Why do humans use plastic even though we know it’s harmful to earth?
We have created a monster we cannot destroy. The war on single-use plastic has been waging among environmentalists for years. Campaigns to save the turtles from plastic straws have brought the issue into the public zeitgeist.
We worry about the plastic in the ocean, but we misunderstand the complicated source of the problem. Since its invention, we have grown more dependent on plastic in nearly every facet of our lives.
But we know it’s harmful, so why do we use it?
Synthetic plastics were invented in 1869 but did not become commercialized until 1907 with Bakelite. This new material was durable, resistant to heat, and perfect for mass production. And so the era of plastic was born.
By the 1960s, plastics were everywhere, from planes to clothing. Plastic, from a chemical engineering perspective, is a near-perfect material. Plastics range in thickness, opacity, and durability, meaning there is plastic for nearly any use. However, as we learned to manufacture plastics on a global scale, we learned to throw out a product that is not easily disposed of.
Recycling and reusing plastics is difficult if not impossible. The recycled plastic degrades in quality and is not profitable. Unlike organic materials, like cardboard, wood, and food, plastic cannot decompose, and it is dangerous to burn.
Unlike glass or ceramic, plastic is not infinitely recyclable or reusable. Plastic never disappears or turns into something else. It breaks down into smaller pieces that become ingrained in our natural systems.
While there is a mass marketing movement around recycled plastics, our current recycling capabilities are nowhere near the levels we produce plastic at. Most people know that plastic is bad for the environment. Many of them even have suitable alternatives for plastic, but we still use single-use plastic every day. Plastic is inescapable.
Plastic, while vilified, is actually essential for many industries. The medical industry relies on plastic to maintain hygienic standards, the food industry uses plastic to cut down on food waste, and consumer goods use plastic for its lightweight, moldable, durable qualities.
There are many instances where it would be unwise to stop using single-use plastic. Would you trust a nurse giving you a shot if you didn’t see them take the syringe out of a new plastic package?
Plastics, a wonder-material, are suited to ensure convenience, hygiene, protection, preservation, and reduce waste. For example, there is evidence that the environmental impact of the waste caused by plastic food wrapping is substantially less than the environmental impact of food going to waste.
Given the current alternatives, many would argue that single-use plastic is the most environmentally friendly material.
The main reason any industry continues to use plastic over another material is simply that plastic is more efficient and effective than any other substitution. We use durable plastics in the automotive industry because metal is too heavy and too expensive.
Single-use plastic in the medical industry protects tools from pathogens. Architects use vinyl windows because they last longer than wood-framed ones. We have become reliant on plastic in every sector of our world, and it is too difficult to wean ourselves off of this miracle material.
Are we thinking about the plastic problem wrong?
The discussion around single-use plastic is rampant in the ethical consumerism discourse. Buying a reusable water bottle and bringing reusable bags to the grocery store are the first steps a fledgling environmentalist takes.
Consumers have been convinced that recycling plastic and using paper drinking straws will somehow disrupt the 500 billion USD global plastic industry. The anti-plastic activism has been relegated to individual actions that reflect only a small percentage of total plastic production and waste.
The plastics industry tricked consumers into believing that their individual actions can curb the plastic issue. Recycling, however, is not as productive as they lead consumers to believe. Straws do not make up most of the ocean plastic, commercial fishing nets do.
Ethically minded consumers will avoid plastic at all costs, but many consumers do not have the luxury. Many people cannot afford zero-plastic alternatives to the products they use every day. Even those who can opt-out of plastic cannot completely avoid plastic. Plastic, whether we like it or not, is in everything.
Single-use plastic seems to be a huge problem for the environment when in reality it is a necessary evil. Single-use plastic can reduce waste in other ways. Plastic food packaging reduces food waste. Plastic shipping materials are lighter and thus require less fuel to transport.
We use plastic because it is light, durable, and protective. It is cheap to produce and cheap to ship. It keeps hospitals clean and food fresh. The new sustainable alternatives to plastic have not proven to be as effective as petroleum-based plastics.
For many consumers, there is no cheap alternative to plastic-wrapped products. They do not have the privilege to not choose plastic. Industrial plastics are too beneficial to be replaced with metal, glass, or wood.
Companies that use plastic are not responsible for the disposal of their products, and thus the burden of plastic pollution is on municipal waste management.
Unfortunately, plastic is a perfect material with many uses. We continue to produce plastic because it is the best material to use. Chemical engineers and entrepreneurs are on the hunt for suitable alternatives to petroleum-based plastics.
It is nearly impossible for humans to stop using plastic: it is entrenched in every facet of our lives. We can, however, create a more sustainable plastic cycle, where more plastic is recycled so that all the plastic we produce can be reused.
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