Plastic has been all over the news over the past years, from David de Rothschild building a catamaran partially made from reclaimed post-consumer plastic bottles called the Plastiki in 2010 to the most recent, Cola Wars escalated to Bottle Wars as Coke launched their "Plant Bottle," a plastic bottle made 30% from renewable materials, only to be one-upped by Pepsi's 100% renewable bottle (to debut in 2012). In time for Earth Day, a major bio-plastic manufacturer announced a new recycling symbol they had created to differentiate bio-plastic from "regular" plastic.
What is clear from these stories is that America has woken up to the fact that the types of plastic we use today, and perhaps the way we use plastics in general, needs to change. However, in an effort to extol the virtues of these new technologies and the companies that create and use them, we've created a dangerous misperception that a single technology will ride in on a white horse to deliver us from our plastic legacy. We have lost sight of one of the most simple and powerful solutions we have available to us today -- using the plastic that is already on the planet.
Using plants to make plastic bottles that will degrade effortlessly into nutrients that feed our soil and renew our ecosystems is a romantic notion, but one that is far from today's reality. I first wrote about this in a 2009 Treehugger post that identified the false sense of responsibility these types of plastics can give us. That isn't to say that we shouldn't focus on achieving this grand vision. In fact, this type of technological advancement is key to solving our plastic pollution problem. But in the meantime, we can't sit idly on the sidelines while we hope for these technologies to be useful to us as we design products.
From a scientific standpoint, using post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR) makes all the sense in the world. It is cost competitive, available (more on that later), and creates greater positive impact than other choices. For example, the carbon footprint of manufacturing 100% PCR Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), like in a water bottle, is 60% lower than virgin PET (yes, that includes all the energy to collect, recycle, and remanufacture the plastic). This is significantly higher than the carbon benefit of plant-based PET (like the Coke & Pepsi bottles) or bioplastics like PLA. Furthermore, PCR eliminates the use of virgin plastic altogether, regardless of whether it is manufactured from plants or petroleum. By using PCR we eliminate the need for new plastic, which is especially important given the current low rates of recycling (PET recycling rate in the US is 24%, NAPCOR).
Detractors will say that there's not enough PCR available to service demand. That's true, but it represents a static and myopic point of view. The reason there isn't more PCR available is that there aren't more eager consumers looking to buy it. If companies currently using virgin PET demanded a supply of PCR, the market could easily be made. The second argument against PCR is that it's low quality. This is just not true. The method brand relies on a premium, high-design aesthetic with the vibrant colors of our products clearly visible through transparent bottles. We've been able to achieve this using almost exclusively PCR. We manufacture tens of millions of bottles every year, nearly all of them completely free of virgin plastic altogether, and each one of them is as clear as virgin.
Now the point, of course, is not to stop developing new plastic technologies -- any solution to our plastic pollution problem will be multifaceted and multilateral. That said, nearly every pound of plastic humanity has ever produced is still here, and as long as we make more of it, the amount of plastic in our oceans, streets, and landfills will only grow. Regardless of the pace and depth of plastic material innovation in the future, one thing will remain constant -- we will need to be A LOT better at getting the material we use back after we're done with it. This will be a great design solution of putting post consumer material back into products in the first place.
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