and their three small kids in the park behind our house. The kids played on the equipment while the grown ups talked. Bethany made a warm pasta and pesto salad, and I brought cheese, fruit, and carrot cake to round out the meal. Bonus: no clean up. The birds ate up all the crumbs.
Picnics create a memorable oasis—a time set apart from everyday life—to be in nature and to enjoy God’s sustaining gifts. What can be more holy than saying grace and breaking bread together in the shade of a life-giving tree?


Nancy Sleeth serves as the Managing Director for Blessed Earth and is the author of Go Green, Save Green: A Simple guide to saving time, money, and God’s green earth, the first-ever practical guide for going green from a faith perspective.

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Sabbath Bread

In her book, Mudhouse Sabbath*, Lauren Winner writes about how the Sabbath shapes the entire week. In Exodus, God tells us to remember the Sabbath. And in Deuteronomy, we are told to observe the Sabbath. Winner says that, for Jews, the first half of the week is spent remembering the preceding Sabbath while the second half is spent preparing for or observing the Sabbath to come.

We have three kids all under eight years old. Like everyone says, the time flies! We cannot believe how quickly it goes, yet meeting their daily physical needs can still be draining. And those physical needs do not seem to take a break for remembrance or observance of a special day of the week.

I have been a part of a Bible study for the past five years where we intensely study a different book of the Bible each year. One of the recurring personal lessons for me has been about the Sabbath. I have noticed it repeated throughout the Old and New Testament as a command, not just a good idea. So we have been trying to incorporate observance of the Sabbath into our home, even with young children whose needs do not stop on Sundays.

For a year or so, Nancy Sleeth and I were able to meet to talk and walk through the roads and park of our small town. Now, Nancy lives a bit further away so our walks are sporadic and I miss her. But whenever I get a chance to be with her, we usually quickly gravitate to the topics of children, the Sabbath, food or a combination of all three—which I consider to all be areas of her expertise. I love any chance to dialog with her on some specifics of keeping the Sabbath with our family.

Nancy has encouraged us to make the Sabbath “look different” from the rest of the week. Using that idea we have adopted a bit of a Sunday routine that begins with Sabbath Bread. I partially got the idea from Nancy’s Jewish heritage of challah bread made the day before the Sabbath. Our version of Sabbath Bread is a simple whole wheat bread recipe that I turn into a loaf of cinnamon-raisin swirl bread. I typically make it during the second part of the week as a way to prepare for or observe the Sabbath.

On Saturday night we leave the bread on the counter in a bag. We also set out some butter. A few times I have made a special cream cheese icing to spread on the bread. Yum! Now that our oldest is such a great reader, we can leave notes for her to read to her brothers. We remind them about the Sabbath Bread for breakfast, ask them to help each other and to put their dirty plates in the sink. (Since it is Sunday, they do not have to put their dishes in the dishwasher—another attempt for Sundays to “look different.”) Sometimes this intentional difference has even allowed us to sleep in past 7am—a small miracle!

Many weeks, we even have a few slices of Sabbath Bread left for Monday’s breakfast serving as a tangible reminder of the day before—remembering our Sabbath. While we are still practicing new ways to make the Sabbath “look different” from the rest of our week, Sabbath Bread has been a good starting point for our family.

Here is a link to the recipe that I use most often. I adapt the recipe to make two loaves at a time with one being for sandwiches. The other becomes the cinnamon-raisin loaf that is our Sabbath Bread. I generally use all whole wheat bread flour from a local mill for all the flours used in the recipe.

By Bethany Barker

http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Simple-Whole-Wheat-Bread/Detail.aspx
*(Winner, Lauren F. Mudhouse Sabbath Paraclete Press. 2003. pp. 1–13)

Irresistible “Healthy” Cinnamon Rolls

My friend, Bethany, makes Sunday cinnamon roll a special treat. She bakes and slices it the night before, then leaves it out for breakfast so she and her husband can stay in bed an extra hour on Sabbath morning while her three young children enjoy a special meal.

I always make two loaves when we have guests—if there are any extras, they make a very welcome care package!

