Can Americans live in a world without plastic?

Preconceptions are strange concepts in that they are usually wrong! Plastic packaging has become a hot-button issue. Cities and whole countries are banning single-use plastics. My city banned plastic straws which was rescinded when the state made it illegal to ban them. It seems to me that plastic cutlery poses a bigger threat than plastic straws, but apparently I just don’t understand. My first response to any issue that intrigues me is to read a book on the topic. Unfortunately, this topic is so wide, I did not trust one book to get the whole story—so I read two. The first was written by an activist couple—Jay Sinha and Chantal Plamondon—titled Life Without Plastic: The Practical Step-by-Step Guide to Avoiding Plastic to Keep Your Family and the Planet Healthy. To balance it out I went to Peak Plastic: The Rise or Fall of Our Synthetic World written by Jack Buffington, an executive who manages logistics for Coors. I expected many different viewpoints expressed in the two books, and I found them. What I did not expect was the agreement between the two perspectives in many cases.

               

The problem with plastic is twofold according to Life Without Plastic. First, it is a safety issue as toxic additives leach into food products from the plastics. The book “has been written from a solid precautionary perspective based on the assumption that all plastics can be toxic in some way, especially when they break down into tiny microplastic particles” (p.27) Second, plastics are polluting our environment particularly our oceans, lakes and streams. Peak Plastic makes the case for why plastics play such an important role in our lives and contends that the net benefits currently outweigh the detriments. Buffington cautions us, however, that negative aspects of plastics will overtake the positive ones by the year 2030 which is what he calls peak plastic.

The lines between the perspectives in these two books are not as clear as they might seem. Life Without Plastic is a well-researched book that is not mindless advocacy as I had anticipated. Peak Plastic expresses concerns about the safety of additives used in plastic manufacture going as far as to say “If it was our belief government regulation would keep us safe within a global supply-and-demand networked system, then it is our mistake to have assumed this.” (p.35) Very scary stuff coming from an industry executive. I continue to have faith in government regulation to protect the safety of the products I consume. Buffington also concedes that industry must find ways to reduce the impact of plastic pollution. Both books clearly state that recycling of plastics is NOT the answer. My biggest surprise was that the two books were in agreement on the problems associated with plastic packaging and differed primarily in its extent and their solutions.

bread, butter, eggs, carrots, bananas and cucumbers all packaged in plastic
Plastics that entered my life after one short trip to the grocery store

The solution to reducing our over-reliance on plastic is dramatically different in the two books. Life Without Plastic takes the ‘just-say-no’ approach to plastics. Sinha and Plamondon have done all that is humanly possible to eliminate plastics from their lives by refusing to buy any product that that is packaged in plastic or contains plastic. They have developed a number of rather ingenious DIY solutions to the domination of plastics in their lives. For example, “There are many types of food that you can buy fresh in large quantities—such as nourishing, succulent fruits and veggies at harvest time—and freeze in large, clearly identified airtight containers.” (p.100) Stainless steel and glass are their containers of choice. If anything, they have demonstrated just how difficult it is to live in modern times without plastic and how expensive it will be, at least initially, to make the switch. For those individuals not willing to go the length that the authors have to rid themselves of this modern scourge, we are told just do what we can to release the grip plastic has on our lives. Every little bit helps.

Buffington in Peak Plastic places his hopes in modifying the supply chain. The first step in this solution is to have companies using plastics become more transparent thus engendering trust from the general public. Then the industry needs to move away from the current forms of plastics to “use technology and innovation to create materials better than nature, including a polymerization process that offered magnificent innovation and near 100% reusability.” (p.148) To achieve this end will require a concerted effort by the industry freed by government to innovate and produce new materials that do not contain toxic additives, function as well as current plastics and can be completely recycled. By working through the supply chain, incentives can be developed to encourage recycling and discourage plastic pollution.  

Limitations to these recommendations: While it is hard not to be excited by the enthusiasm emanating from both books, it is also difficult not to be highly skeptical of them. Just how many people will take a stainless steel container or glass bowl with reusable beeswax covers to the supermarket to fill up on bulk items? And how many families will carry metal cutlery and reusable metal straws with them to each restaurant they go to along with alternate containers to replace the Styrofoam doggie cartons of leftovers from their meal? And how many Americans will need to ban plastic from their lives to make a difference in global plastic pollution? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I have my doubts that enough people will make drastic enough changes without strict governmental regulation. One more thing, while we are at it. Most of the DIY suggestions in Life Without Plastic were credible, but I viewed with horror only a food scientist could muster the suggestion of hot water canning of vegetables. Such a practice could lead to deaths from botulism.

Moving on to Peak Plastic I hoped to find some solace, but I did not. His whole solution is based on a premise that consumers will become more trusting of packaging companies when more transparent with their practices does not seem credible to me. As Anna Zeide has clearly stated in Canned, consumers do not trust food companies and are unlikely to show greater trust in manufacturers of plastic or alternative packaging. Buffington is also pinning his hope on advanced, innovative research to develop within the next ten years completely new materials that are supernatural and easily recycled. I know of no current effort in this direction, and I am highly skeptical that something of such magnitude can be accomplished in such a short time period.

Where do these ideas leave us? If these two books coming from very different backgrounds and experiences are right, we are in big trouble. The global consequences of plastic could hit before those associated with climate change. The message from both perspectives is clear that we need to reduce our reliance on plastics, but it will be so difficult. I am not nearly as concerned about the safety of plastic packaging of foods as I am of potential effects of plastic pollution on the health of the planet. I am not confident that enough people will make enough changes in their lifestyles to make a difference. I also don’t believe that the public will come together with the packaging industry to embrace packages that are “better than nature.” I can only hope the dire projections that I have read about are overblown.

Plastics and packaging are not my areas of expertise. The next three posts on this site will be by guests to provide their perspective on plastic packaging.

Next week: Single Use Plastics by Katherine Witrick

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