If we can’t live without plastic, we must learn to live with it. Many great organizations, governments and businesses are pursuing solutions.
Plastic is a big problem. Getting rid of it is not the solution.
That may sound strange coming from a conservationist, but modern plastics offer many benefits to humanity — in fields as diverse as medicine, transportation, construction, electronics and, yes, even conservation. We know current alternatives to plastic would likely consume more natural resources and produce more pollution. But plastic waste also poses a growing threat to Earth’s critical ecosystems and species. If we want to enjoy the benefits of plastic and safeguard our planet’s finite resources, we must learn to do more with less.
We can get rid of some unnecessary plastic, including obvious examples like plastic bags and straws. But keeping plastic out of the ocean and other ecosystems requires more. We must completely rethink how we source, design, manage and reuse plastic — and garner the cooperation of individuals, businesses and governments each step of the way.
The need for a holistic, large-scale approach has never been greater. Every year, the world produces roughly 300 million tons of plastic, and 8-12 million tons of that plastic ends up in the ocean, adding to the 150 million tons already there. By 2025, the ocean will contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish — if we remain on our current path.
But these statistics tell only half the story. Plastic extends the shelf life of food by delaying spoilage, contamination and damage, thus reducing food waste (by up to 254,000 metric tons of food annually in the U.S. alone). The less food we waste, the less resources we use trying to replace it, avoiding a significant amount of greenhouse-gas emissions, deforestation and depletion of water globally.
If we can’t live without plastic, we must learn to live with it. Many great organizations, governments and businesses are pursuing solutions. The Recycling Partnership, for instance, works with local governments, business leaders and national brands to improve residential recycling. Since 2014, they have reached 29 million households and helped divert 115 million pounds of recyclables.
Despite the efforts of the Recycling Partnership and others, we have yet to stem the flow of plastic waste into the environment. By the time you finish reading this, several more garbage trucks worth of plastic will have been dumped into the ocean (at a rate of one garbage truck per minute).
Single-issue solutions will only get us so far. If we focus solely on the end life of plastic (i.e., disposal and reuse), we miss earlier opportunities in its life cycle to drive transformational change. All throughout that life cycle, we need key actors — from local, national and business leaders to individual consumers — to help keep plastic in the supply loop and out of our ecosystems.
So, what does a real plastics revolution look like?
First, we should act with the understanding that each phase of plastic’s life cycle informs the others. The raw materials we use determine our production and design limitations, in turn narrowing our options for disposal or reuse. When we take the big-picture view, we can make smarter decisions that extend the life of our natural resources and demand less of our planet. Take the brands Ariel and Tide (part of the P&G family of products), for example. Not only do Ariel and Tide use a minimum of 25 percent recycled content in their PureClean laundry detergent bottles, they also made a deliberate choice to maintain a “natural” uncolored look for their plastic packaging. There’s a big market for plastic’s natural resin, and Tide and Ariel knows this will make the packaging more valuable for further recycling. Incidentally, this year marks Tide’s 30-year-anniversary of using post-consumer recycled resin. Demand for recycled resin is another critical component to the plastics revolution.
Second, we should encourage the use of biobased plastics and recycled content to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. By creating more demand for recycled content, we also incentivize companies to produce and sell more products made of recovered materials.
Third, roughly 20 percent of the plastic we use could be avoided. We should keep looking for opportunities to use less plastic, while factoring in the potential trade-offs (emissions, energy use and food waste) to ensure a net gain for the environment.
Human ingenuity gave us plastics. Now that same ingenuity can help us create a future where plastics benefit humanity without harming our planet.