  • 1 1/8 cup warm water
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 1/2 cups local, unbleached white flour (or combination of white and light wheat)
  • ½ cup oat bran hot cereal (dry)
  • ½ cup nonfat dry milk
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 2 tsp yeast

Add ingredients in order listed to bread maker and set for quick rise, dough only OR mix incredients well and let rise 1 hour in greased bowl set in sunny spot. When dough has doubled, roll out onto floured board into two large rectangles. Spread each rectangle with thin coating of softened butter (optional) and then coat liberally with cinnamon-sugar mixture (about 4 parts sugar to 1 part cinnamon). Carefully roll up each rectangle, seal long edge with wet fingers, and place seam side down on lightly greased pan or baking sheet. Allow to rise in warm spot until about double in size. Bake at 350 F for about 15 minutes. Do not overcook. If desired, brush outside with light coating of butter and sprinkle with more cinnamon-sugar. Serve warm.


Nancy Sleeth serves as the Program Director for Blessed Earth and is the author of Go Green, Save Green: A Simple guide to saving time, money, and God’s green earth, the first-ever practical guide for going green from a faith perspective.

A Place at the Table

Last month, we had John and Margo from the Wildlands Network over for dinner. John is doing an east coast trek to raise awareness about the need for wildlife corridors in North America. One of their staff members follows Blessed Earth on Twitter and Facebook, and she asked if John could stop by while he was passing through Kentucky.

As you know, Blessed Earth is all about building bridges. We help people who love the Creator learn how to love and respect His creation. And we help those who love the creation connect that love with the Creator.

Our conversation at dinner was about finding common ground. Margo, the executive director of Wildlife Network, was raised as a Catholic and John’s father taught at a Baptist college. But neither had ever connected their work with the scriptural call to care for the earth. For example, as Matthew pointed out, the gleaning laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy not only provide for the widows and orphans, but allow the hedgerows necessary for wildlife to thrive.

In God’s beautiful design, all of creation is connected. As my wise husband often says, “No trees. No birds. No bees. No humans.” Protecting spaces for wildlife to migrate and flourish is not only good for animals: it is essential to human survival. Most importantly, it shows respect for God’s creation and the great responsibility of our Genesis 2:15 stewardship role.

For our dinner with John and Margo, I made my honey whole wheat rolls. Matthew said grace, and we broke bread together. Our conversation was inspiring and fruitful, with much information shared in both directions. As they got ready to go, I packed up the extra rolls for John to enjoy on the trail. He was grateful, saying they were so good he “could not stop eating them at dinner.”

A few days later, I received an email from a Blessed Earth friend who was looking for my honey whole wheat bread recipe, which had been published a few years back in Guideposts Magazine. I pass it along now in hopes that you, too, will reach out to neighbors near and far, sharing your love for God and His creation in the biblical tradition-by inviting others to share a place at the table.

With love and prayers,
Nancy

Honey Whole Wheat Bread and Rolls

  • 1 ½ cups warm water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 T honey (local honey, if possible)
  • 1 T canola oil or butter
  • 2 cups unbleached flour (local/freshly ground, when possible)
  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • ¼ cup bran hot cereal (dry, not cooked)
  • 2 tsp yeast
  • 2 T poppy seeds (optional)

Mix ingredients in above order in bread machine or by hand. Allow to rise in warm spot. Punch down, knead, and allow to rise again. Bake for about 25-30 mins in 350 oven until done. Do not over bake. Spread top with thin coating of butter, if desired.

If you want to make the bread a little richer, add ¼ cup dried milk, one egg, 1 tsp vanilla, and a bit more honey. (These additions also provide a little calcium and protein–at least that’s how I justify their nearly dessert-like taste!) For a change of pace, try also adding 1 tsp cinnamon and ½ cup dried cranberries.

Lately, I have been using the quick rise setting on my bread machine (45 mins), then breaking the dough into about 30 rolls, allowing to rise a second time, and baking for about 10- 15 mins in a 350 degree oven. If desired, spread a thin coat of butter over the tops of the warm rolls.


Nancy Sleeth serves as the Program Director for Blessed Earth and is the author of Go Green, Save Green: A Simple guide to saving time, money, and God’s green earth, the first-ever practical guide for going green from a faith perspective.

Salad Season!

