We produce well over 200 billion pounds of plastic each year. This is a well-documented environmental issue of grim proportions; plastic is literally trashing our planet. Brands, manufactures and consumers are fully aware and the search for solutions is in full swing. Fortunately, our awareness has spurred incredible technological advances to address this problem, some better than others.
As a brand, being environmentally accountable is a trait that serves well in the marketplace. It’s a hallmark that projects the greater good. But in a Cass Sunstein meets George Orwell world, where the FTC, EPA, FDA, IRS, (insert acronym), are watching your every move and new terms such as Extended Producer Responsibility emerge, it can be paralyzing to make that technological decision. You want to choose something that is justifiable, reliable and proven.
In a small microcosm of the larger issue, we catch a glimpse of the efforts and problems we face. In a recent article Coffee Makers wrestling with recyclability of single-serve pods, TerraCycle is boasting about recovering 25 million coffee capsules over the last couple years, but has essentially found no use for them. Are we to understand that companies are paying TerraCycle to collect and store these things in some warehouse? Add to this, according to the article, 41 million adults drink a coffee made in a single-cup brewer every day. So in a two year effort, TerraCycle could not recover a single days’ worth of coffee capsules? Clearly, the Customary Disposal Method for this application is the garbage, in other words, the Landfill. Let’s not jump on a bandwagon for the sake of waiving a green flag, the overall effect is useless.
Here’s one, California is now floating a new Bill to put the burden on companies to find solutions for plastic waste in our waterways. The same State that bans the claim of biodegradable materials (and has sued companies legitimately making those claims), is now requiring brands and manufacturers to seek out and implement biodegradable solutions?? Are they expecting producers to put their necks on the line in search for innovation? Good luck taking that bait!
Unfortunately, the principle concern of environmental safety is being contaminated with agendas that have not proven capable of long term sustainability. There is a tendency to gravitate towards colorful Green language instead of clear, black and white solutions. Today, we have the capability to address plastic pollution on an incredible scale, without contamination. Unfortunately, too many producers are paralyzed with uncertainty or are turning to the least point of resistance.
A perfect example is the less than bold stand that one of the largest producers of bottled water took, “Lightweighting”. Holy crap! That’s it? Reduce your costs and provide a rigid bag for a bottle? C’mon…the “commitment to minimizing the environmental impact” is lackluster., considering 50 billion plastic water bottles end up in U.S. landfills each year.
Here’s my humble opinion. Within a generation, we have witnessed the birth of the plastic EVERYTHING. We began filling-up our Landfills with EVERYTHING and noticed NOTHING was reprocessing back into nature. The raging river of plastic is pouring onto our planet and we place the majority of this material in Landfills. There is a biodegradation process in Landfills that is beaming with potential and we have the proven ability to produce, capture and harness one of the most inexpensive and cleanest energy resources and fundamentally address our plastic pollution problem.
Recycling is an industry I support, but the numbers don’t lie and the goal is not to prop-up one particular industry, it’s to clean our planet. We need to stop kidding ourselves and start dealing with reality. I also understand Sourcing from renewable resources, but harvesting Corn for plastic in order to claim “Compostable” is absolutely wrong. I’ve lived in many places over the years and I have yet to find my local Industrial Composting facility. But if I did, I would respectfully not bring them my plastic waste. Let’s face it, you can claim it, but it’s not going there and where it is going, this technology does nothing. For those adding metal into the equation, this technology is borderline criminal. That probably explains the parasitic tendencies of this technology in underdeveloped countries. Both of these technologies have an adverse effect on our Food Source/Supply, which alone is highly irresponsible.
When making the decision on how to be accountable for your Plastic Footprint, know what is out there, get the full story and get the proof that it performs as claimed. If you stand in the light of truth, you will be safe. 70% is greater than 30%, 2+2=4, what’s right is right.
Recycling is all about the environment, conserving our resources and greening our planet.
With the recent onslaught of laws angled at restricting the types of materials allowed to be recycled, one could start to wonder. After all, technically all these materials can be recycled. Are they implying that we should not encourage recyclers to find outlets for new materials? As companies are pushing for new materials that are more sensitive to our fragile environment, recyclers are pushing for laws that prevent recycling these materials, because they want to “protect” their profits and use of traditional plastics?
