Litter. It seems like such a ‘60s word, but it’s time to dust it off and rethink it — especially in the context of plastics and Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs).
Start with the fact that more than 8 million tonnes of plastic enters the environment annually, much of it into our oceans. That’s almost 3 percent (and perhaps more) of all plastic produced annually.
Some of that comes from improperly managed waste in countries where sanitation facilities are not ubiquitous (see this UN Environment infographic to get an idea where the trash is coming from). But the sheer volume of plastic used in more-developed countries means that even a small fraction ending up as litter can have a devastating effect on local wildlife.
Moreover, these totals don’t include the contamination coming from our washing machines as our nylon, polyester and spandex clothing degrades over time. This pollution, mostly unseen and unmeasured, comes from all parts of the globe and we’re all contributing to it.
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But our LCAs generally ignore most of these effects. We typically assume that all of the plastic packaging and other widgets we’re assessing are dutifully recycled, safely tucked into sanitary landfills, or incinerated for power generation. As a result, plastic packaging has almost no apparent impact on the life cycle of most products.
To be sure, plastics can and do play valuable roles in packaging and other applications. A 2016 Trucost study commissioned by the American Chemistry Council, ***Plastics and Sustainability***, found that the environmental costs of using plastics were dramatically less than alternatives such as glass, aluminum, tin and paper in most applications.
So, how do we deal with this problem? A number of ideas have come to us, and we’d love to hear yours as well — please use the comments section!
1. Just say no.
Thankfully, our addiction to plastic is nowhere near as strong as an addiction to opioids or nicotine so this isn’t as laughable as it seems. Bringing a reusable shopping bag with you, so that you can say “no bag, thank you,” is a simple way to cut back on individual plastic consumption. Look around at other places you use plastic — do you really need a travel cover for that coffee? Could you reuse one from yesterday? Or even a reusable travel mug? Can you join the growing number of companies, cities, and individuals who are going without plastic drinking straws? Do those old toys really need to go into the dump or could they go to Goodwill and help someone else’s child? And don’t forget the importance of positive interpersonal messages — every time someone asks me if I want a bag, I thank them for asking. Maybe it will help someone else say “no.”
2. Encourage better sanitation in places that don’t have it.
EarthShift Global has been working on some exciting projects with CompiteMAS, a program of the Catholic University of Valparaiso in Chile. Their platform and coaching get small businesses to recycle as much as possible and send non-recyclables to managed-waste locations. The companies in turn encourage their municipalities to also do better. Our Sustainability Return on Investment (S-ROI) analysis of the project found that employees were bringing the knowledge home, expanding the philosophy of waste management throughout the communities where they work. CompiteMAS and programs like it have the potential to reduce plastic leakage while also reducing diseases associated with informal waste dumps.
3. Pay attention to your own wastes.
Making sure the plastic you do use doesn’t end up blown around by the wind is a small thing to do but might have a bigger impact than you think. Another suggestion that I haven’t tried myself yet is to carry all of your waste around with you for a day. It will give you a better idea of your own impacts and may influence others who see you lugging it around.
4. Include leakage in your LCA.
Even if we don’t know all the impacts of plastics leakage, we do know that 2-3 percent ends up somewhere it shouldn’t. Calling this out for your commissioner as “kg plastic improperly disposed” is both an acknowledgement of real-world conditions and a first step toward controlling them. Sustainability veterans will recall how we started out simply referencing liters of water consumption until we had better methods to assess the relevant impacts.
5. Develop ocean-degradable plastics.
This is a longer-term potential solution to the large and growing problem of oceanic contamination. It might be possible to preserve the low cradle-to-gate impacts of plastic while also protecting ocean life, but the tradeoffs involved would have to be considered — there most likely will be some.
As the recent push to ban drinking straws shows, the movement to eliminate single-use plastics is taking hold all over. But maintaining a broad perspective is essential for everyone, and especially sustainability professionals. It’s easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so let’s educate folks on how plastics work over their life cycle and develop sound solutions that bring genuine progress.