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.”


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

Picking up Trash on the Road to Creation Care

We live in the country, and we got into the business of picking up trash by keeping our own road cleaned up—something we’ve done for many years. Now we’re in our mid seventies and retired, and to keep ourselves active we walk on nearby country roads, and we figure that if we’re going to walk, we may as well take a trash bag or two and a “grabber” (which lets us reach into semi-inaccessible places) and pick up trash along the road.

After we’ve picked up a road, we load up our bags (and sometimes an old battery or motor that we find), take them home, and sort the stuff—recycling most of the plastic, all the glass and aluminum, and disposing of the rest in the orange bags our Monroe County Solid Waste District provides. If we find some trash with an address on it, we’re just ornery enough to mail it back to the offender, with a reminder to dispose of it properly next. On Mondays after one of these collecting binges, we often have a “dump date”, loading the trash and recycle into the car and heading for the collection center.

Frankly, we’re offended by trash along the road. It’s a symptom of the greater trashing of our planet that goes on in so many ways. We encourage our politicians to do the right things for the environment; we try to minimize our carbon footprint. We drive a VW TDI diesel which gets 50 mpg. We have a geothermal heating/cooling system in our house, and try to get by using it as little as possible (in the winter we burn a lot of firewood). We hang out our clothes to dry, and grow tomatoes and corn in our garden in sufficient quantities to preserve a bit each year.

And we keep Sabbath—we’re old-fashioned sabbatarians, observing Sabbath on Saturday, in the Jewish manner (as good Seventh-day Adventists should). We do use our computer on Sabbath—it was on the National Cathedral website that we got acquainted with Matthew Sleeth. But we don’t buy things or do business or work—unless you call it work to pick up an occasional can in the nearby state forest.

Somebody asked us once “what’s the point of caring for this earth if God is going to make all things new?” Our answer was, “why would God give a new earth to people who trashed the original one?”

A big thank you to Blessed Earth for encouraging us in this humble work. There’s a huge contradiction between what Jesus taught and the practices of a lot of people who call themselves Christians. You are making a connection that a lot of people desperately need to make.

Don & Jean Rhoads

Bloomington, IN

New “Go Green, Save Green” Resource – and it’s Free!

Good news!  We have a new resource to accompany my book Go Green Save Green:  A Simple Guide for Saving Time, Money, and God’s Green Earth.

Go Green, Save Green is the first practical, faith-based book to help families, churches, and schools save money while saving the earth.  Thousands of individuals and groups have used Go Green to lead Sunday school classes and start church-based green teams.

The new free, downloadable discussion guide, developed at the request of small group leaders, will encourage and equip you to share the creation care journey at home, in church, in the workplace, and throughout your community.

We are always glad to hear your feedback, so please don’t hesitate to write (contact@blessedearth.org) and tell us how this and our other Blessed Earth resources are helping you serve God and save the planet where you live.

Every blessing,

P.S.–If you are considering using Go Green, Save Green for a Sunday school class or small group, please send an email to emma@blessedearth.org, and we would be happy to send you a review copy.  It  makes a great group study leading up to Earth Day!

Click here to download a pdf version of the guide.

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.

Taking a Break from Consumerism

One of the most poorly understood realities in Christianity today is the connection between our lived faith and everyday consumption. Unfortunately, most of us (myself included) give little thought to what we buy–and even less to where it was made, who sold it, where our money goes, and the ethical implications of its production, consumption, and eventual disposal. Abetted by a tendency to separate our “spiritual” from our “everyday” lives, this consumer society drives us to buy without regard for the impact that consumption may have on our faith.

Craig Goodwin, a pastor from Spokane, Washington, wonderfully addresses this disconnect in his recent book, Year of Plenty. In late December of 2007, after a particularly stressful binge of Christmas shopping, Craig and his wife Nancy decided to try a bold experiment. For the entire next year they would buy only things that were used, homegrown, homemade, or made and sold locally. While the idea began as a reaction against materialism, it quickly developed into something deeply personal and spiritual. In Craig’s words:

We wanted to break free of the belief that our hope and joy could be found in consumable goods…. we wanted to raise our daughters as children of the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of goods. We wanted to live more fully integrated lives by making financial decisions based on what we value and believe. (18)

Year of Plenty not only chronicles the Goodwin family adventure (in a lively and entertaining manner, I should add), but also delves deeply into the theological implications that such a lifestyle has on our relationships, our general well-being, our lived faith, and our spirit.

One of the most important points that Goodwin makes is to bring attention to the false dualism between the physical and spiritual. God became flesh, uniting the physical and spiritual aspects of our faith. In Colossians 1:16-19 Paul states: “[I]n [Jesus] all things were created…. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together…. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things.” Goodwin ties their experiment to this crucial Biblical concept by asserting that “the heart of the good news of the gospel is that God has chosen to come among the ordinary, to surround the ordinary with holiness.” (155)

What could be more ordinary, and (seemingly) less sacred, than grocery shopping? Yet Goodwin rejects this perceived lack of spiritual application by continually going back to scripture and by personally demonstrating such valuable connections as:

  • buying local = loving your neighbor
  • caring about the treatment of animals = honoring their Creator
  • starting a farmer’s market at church = reaching out to your community
  • planting a garden = implementing a lifestyle of prayer and meditation

We live in the wealthiest and most consumption-oriented society in the history of the world. Yet, we rarely consider the impact that our consumption has on our spirit, our community, our environment, our global neighbors, or our relationship with God. The Goodwin family’s journey has never been more relevant, nor more important, than today.