Are you kidding me?
Sounds a bit more like the green they are pursuing is the money in someones pocket. Even NC Representative Brawley’s site positions “These companies are developing new and innovative technologies to recycle plastic, including the development of new types of degradable and biodegradable plastic materials designed to decompose in landfills or when they are exposed to soil, water, and other natural elements over time. This has great benefits for our environment.” and then at the same time, acknowledges that despite the environmental benefits, we should protect petroleum based plastic recycling. I hear dollar signs $$$..
I may be out in left field, but wouldn’t it make sense to send all materials that have the potential to be recycled to the recyclers and encourage them to find new and innovative ways to recycle those materials? Why are we OK with only recycling a few select materials?
With the latest reports on recycling rates in the US, it definitely seems our recycling infrastructure has a terminal illness; traditional medicines are not working to solve this illness. PET bottle collection rates are stagnant, HDPE recycling rates have dropped and there is no plan in sight to fix this. Even NAPCOR recognized this in their recent statement “without additional collection efforts or NEW STREAMS OF MATERIALS, the increased capacity will only serve to drive prices to unsustainable levels” and from Scott Saunders of KW Plastics Recycling “unfortunately, the recycling rate is going to stay where it is unless some NEW IDEA pushes recyclers forward.”
How about this NEW IDEA to provide NEW STREAMS OF MATERIAL:
Let’s place all clean materials (paper, plastic, metal, wood) in our blue bin and use the subsidies paid to recyclers to find out how to effectively recycle. and if that seems too radical check out this new idea that is already 5 times more effective than recycling: 35% success rate for waste management
I find myself placing plastics and other recyclable material that are not “on the recyclable list” in my blue bin in hopes that my little bit of rebellion will encourage recyclers to find ways to utilize these materials. I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this subject.
When is the last time you asked yourself or someone else if something was recyclable? It a common question and one that gets many different answers depending on what packaging or material you are asking the question about.
Most recycling programs will have information readily available to the public on what they will accept in the recycle bins. This list however is quite small and becomes apparent that what recyclers are looking for is the cream of the crop. If you are anything like me you put everything in the recycle bin and hope that it will motivate recyclers to start taking more material.
People in general want to do the right thing and truthfully speaking it’s a great feeling to know we are doing our part to help recycle when we do make the effort to recycle. I suppose someday recycling will become a mainstream religion – to a very few it already is. I often wonder what recycling would look like if people got paid for their recyclable materials? After all for decades aluminum cans provided a source of additional funds to many and this resulted in very high recycling rates for aluminum cans. It would sure make it a little more worth the effort to sort through and place materials in the proper bin.
The April 1st, 2013 issue of Plastics News had a great Viewpoint article by Don Loepp which addressed this very issue as a discussion point from the March Plastics Recycling Conference in New Orleans.
If we are going to have recycling be a big part of the environmental solution to the growing global plastic pollution issue we are going to have to get aggressive about our recycling efforts and recyclers will need to be a stakeholder in the bigger environmental mission as much as they are with the business focus of recycling. All materials have the potential to be recycled, let involve state and federal programs to bring innovation to the market so that recyclers can accept all materials and have markets to sell those materials.
We’d love to hear what you think?
ENSO Plastics recently had the opportunity to talk about some green topics with the “Go Green Guy”, Jeff Davis from Go Green America TV . As someone who is out there trying to educate and encourage people to live, and go green, we wanted to reach out to Jeff and see what his thoughts were on some topics that are relevant right now in our industry and field. ENSO Plastics shares a common goal with people like Jeff in that we want people to make the best decisions when it comes to environmental choices. We started off by just learning a little bit more about how Jeff got started in the “Go Green” movement:
Q: There are a lot of different reasons people get into the “Green Movement”, what motivated you to start your program,”Go Green America TV“?
Jeff: I was interested in finding some information for myself and my family. When I started searching for info on Green Living it just seemed so overwhelming. I thought there must be a better way to spread the word. So I started tweeting and blogging and before you know it “Go Green America TV” was born.
