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Is Plastic Really That Bad?

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by guest blogger Emily Main, online editor, Rodale.com

I'm three days in to my plastic-free week for Rodale.com, and despite the title of this blog post, I'm not giving up yet, I promise. It's been tough, though. Yesterday, I tallied up all the plastic items, food-related or otherwise, that I have in my life, and it was pretty eye-opening--32 items that I use on a regular basis, 30 percent of which are disposable.

Sunday, when I went grocery shopping, I couldn't seem to avoid plastic in the meat department (I didn't happen to visit the cheese department that day because I already had too much at home, but there, too, it seemed impossible to find organic cheeses that weren't smothering in plastic).

That got me thinking. Is plastic really that bad of a material? There must be some reason it's become the packaging material of choice for everything from crackers to contact lens solution. And, as it turns out, there is. Back in 1969, Coca Cola commissioned the very first life cycle analysis on packaging materials to determine whether the company should stick with its returnable glass bottles, switch over primarily to aluminum cans, or go with plastic bottles. The plastic bottles won out because, the analysis found, they used the least amount of oil and natural gas of the three alternatives. Glass is too heavy and requires more trucks to ship, and aluminum is extremely energy-intensive to manufacture.

More recently, greener factions of the wine industry have been adopting boxes (which utilize plastic bags inside a cardboard container) and ascetic cartons for the very same reasons. A company called TetraPak, who makes those cartons you buy boxed soup in, did a similar analysis comparing its 750-milliliter and 1-liter cartons (which are made of layers of plastic sandwiched between paper and foil) to equal-size glass wine bottles, and found that paperboard and plastic, though harder to recycle, were still less polluting and required fewer fossil fuels than glass.

Then there's the overwhelming issue of food waste. One billion people go hungry every day on this planet, yet in the U.S., there are 1,400 calories of food wasted per person per day--enough to feed a single hungry person every day. That's bad enough, and it seems as though the numbers would be even worse if we were to switch to less-airtight packaging materials. According to a 1991 issue of a journal called Food Review (the only figures I could dig up on food waste as it relates to packaging), food waste in underdeveloped and developing nations, where food packaging is minimal or nonexistent, is as high as 50 percent. In the U.S., our reliance on plastic packaging actually keeps food waste pretty low, around 3 percent, while the amount of unpackaged fresh food that's wasted rises to between 10 and 15 percent. (Which brings up the point, if we're wasting 1,400 calories per person per day, and that's still somewhere between 3 to 15 percent of our total food supply, we're producing TOO MUCH FOOD! But that's a different rant for a different day...)

It's an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, plastic is an energy-efficient packaging material that drastically cuts down on food waste. But on the other, it's a heinous nuisance that endangers our health with additives like lead and hormone-disrupting BPA and phthalates, and continues to feed massive plastic wastelands like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean that, in turn, choke birds and kill aquatic wildlife--and contaminate other edible sea creatures with toxic plasticizers. Then we eat those creatures, so those plastic toxins wind up in us. None of those factors is included the energy use/life cycle analysis.

It does seem like plastic has a place in our world. If it weren't for plastic packaging, I don't know that local, organic meat producers and dairy farmers would be able to ship their products to stores, and get them in front of customers who might otherwise opt for GMO-fed, antibiotic-injected animals. The only packaging alternative they have that seems to be gaining a foothold is biodegradable corn-based plastic, and that's made from genetically modified (GMO) corn. I don't want GMOs in my food, and I doubt any organic farmer wants to contaminate his goods with GMO-based plastics, especially if they're biodegrading into the food!

Companies also seem too eager to overpackage everything so it will somehow seem more "sanitary." Why is my only option for organic green peppers at the store near my house two green peppers on a paper tray wrapped in cling wrap? Why does spinach need to be packaged in a plastic bag INSIDE a plastic clamshell container? And why does Oral B need to package the replacement heads for my power toothbrush in individual plastic boxes surrounded by a...bigger plastic box? This is the absurd wastefulness that grates on my nerves, and I think this is where we as shoppers have the best chance at making a dent in plastic waste.

Even if being completely plastic free is a pipe dream, there are lots of opportunities to stop using plastic where it's not needed. Every time I see an instance of gross overuse of plastic, I package it up and mail it back to the company that made it, along with a letter stating why I'm never using the company's products again. Because as important as it is to reduce your use of plastic, it's just as important to let companies know why you're not buying their products. There's a reason companies print their 800 numbers on the side of packages. Use them!

Related Links:

Plastic-Free Challenge - Rodale.com
Plastic-Free February, Is It Possible? - Prevention
Plastic-Free Challenge, Can You Give Up Plastic For An Entire Month? - Huffington Post

For more from Maria Rodale, go to www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com.

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