A recent column on The Huffington Post Web site disparaged the use of plastic items and dismissed the recycling of plastic packaging. Too bad the facts were not referenced and the thinking was fuzzy.
Why are plastics used? The simple fact is that plastics replaced other materials or created new uses because consumers decided benefits exceeded the costs.
In the personal decision, the costs most immediate are economic. Plastic packaging and single-use items are convenient, useful, and take fewer dollars out of pockets to meet personal needs and wishes.
But what about environmental costs? Life-cycle analyses, the holistic study for delivering a functional use, show time and time again that plastics usually have the lesser environmental footprint and lesser burden than alternatives.
It is easy to point out deficiencies and issues with no regard to alternatives. Critical thinking requires a comparison of alternatives and plastics have been subjected to such analyses under international rules and with peer review and transparency of data.
Once examined, one realizes that plastics can be fully justified in comparison to alternatives. Sometimes, there is no functional alternative to a plastic item.
Plastics not at fault for packaging waste
Without plastics packaging, the delivery of the function would mean greater waste by volume or weight and greater consumption of energy. Lightweight packaging and non-durable products are usually the best environmental choices if the function is properly delivered.
By the way, the per capita generation of waste has held steady since the 1990s in the United States, with the per capita disposal waste continuing to fall as recycling of all materials increases.
Sorry, doom and gloom mongers: The management of solid waste is not in crushing crisis, but is evolving in an orderly and sustainable manner.
Are single-use plastics ubiquitous? Not hardly. The Environmental Protection Agency's 2007 waste characterization report shows the single-largest category in waste before recycling is paper at 33 percent, and paper is at 22 percent for discarded materials after recycling has occurred.
All plastics in the discarded fraction is 17 percent. And all plastic packaging and containers is 7 percent of the discards. Hardly ubiquitous.
Cardboard boxes and plastic packaging have about the same tonnage of discards after recycling. Critical thinking requires understanding of context.
We wish there were more plastic containers. Why so? Because successful recycling of any material requires critical mass of material.
The light weight of plastics — the reason the environmental burden is as low as it is for units of personal use — makes recycling tougher.
For some plastics, such as PET and high density polyethylene bottles, the critical mass of identifiable material leads to comparable recycling rates with other materials.
The Environmental Protection Agency [has said that] for 2007, paper bags and sacks were recycled at 37 percent, glass bottles at 28 percent, aluminum cans and foil at 39 percent, and plastic soft drink and milk bottles at 33 percent.
Recycling industry isn't small business
Plastics recycling is a multi-billion-pound, multi-industry activity with international trade of material into and out of the US. It is not a cottage industry.
Does material flow to China and [get] burned? Probably, but not by buyers who are intent on being successful in a very competitive international market.
U.S. plastics recyclers estimate that they have demand for at least twice the tons of currently collected post-consumer plastic.
Plastics recycling is limited by the supply of good bales of raw material.
Just as in every other value-creation industry, plastics recyclers need consistent and available starting materials.
Plastics recycling started within months after the first [products] were produced and has never stopped.
The first recycling was what we call today post-industrial. Post-consumer plastics recycling is much newer [and] still chaotic in its growth: The collectors and the sorters and the reclaimers and the converters need to invest and operate and grow.
None of these parties is a charity and each deserves to make enough money to pay wages, taxes, and other bills.
Each is a separate industry, though [they are] linked with common interests. Each industry needs the others and growth is best when [it is] orderly.
Recycling makes dollars — and sense
Market signals matter. The plastic bottle recycling growth rate may not suit some.
It is only 10 percent annual growth over the last 18 years. Most manufacturing industries would love to have growth rates that high, several times the gross domestic product growth rate.
Recycled plastics do go back into [their] original uses.
Recycled PET is made into new food bottles. Recycled HDPE is made into new laundry bottles.
Some recycled packaging plastic is made into high-performance pipe or into high-fashion carpets and textiles or into automobile parts.
Is plastics recycling environmentally responsible? Intuition says it should be, but we see big trucks rolling down streets, collecting stuff, and we wonder.
Again, life-cycle assessments tell us that plastics recycling is a winner. Less energy use, less greenhouse gas generation, and less air pollution result when a plastic molecule is recycled rather than initially created.
Does that mean we need no virgin material? Only if you think the laws of thermodynamics only exist in textbooks.
Just like paper and glass and aluminum, plastics need virgin material to offset the accumulation of damage done by the use of the atoms.
Recycled materials pass official testing
So, the case is made for using plastics and for recycling plastics, but what about safety?
No reputable manufacturer is interested in the liability of exposing customers to toxic materials.
Think about how toxic glazes on pottery are only found on the fringes of the marketplace, not in the mainstream.
Are toxicologists worried about what might leach from plastics? Generally, no.
The European Union, no slouch when it comes to restricting public exposure to chemicals of concern, recognizes that below certain limits, no damage is done.
Regulators in Japan and the EPA have recognized “no effect” exposures to chemicals like bisphenol A.
Is bisphenol A in all plastics, and particularly packaging plastics? Nope.
The vast majority of packaging plastics — including PET, polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene — do not contain bisphenol A. Recycled plastics do not, either.
Recycled plastics are subject to the same regulatory rules as are first-use plastics. Again, life-cycle impact assessments tell us that plastic packaging usually surpasses [the] alternatives.
So what should we do? Use plastics packaging wisely, [instead of] disposing [of it] improperly.
Recycle whenever you can and as often as you can. Insist on proper solid waste management practices for all materials.
Alexander is the executive director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in Washington.