Q: That’s really great that something that started off as a personal goal turned into a much larger scale project of educating and providing information to others as to how they can go green as well. Now that your there, what is your goal with Go Green America? If there was something you could specifically achieve or a moment that would occur where you would sit back and say, “Man I’ve done it!”, what would that moment be or look like?
Jeff: My ultimate goal is to get “Go Green America TV” on television where I could reach millions. Daily I get interesting feedback from readers about how they enjoy what I am doing, for me that is it, knowing that I can effect people just by sharing what I learn, passing along information in such a way that it may just change they way people live their lives. I am not sure what the defining moment would be, but the little moments along the way will keep me going.
Q: Well we hope that you can achieve that goal! In regards to being on TV or how you run your program right now, you bring a lot of information to the table with your site and TV Channel, what is the biggest hurdle in trying to educate the public about green topics? What is the best way to go about getting the information to people?
Jeff: I think the biggest hurdle is finding an approach that people will actually take the time to listen to. There is so much Green washing out there that people are a little put off by the whole Green Living movement. I try to experience it with them, learn together and not be too much in your face. I want people to know that even the littlest things that we all do, make a difference.
I feel the best way to reach people is with video and I am in the process of finally getting that aspect of GGATV going.
Q: It is tough with the amount of Green Washing that has occurred, to keep people in the game and not be put off. One item of interest is plastic, and plastic usage is always a big deal, in packaging and with recycling, what is your overall impression of the environmental impact of plastics?
Jeff: It (plastic) has been a part of our lives for such a long time now it is difficult to just get rid of it. Recycling seems to be a key component in dealing with plastic but I still feel that the ultimate goal would be to reduce it’s use as much as possible. The trash factor, the landfill factor, the non biodegradable factor they all are a part of it, but sometimes we forget that plastics are petroleum based, love to see petroleum use cut when ever possible.
Q: There are a lot of factors involved in plastics, and specifically with plastic right now there is a lot of attention on plastic bags, specifically single use plastic bags, what is your take on it, what is the real solution, or is there one?
Jeff: I like the ban myself. I am not sure if it is the solution but I like it. Of all the single use items out there the plastic bag is the most widely used, the one that seems to get attention because it is easy to educate people on using reusable bags. People do tend to reuse plastic bags, but just for trash and they still end up in the trash can, they are one of the least likely items to be recycled.
Q: I agree with you in that I am also not sure it is the solution. It will be some time before we learn what kind of positive or negative impact the bag bans have. When you talk about ideas like using reusable bags, do you think we are we doing enough as people to go green? Even you personally do you feel there is always more and more you can do to be green but find difficulty in achieving all those goals?
Jeff: Are we doing enough? As long as we can get everyone to at least be conscious of there actions, hopefully it will be a cause and effect where they will make changes on there own. I think education is key, the more we understand why to live Green, the more people will make an effort. I myself know that I could always do more and I am striving to do so. It is a journey one step at a time, we just need to get as many people to start that journey as possible and the small steps will really make a difference
Q: On a global level there is a push to “Go Green”, even the Olympics this time around is trying to be as green as possible, and there is a lot of pressure for companies and brands to have “Green Initiatives”. From a global perspective what countries are really taking a lead with this, is the US in the lead?
Jeff: Globally I think that we are beginners when it comes to the environment. We’ve been the Global leaders in convenience, which is not a good thing. We have for the most part, become an unhealthy and somewhat lazy society. From what I can tell, England and many other European countries as well as Australia and Canada could teach us a lot about being environmentally responsible. I do think that we are finally catching on and hopefully catching up. We are finally educating people and a big part of that is just doing what we are doing right here, talking about it, sharing information, explaining why it is important.
We dropped the ball when Jimmy Carter tried to kick start the country down the right path and it wasn’t even called Green Living then. Solar panels, bio fuels, electric vehicles, we pushed them all aside and now we have to play catch up. I think we can do it!
