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

Sharing the Stuff We Have

I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Texas in the spring of 2008, and proceeded directly into graduate school in Asian Cultures and Languages. As I was finishing up school that May, I had been helping my college ministry put on some different events when a somewhat regular experience launched me onto a slightly different road than I had planned.

Going by a friend’s house to put up, of all things, a dry erase board, I noticed five movies sitting underneath his TV that I had rented that semester from a local store. I proceeded to make a joke that he should have been a friend and let me borrow them instead of me going out to spend money on them. “Well, you are a friend,” Josh said. “You should have asked me. I would have let you borrow them.” It was a Catch-22 moment. He had what I was looking for, and would have let me borrow the films, but I wasn’t aware that he had them. Had I known, I might have saved $30, been a more sustainable consumer, and probably had some good conversations about the movies with Josh as well.

I continued thinking about the idea throughout the summer, wondering how best to establish a network that would be an access point for friends to see what was available to them before deciding to purchase something. I was blessed to come across a course called Social Entrepreneurship. This course allowed me to flesh out an idea for a social venture as though I were presenting it for start-up capital. I was encouraged by my professors to make ActsofSharing.com a reality, and instead of going back to India for another summer studying Urdu, I decided to take my plan to investors.

I was able to raise the initial seed money to create Acts of Sharing, which had a soft launch on Earth Day last year, right as I was finishing my Masters degree. Recently, Acts of Sharing was named an SXSW Interactive Finalist, and we were able to participate at SXSW in the Trade Show and received publicity and accolades from companies and individuals who want to bring AOS to their communities.

As of Earth Day 2011, we have launched our Acts of Sharing iPhone app, with the Android app in the works. The App allows people to share on the go, and even scan/search for items they are shopping for to see if a friend has them before they buy them.

We really do have more together, and if we leverage the resources we already have, we can recreate the culture of the first church described in Acts 4:32 “All the believers were one in heart and mind, no one considered anything to be his own, but they shared everything they had.”

Like Blessed Earth, Acts of Sharing helps people care for God’s creation by encouraging them to share the things they have (from gardening tools to books to camping equipment to DVDs) in order to bless others, rather than continually buying things we only use a few times. Most of what we’re looking for, a friend already has locally. By sharing together we live in deeper community and live in a more sustainable way, both environmentally and financially.

Brian Boitmann


Brian Boitmann is the founder and chief sharer of ActsofSharing.com. Originally from Southlake, Texas, he attended the University of Texas at Austin graduating with an M.A. in South Asian History. Brian leads Singles and College ministry at Lake Hills Church in Austin, TX, where he resides.