It’s documentary date night and we watch in horror as plumes of blackness billow from factory smoke stacks, waves of plastic crash onto distant beaches, and decomposed juvenile birds litter the cliffside with stomaches full of micro plastics. It all seems so morbid, so appalling, and so inexcusable. How could we let these corporate behemoths dictate the fate of our natural world?
As I obsessively follow an overwhelming number of environmental efforts and purchase “environmentally friendly” brands almost exclusively, the fear mongering headlines flow freely. I cannot help but think…Are we solving the problem here? or are creating new problems through a different lens? There are a number of questions that simply leave me scratching my head;
How is a brand that commits to zero plastic BUT then uses virgin paper any better? Is cutting down trees more sustainable than using recycled plastic?
What about bamboo products? While we don’t cut down trees when using bamboo, is eliminating the need for trees better than the water and energy needed to create these products? or the carbon footprint required to ship bamboo from China to the U.S?
What about recycling? Why is this considered environmentally friendly if only 9% of plastic is actually recycled back into new products? Are we simply creating a process similar to a picky eater’s “cut & push” tactic?
I mean W…T…H right?!? Is your head spinning? Mine sure is! The more I learn about all of this and try to get on the right side of it, the more I end up back at the beginning. I feel like I am in the movie Labyrinth where David Bowie is corporate America laughing while environmentally conscious people pick the wrong door over and over.
I know… I’m ranting again 🙃. My intent is not to be as morbid as Michael Moore’s “The Planet of the Humans” documentary. I am actually overwhelmed with curiosity and excitement thinking about the path we must embark on to figure this out.
Are we asking ourselves the right questions?
Have we accepted a message simply because we desperately want it to be right? or is it actually right? I feel like Steve Carell in The Big Short, questioning the banks integrity… I want these eco-friendly products to be the right solution! I want to believe we are on a clear path towards fixing this single use waste pandemic. BUT… are we asking ourselves the right questions here?
Here is my take on a few questions we need to be asking ourselves:
Looking at raw material in a silo, where does plastic stack up?
To avoid plastics many sustainable brands are switching to things like glass, paper, bamboo, and a number of compostable materials. In thinking about it…Is glass a sustainable option if many states no longer accept glass recycling? What about compostable plastics? In my post “Don’t Be Fooled!!! Worms Don’t Eat Plastic”, I touch on the fact that if you don’t actually compost this material at a commercial facility, it is worse than using regular plastic.
Looking at plastics in a silo, it is a lightweight, cheap, and extremely durable material. It can be melted, molded, used, melted and remolded again and again. Plastics have become a serious problem because of our unconscious complacency BUT what’s the alternative? If plastics didn’t exist what kind of deforestation issues would we be facing?
So…what’s the real issue here?
According to National Geographic, of the 8.3 billion metric tons or 1.83 TRILLION pounds of plastic produced, ONLY 9% has actually been recycled.
To me, that sounds more like a waste management problem and less like a plastic problem. What do you think? Lets take the company Carbon Lite as an example, they are the leader in closed loop bottle-to-bottle recycling. Are they considered part of the problem because they produce plastics? or are they solution because they create a process and product that reduces our need to produce virgin polymers?
Questioning the paradigm shift towards environmentally friendly material…
This journey begins with a honest reflection of how we are defining sustainable and environmentally friendly. Shifting to the use of natural materials does not guarantee us a solution. Although single use plastics might be unsustainable, wouldn’t increasing our timber production so that we can shift from plastic to paper packaging just as bad? Through this series of blog posts, my goal is to answer some of these tough questions around our current approach and dig deeper into how we are currently handling all aspects a product lifecycle:
👉 How is this raw material created?
👉 How are different materials turned into products?
👉 How are these products utilized?
👉 AND how are those products converted back into raw material OR disposed of? (i.e composting)
This is obviously a complex issue and cannot be solved without a comprehensive understanding of our consumption habitats. Our natural world is a very complex ecosystem and we cannot assume that there is a simple solution.
To remain positive and productive, I do believe there are a few short-term habits we can continue to incorporate given the current system that is in place:
Focus on reducing our reliance on single use material.
Whether it is wood, plastic, aluminum, or metals, unfortunately our recycling system is not capable of closing the loop on the majority of material we send to them. We cannot assume that material we recycle is actually going to be recycled under the current model. Until this changes, we MUST avoid single use material as often as possible.
Recycle smart and support recycled content.
If we aren’t going to support brands and products that are made from 100% recycled material then why should we expect brands to change their ways? and why should we go through the effort to recycle in the first place? When purchasing a product, do you take a moment to evaluate the material used? Is there an identical option that uses a higher percentage of recycled content? As consumers, we have the ability to inflict change by supporting companies who are making a conscious effort.
Use materials you know how to reuse or properly dispose of.
An example of this is compostables. If you compost, this is a great sustainable alternative BUT if it isn’t composted it is destined to become a producer of methane while it decomposes in a landfill.
Stay tuned, this will be a journey as we dive deeper into the different materials we utilize and their environmental impact through each lifecycle phase. Please please please share and comment, this is the only way we will make true progress towards becoming more Enviro Conscious! I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Until next time…