I think we can too, and I think you have touched on something very important here. What really catches my attention here is when you said earlier, “the more we understand why to live Green, the more people will make an effort”. A lot of the time when I see a how to live green topic, blog or video it is simply that. It is at a high consumer level and sometimes it is effective and sometimes it is not. If though, we started focusing more on the “why” along with the “how” then I think more people would understand the importance of what it really means to “live” or “Go Green”.
Q: Thanks for your time Jeff, and we look forward to hearing from you in the future!
Jeff: It was a pleasure, thank you for taking the opportunity!
The other day I was throwing out the trash and it caught my attention how much plastic waste is not accepted in my recycle bin. Wrappers, blister packs, bags, saran wrap, plastic containers and more all destined for the landfill. Comparing that to my recycle where all I have is beverage bottles, aluminum cans and a cardboard box, the magnitude of the waste problem hit me over the head. With overall plastics recycling in the US averaging near 7%, it is clear that something must be done to address the remaining 93%. And although reports show some increase in recycle rates, these increases are not keeping up with the massive increase in global plastic consumption. Perhaps it is time to focus on the reality of plastic waste – over 30 million tons of it that went into US landfills in 2009. To paint the picture for you, by the time you read this paragraph, the room you are sitting in would have filled up several times over with landfilled plastic. Every year we landfill over 96 million cubic yards of plastic!!
There is a silver lining to this, with today’s landfill management we are converting our landfilled waste to inexpensive clean energy. In fact, today 35% of all waste is placed in landfills that utilize this methane to energy (methane is produced during biodegradation in a landfill). If this plastic waste had been biodegradable, it would have converted about 10 million tons to clean energy and freed up 70 million cubic yards of landfill space!!
With today’s biodegradable technology, we have the ability to convert 35% of all our plastic waste to an environmental value, with no need for additional infrastructure or legislative programs. That is 5 times the success of recycling!!
After 30 years of recycling and only reaching a 7% recycle rate, I wonder how long it will take to reach the same or higher 35% rate of landfills collecting and converting landfill gasses into clean energy? Maybe its time we look at technologies that focus on solving the bigger part of the problem while also supporting the smaller aspect?
So as I finish, I can’t help but wonder, if in the future the power used to run my laptop will come from biodegradable plastics in the landfill…..
Let’s say that someone hands you two water bottles. One of the bottles is made with biodegradable plastics and the other is not. Which one do you feel is the more environmentally friendly product? You’re probably thinking the biodegradable plastic bottle, right? A majority of people would agree with you including myself. Now, because the bottle is biodegradable do you think that consumers will feel less guilty littering and feel less motivated to recycle? This is something to think about but lets take a look at some statistics. After surveying over 350 people, more than 90% stated that if a plastic bottle was labeled biodegradable that they would not feel comfortable littering the bottle on the ground. Another thing to take into consideration is that 75% of the people that took the survey also believed that it could range from less than a year to 25 years for a biodegradable bottle to biodegrade. It seems that many of these people are aware that biodegrading is not an instant process, whether they have researched the facts or are just going off of what they think. Did you know that in a perfect anaerobic environment ENSO plastics will fully biodegrade in 250 days but in a microbial environment like a landfill it may take longer.
Now back to a question I asked earlier, because the bottle is biodegradable do you think that consumers will feel less guilty littering and feel less motivated to recycle? Think about what choice you would make and then ask yourself why you would take that action.
What it comes down to is that by labeling something biodegradable it doesn’t mean it will result in less recycling or more littering. We all need to be aware of the facts so our choices will actually make a difference.
Last week, we weighed in on the Paper vs. Plastic Debate, and examined the pros and cons of each where waste, energy, and resources are concerned. This week, we’ll take a look at how the contenders fare when it comes to pollution and recycling.
Myth #3: Plastic is man-made and chemical-based, so it’s better to choose paper.
When it comes to pollution, plastic has become the chosen whipping boy, but in fact, craft paper production requires huge amounts of chemicals, that end up in our rivers each year, and are released into the air contributing to air pollution. Plastic production generates about 60% fewer greenhouse gases than turning wood pulp into paper bags.
