We're on Day 8 of our "Plastics-Free February" watch, and I can finally report that the effort has generated an acknowledgment of the benefits of plastics. I almost feel guilty. Yesterday I posted an item complaining that no one involved in the project was even questioning whether trying to live without plastics was a worthy goal. "The universal assumption is that plastics are something that consumers should avoid," I wrote. "But I haven't seen any serious thought about the pros and cons of different materials." Today, Rodale Inc., the magazine publishing company that cooked up "Plastics-Free February," took up the gauntlet. Emily Main, online editor for Rodale.com, wrote a guest item for Maria Rodale's blog on The Huffington Post, headlined "Is Plastic Really That Bad?" Regular Huffington Post readers may be surprised (the site often includes contributions that slam plastics over chemical safety issues), but Main took a careful look and concluded that plastics actually have benefits -- even plastics packaging! Main wrote that after a visit to the grocery store on Sunday, she realized that it was very difficult to avoid buying anything that wasn't wrapped in plastic.
That got me thinking. Is plastic really that bad of a material? There must be some reason it's become the packaging material of choice for everything from crackers to contact lens solution. And, as it turns out, there is. Back in 1969, Coca Cola commissioned the very first life cycle analysis on packaging materials to determine whether the company should stick with its returnable glass bottles, switch over primarily to aluminum cans, or go with plastic bottles. The plastic bottles won out because, the analysis found, they used the least amount of oil and natural gas of the three alternatives. Glass is too heavy and requires more trucks to ship, and aluminum is extremely energy-intensive to manufacture.Main goes on to cite other examples where plastic is superior to alternative packaging -- or to no packaging at all. She cites a study by Food Review stating that in countries where food packaging is minimal or nonexistent, food waste is as high as 50 percent. Main doesn't ignore issues related to plastics packaging, including the still-in-the-spotlight chemical safety and marine debris problems. In the end, she concludes that plastics have benefits, but some products are grossly overpackaged. I think most Plastics Blog readers will agree with that conclusion.