For more about the Goodwin family adventure, to read Pastor Goodwin’s blog, or to check out the book, go to www.yearofplenty.org

Brian Webb serves as the Director of Educational Programs for Blessed Earth and is passionate about helping people connect their faith with God’s call to care for his creation. He lives with his wife, Becky, and daughters, Acadia (“Cadie”) and Galilee (“Lilee”), in western New York where he also serves as the Director of Intercultural Student Programs at Houghton College.

Practical Ways to be a Christian Each Day

God started tugging on my heart two and a half years ago when I read Dr. Sleeth’s book Serve God, Save the Planet. It was one of the quarterly books assigned to the Sierra Pacific Conference (the Free Methodist conference of Northern California), and I had never been really interested in any of the books they assigned until this one popped up. When I asked my husband Jaymes what this one was about, he quite truthfully said that he didn’t know because he hadn’t read it yet, but maybe I would be interested.

As I read, I felt God confirming in me thoughts and ideas that had been going through my head in recent months. I practically forced the book on my husband and our good friend, reading them quotes and facts whenever I got the chance. I didn’t know the term “creation care” and just how Biblical it is!

I have currently read all of the Sleeth’s books, and have given out multiple copies of Go Green, Save Green to church friends and a co-worker. I probably sound like an awestruck fan–but the truth is that I am SO overjoyed that God is using the Blessed Earth staff for this ministry! Jaymes and I are praying and working on trying to get my family and our church as fired up as we are. We still have a LOT of planks we are trying to remove from our own eyes, but we pray that by doing so we can be an example and a light to those around us.

I have gone to church since I was three and have been a “Christian” for as long as I can remember, but, like many Christians, I always had a hard time sharing my faith. When talking in groups about “how to share your faith,” we would come up with answers like “we need to be nice to people,” or “we need to help the poor when they need help,” or “we need to be a light in the darkness.” But what does this look like on a daily basis? How does this apply to my life NOW? This is what I love most about the Sleeth family’s ministry; they have brought to attention practical ways to be a Christian each day! What better way to go against the grain of this world, and to live like Jesus did, than to start with creation care? The topic of creation care has started more conversations about my faith these past two years than ever before.

We have recently partnered with our youth group to help raise funds to plant trees through Eden Reforestation Projects. We challenge our youth to pick up change they find on the ground or to give up one soda a week and bring it on Wednesday nights. We have raised over $400 so far! A neat story about ERP is that I was casually mentioning Eden to my non-churched co-worker. She often gets funny looks at work because she is very much into conserving and caring for the environment. When she heard about ERP, she wrote a check for $2,000, and has donated more since. She has also started coming to church and we have conversations about God and creation every time we work together. She has even said to me that she didn’t think many Christians cared for environmental issues, and I told her that we are a growing breed.

My husband and I are so excited, and encouraged as we read more and more about creation care and its impact on the Church. We are so grateful to Blessed Earth for providing us with resources that we can share with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. May God continue to pour His blessings on this ministry!

All for the Kingdom,
Erin Lackey

Erin resides in Northern California where she lives with her husband and one-year-old son, Titus. She is a youth leader at Foothill Community Church, and works part-time as a Radiologic Technologist at the local hospital.

Going Green One Month at a Time

Starting the creation care journey can be overwhelming. When we first met the Sleeths in the summer of 2008, my wife and I were still very “green” in our green lifestyles. It had only been a couple years since we had first begun to see the connections between our faith, our actions, and the environment, and we were inundated with many choices, changes, and challenges that lay before us. That’s why we decided to take things a month at a time.

Beginning in 2008 we chose one creation care change each month and worked at turning that change into a regular habit. By giving ourselves the freedom to focus on just one per month, we were able to make changes at a sustainable pace and to avoid getting weighed down by guilt over what we weren’t doing.

We began the first month by opting to receive our electricity from 100% renewable energy. Despite having electric heat in upstate New York, this one-time, 5-minute change cost us a mere $10 extra per month. February saw us beginning to use reusable shopping bags rather than plastic. March brought composting into our lives and in April we switched all our bulbs to compact fluorescents.

Some changes have been more difficult than others. I love meat. However, the production of meat uses significantly more resources and energy than other foods and typically involves unhealthy, environmentally destructive, and inhumane methods. Thus, rather than tackling meat right away, we’ve gradually cut back on the amount of meat we eat and have switched to local, organic, non-factory farmed meat over a period of years.

These changes have continued over time, and we’ve been surprised at how easily they’ve become incorporated into our regular lives. No longer do we think about turning off the lights when we leave the room, avoiding products with high fructose corn syrup, or choosing fair trade coffee–it just happens. We still have a long way to go, but with the grace of God we are making progress.

New Year’s resolutions often fail because we are too ambitious, are motivated for the wrong reasons, or don’t pursue them in a sustainable way. If you’re interested in implementing once-a-month creation care changes this year, follow these tips to set yourself up for a successful 2011 New Year’s resolution. You’ll be surprised at how much your life will have changed at the end of 12 months!

  1. Select “low-hanging fruit” first. Start with changes you can succeed with and tackle the more difficult ones later.
  2. Give yourself the freedom to do just one change per month.
  3. Diversify your area of focus. After focusing on energy reduction, try a food theme for the next month, followed by something related to waste/recycling the following month, etc.
  4. Some changes may cost extra (switching to organic foods) and some will save money (eating out less); balance the saving and spending months to avoid blowing your budget.
  5. Encourage others to join you in the process.

Your brother in Christ,

Brian Webb

Brian serves as the Director of Communications for Blessed Earth and is passionate about helping people connect their faith with God’s call to care for his creation. He lives with his wife, Becky, and daughter, Acadia (“Cadie”), in western New York where he also serves as the Director of Intercultural Student Programs at Houghton College.