Let’s consider PLA. It’s been touted as a panacea for the plastic problem, because it’s compostable, and comes from a renewable resource. But upon closer examination, unless the corn crop is grown organically, it still requires fossil fuel-based fertilizers and chemicals that cause other environmental problems and does not reduce our dependency on oil. In fact, one study found that the production of corn- and other bio-based plastics actually use more fossil fuels than a standard PET plastic. PLA isn’t as eco-friendly as it seems.
When it comes to waste and pollution, the frontrunner so far is the bag made from biodegradable plastic.
Myth #4: It’s easier to recycle paper, so it’s the more sustainable choice.
In reality, it is more efficient to recycle plastic, requiring about 91% less energy pound for pound than paper, but the sad truth is that the recycling track record for either bag isn’t good. Only about 10-15% of paper bags, and just 1-3% of plastic bags are recycled; although paper bags have a higher recycle rate than plastic, every new paper bag is made from virgin pulp instead of recycled fibers for better strength, while many plastic bags are made from once-recycled plastic polymers.
PLA and other bio-plastics get another strike when it comes to recyclability. They cannot be recycled with regular plastics, but so often are, creating an expensive problem of having to sort them from the rest of the plastics.
Plastics that are biodegradable in the landfill and under natural conditions, like ENSO’s products, are recyclable with conventional plastics, and do not contaminate the recycling stream.
The Bottom Line
Choosing paper or plastic is still a tough decision because biodegradable plastics are not yet mainstream. The biodegradable disposable bag is the best solution because it can be recycled if that’s an option, or thrown into the landfill where it will biodegrade in a relatively short amount of time. In addition, the industry is moving toward renewable sources, like algae, for plastic production, improving biodegradable plastics even further. For now, bring your reusable bags, or choose a plastic bag and reuse it or recycle it, and keep up with latest developments on the biodegradable plastics front.
Standing at the grocery store checkout, realizing you forgot your reusable shopping bags, or if you did remember them, you don’t have enough, you’re faced with the decision: paper or plastic? First, you’re momentarily overcome with pangs of guilt; second, the inner dialogue commences. You’re a deer in the headlights, frozen, afraid to make a move.
There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the Great Bag Debate, much of it perpetuated by misinformation, common assumptions, and a whole lot of greenwashing. For years, it was thought that the better choice for the environment was paper, but it turns out that paper and plastic bags are just about equal in pros and cons. They both use resources, cause pollution, and generate many tons of waste that more often than not, ends up in the landfill.
To further complicate the conundrum, there is more than just paper and plastic to consider these days; plastic alternatives, including corn-based PLA, and landfill biodegradable plastics are commonly being used in packaging. As eco-conscious consumers, which bag do we choose, and how can feel good about our choice?
The Resources and Energy Pitfall
Myth #1: Paper is made from a renewable resource, so it must have a lower impact.
The first part of this statement is true, but in fact, paper production deals a double blow when it comes to climate change and environmental impact. First, forests are cut down, removing trees that absorb greenhouse gases and convert it into oxygen (not to mention the other impacts on wildlife and ecosystems in general); in 1999, more than 14 million trees were cut down to produce the 10 billion paper bags consumed in the U.S. alone. Second, manufacturing paper from pulp takes a tremendous amount of energy, and because paper is relatively heavy, it takes a lot of fuel to transport the finished product.
How does this compare with the plastics? Of course, there are impacts associated with the extraction of petroleum (just look at the Gulf), but it turns out that the actual production of plastic bags releases about 92% fewer emissions into the atmosphere than paper bag production, and requires about Plastic bags also weigh significantly less than paper, requiring less fuel to get them from point A to point B.
What About Waste
Myth #2: Paper breaks down in the landfill faster than plastic, so it must be the better choice.
It turns out that under standard landfill conditions, paper does not degrade any faster than plastic. Even newspaper can take years to break down; newspapers excavated from one New York landfill were mostly intact after 50 years, and another in Arizona was still readable after 35 years. Indeed, the largest percentage of solid waste in U.S. landfills comes from paper and paperboard products, about 31%.
On the other hand, the new generation of plastics somewhat complicate this debate. PLA, or corn-based, plastics commonly used in disposable cutlery, packaging, and plastic grocery bags is compostable, but only among the perfect conditions found in a commercial composting facility, NOT in the landfill where most plastic ends up, or even in the backyard compost pile.
