Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Getting rid of "stupid plastic"

Recently, the blog at GreenAmerica.org ran an entry about the evils of plastic. Most of it was stuff we've all heard before—it's ubiquitous, it's toxic, it kills baby sea turtles—but the author did concede that "There are a lot of great things that plastic has made possible, like artificial hearts, lightweight glasses, and Kevlar vests for police officers." So she summed up her position on plastic in the words of an activist interviewed in the documentary Bag It—"We’re not saying no to all plastic. We’re saying no to stupid plastic"—and announced that each Monday the blog would feature a new post on "how we’ve gotten stupid plastic out of our lives, and where we’re facing challenges." (In yesterday's post, for instance, she talks about the difficulty of eliminating plastic food packaging for someone who hates to cook.)

I like the idea of targeting "stupid plastic," rather than trying to eliminate all plastic (a goal that's almost certainly futile and quite possibly counterproductive). But it did kind of raise the question of just which plastics can be considered "stupid," and how you draw the line. Some products are easy to identify as "stupid," such as single-use grocery bags (which can be eliminated entirely with a single, reusable canvas bag). But other cases are trickier. Some products are clearly necessary (clothing, for instance) but don't necessarily have to be made out of plastic. But does that mean that products made of alternative materials are automatically better? Some readers of the blog seemed to think so, bragging about their wooden toothbrushes and metal toothpaste tubes. But I had to wonder: what about the environmental impact of cutting down trees to make those toothbrushes, and raising the pigs used for the bristles, and mining and smelting the metal to make the toothpaste tubes? Don't we have to take that into consideration? And if so, just how do we figure out which type of material is least harmful to the environment?

There's also durability to consider. Is a wooden toothbrush that gets tossed in the compost bin and replaced every three months a better choice than a plastic toothbrush with replaceable heads that gets used year after year, with only the heads being replaced? What about a nylon shopping bag that wears better than a cotton canvas bag? And let's not forget the impact of shipping. Glass bottles may be less toxic than plastic ones (though not necessarily safer, since they can break) and easier to recycle, but they're also a lot heavier. So if all soft drinks were still packaged in glass bottles, how much more fuel would be required to ship them around the country? How would the amount of petroleum used in transporting the heavier bottles compare to the amount used in producing the lighter ones? Is it even possible to calculate?

I don't pretend to have the answers to these questions, and I'm not sure anyone does. So speaking for myself, I'm going to continue to focus my anti-plastic efforts on the "stupid plastics" that I know are stupid: namely, the ones that can be eliminated completely with no negative impact (and in many cases, a positive impact) on my quality of life. So here are a few examples of plastic items that I have no doubts about giving up—and others that I'm going to be holding onto for a while:
  • As mentioned above, single-use plastic grocery bags are a definite "don't need" for me. However, I have no plans to give up my polyester ChicoBag, which I think more than makes up for its own modest plastic content by being so portable that it's easily tucked in my purse, ensuring that I'll never be caught out without a shopping bag and need to bring home a disposable one.
  • I'm also not planning to give up plastic garbage bags (what would I replace them with?). However, I do cut down on the use of them by producing less trash, so I only need to take it out every couple of weeks.
  • I have never bought bottled water, which, as I mentioned in this post over a year ago, is neither healthier nor, according to most taste tests, better tasting than tap water, which is virtually free. (However, rather than invest in a $20 eco-friendly aluminum flask for carrying tap water on the go, as some green organizations recommend, I simply bought a $1.50 glass bottle of Snapple, drank the contents, and rinsed it out.)
  • I'm certainly not giving up my computer, printer, and other peripherals, with all the plastic parts they contain. However, in the seven years I've owned my (now ridiculously outdated) HP inkjet printer, I've bought only one plastic replacement cartridge for it, thanks to an ink refill kit that has paid for itself many times over. And, by keeping all my equipment so long past what most would consider its expiration date, I'm reducing the demand for new plastic stuff.
  • I plan to continue buying orange juice in plastic bottles (the good stuff) whenever it's on sale. The #1 plastic bottles are recyclable, while the cardboard cartons have to go in the trash. (Frozen OJ concentrate does have less packaging, but even it has some that's nonrecyclable—and it's actually more expensive than the good stuff purchased on sale.)
  • I get most of my music in digital download form these days, so I don't need to fill up my house with more polycarbonate CDs. We do buy the occasional DVD, but more often we borrow them from the library, or find free stuff to watch on Hulu and other sites.
That's all that comes to mind at the moment. Would anyone else care to weigh in with examples of plastics that are definitely "stupid"—or not so stupid?
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