Spring has arrived with gusto in Kentucky. We are still having lots of rain and some cool days but the green life everywhere is a treat for the eyes and soul. We have planted our little backyard garden and are getting excited about being able to eat what we grow ourselves. It always feels like such a miracle for us ‘brown thumbs’ to put a few seeds in the ground and eventually receive something that is edible. We are amazed that the Creator allows us to be a small part of His creative processes.

Our kids are getting older, and the garden is becoming a family affair. It was so much fun to pour seeds into our kids’ grubby hands and watch their excitement as they sprinkled their seeds into the little trenches they had just dug. Little green sprouts are beginning to emerge from these seeds, and we all find ourselves checking the garden several times a day, just to see if we notice any new growth.

Salad greens seem to be some of the first plants to grow in our little garden. We have been trying different recipes using these fresh greens as the main part of our meals. I credit my sisters-in-law and some friends with helping expand my definition of “salad” to include combinations of fun things like toasted seeds and nuts, fresh and dried fruits, fresh herbs, and cheeses that accompany a variety of fresh greens.

Lately I have also been trying some new salad dressing recipes. Making your own salad dressing seems to be a simple way to cut back on preservatives and packaging. These yummy dressings help make our salads into meals that even our kids cheer-!

Below are some of our current favorite salad dressing recipes.

Juli’s Sweet & Sour Vinaigrette
This is a great all-purpose vinaigrette.

  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ½ cup seasoned rice vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • ½ cup vegetable oil

Mix sugar and salt into the vinegar until dissolved. Add oil and shake well to mix.

Creamy Curry Dressing
We added chopped hard boiled eggs, garbonzo beans, cashews, and dried cranberries to the salad greens and spring onions for this main dish salad.

  • ½ cup plain yogurt
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons honey, more or less to taste
  • 2 teaspoons curry, more or less to taste
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Puree ingredients in a blender until smooth.

Creamy Cilantro & Avocado Dressing
This became a main dish with the addition of black beans, corn, and tomatoes.

  • ½ cup plain yogurt
  • ½ ripe avocado
  • ¾ cup packed cilantro
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon sugar

Puree ingredients in a blender until smooth.

Red Wine Vinaigrette
This one is nice with chopped fresh apples, crumbled strong cheese (like bleu, feta, gorgonzola, chevre, etc.) and toasted walnuts.

  • ½ cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • black pepper, freshly ground
  • 1 cup olive oil

Mix the vinegar, lemon juice, honey, salt and pepper in a blender. With the blender running, slowly add in the olive oil.

Eating from the Pantry

I have begun to re-read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and she suggests we consider, “what do I have available to eat?” instead of “what do I want to eat?” This perspective naturally shifts the focus towards eating what is local and in season.

There are plenty of options for us during the gardening months. For example, here in Kentucky, tomatoes are abundant and delicious in the late summer and early fall. But in winter our choices seem more limited. So, I asked myself Kingsolver’s question in prepping for a meal recently.

My mom is a Family and Consumer Science teacher. This is the new, more official name for Home Ec.:) As we work to stretch our family’s budget, but to still eat well, my mom has reminded me that the best way to save food money is to “eat from your pantry.” Mom’s advice pairs well with Kingsolver’s question of “what do I have available to eat?” as well as facilitating creativity.

Tonight’s supper was a pasta dish that came from ingredients we already had on hand. Tomatoes dehydrated from last summer’s farmer’s market were featured in the simple pasta dish. We store the dehydrated tomatoes in the freezer to maintain their freshness but also to keep us from eating them too quickly. They have an intense tangy-sweet flavor that our whole family loves. The dried tomatoes add a bit of summer flavor without the unnatural and costly addition of hothouse tomatoes. Below is the basic recipe I used.

Pasta with Dried Tomatoes, Garlic and Olive Oil

  • 1 lb. pasta (we used whole wheat spaghetti)
  • 20 dried tomato slices
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1-tablespoon capers, optional
  • freshly grated asiago, Romano or Parmesan cheese, optional
  • coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Prepare the pasta according to directions. While pasta cooks rehydrate tomato slices by placing them in a small bowl with some of the boiling pasta water. Drain pasta and tomatoes. Leave pasta in pot and stir in tomatoes, minced garlic, olive oil, capers, salt and pepper. Toss to combine and serve with cheese.