Biodegradable plastics, like ENSO’s products, however, do break down in the anaerobic landfill environment in a short amount of time (an average of five years), leaving behind only methane, carbon dioxide, and biomass. The use of an additive in standard plastic production also makes it a cost-effective solution. In terms of the plastic waste problem, the biodegradables currently hold the most promise.
Next week, in Part II, we’ll take a look at the aspects of pollution and recycling, and see how the contenders hold up.
Corn-based and other plant-derived plastics are all the rage these days, and are marketed as the ideal way to treat our plastic addiction. They’re made from a renewable resource, lessening our dependency on fossil fuels, and they are compostable, reducing the amount of plastic waste lingering in our landfills—what could be bad about that?
Not so fast. The issue is a bit more complex than it seems on the surface, and it turns out that these plastics still have big environmental impacts, just in different ways.
Cool, My Cutlery is Compostable!
But wait. It won’t break down in my home compost pile, or in a landfill, you say? Plant-based, or Polylactic Acid Polyesters (PLA), plastics require the near-perfect conditions found in a commercial composting facility: consistent high temperatures, ideal humidity, etc. in order to break down. Very few consumers have access to these facilities; even fewer are lucky enough to have curbside composting pickup. This means that the majority of the plastics will end up in the landfill, where contrary to popular belief, they do not biodegrade.
Well, then I can recycle it right? Wrong. PLAs are not recyclable and contaminate the recycling stream. Removing non-recyclables from the batch is a costly and time-consuming affair, and many of these costs are passed on to the consumer. Even worse, some facilities don’t bother to sort contaminated bins, and the whole load ends up in the landfill.
Oil Free, Guilt Free
But, they’re made from a renewable resource. At least I can feel good about that! Or can you? One of the strongest sellingpoints for many consumers lies in the fact that PLAs are plant-based rather than petroleum-based, and that’s a valid argument. But, consider how the majority of crops sourced to manufacture the PLA polymer are grown. Crops like corn, beets, potatoes, and other starchy plants are grown on a huge scale, are doused with tons of petro-chemicals, i.e. fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides in order to maximize production.
Processing the plant material to make the polymer also requires energy from fossil fuels. So, unless crops grown organically, the processing plant is using clean energy from the sun or wind, the process to make PLA relies pretty heavily on petroleum.
Wanted: Farmland For Food Production
But that’s not all. Perhaps the biggest, and most controversial, impact of growing plastics is the fact that it is taking up perfectly good farmland to grow food that is not being used…for food. Scientists predict that we haven’t seen anything yet when it comes to the global food shortage, so growing plants that could be used to feed people but using them to make packaging and fuel (that’s another argument altogether) doesn’t seem like a sustainable solution.
As we continue to lose arable lands to commercial development to support the burgeoning population, cut down the rainforest to grow corn and graze cattle, it makes less and less sense to use farmland to grow plastic. Some might argue that much of our cropland is used to cultivate livestock feed to grow animals that only a small percentage of the population eats, so it’s already an inefficient system, and this is a valid point. But, it doesn’t mean that we should add insult to injury and use food as a source for plastic, it only means that the whole system needs an overhaul.
Biodegradable Plastics to the Rescue!
So what’s an eco-conscious consumer to do? It’s not very practical (or even possible at this point) to ditch plastic altogether, so what’s the alternative?
Enter biodegradable plastics. Products made with ENSO’s leading edge technology render any conventional plastic biodegradable in a landfill setting, where most plastic ends up.
ENSO’s biodegradable bottles and other products offer a sustainable solution to the growing plastic waste problem. They disappear under natural conditions, thanks to the work of microbes that quickly and completely break them down, leaving behind only organic compounds and new soil. They’re also recyclable. To move away from dependency on petroleum to source plastic, ENSO is always working with an eye toward the future, to consider other sources like algae, and improve existing technology.
At the end of the day, the take home lesson is this: Know what you are buying, and understand the impacts of the full process of how it was made, and what happens after it’s disposed of, because green products aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.