Welcome to our series of posts on the A-Z of zero waste!
An overview of everything that has been shared so far can be found here.
This week we are going to be talking about whether we should choose natural materials in the products we buy. A lot of people come across the zero waste movement when trying to reduce their plastic after seeing things like Blue Planet II or hearing that our recycling usually doesn't get recycled, so today we are going to hear about the problems with plastic, and what (if anything) is a better option. Unfortunately it's not a simple answer and I'm not able to tell you what the perfect natural material is, because there isn't one. But hopefully by the end of this article we can see why we need to try to avoid waste of all forms, and have a few ideas of materials to aim for when no packaging isn't an option.
The problem with plastic
Now this may surprise you, but plastic is actually a great material in many respects. It's lightweight, transparent, flexible and very durable. It can also be used in many different forms. Those qualities make it an ideal material for so many products. There are a lot of advances in modern medicine that have been possible due to plastic - we now are able to breathe for patients, during surgery and when they are very sick, with flexible plastic breathing tubes which used to have to be made of rigid metal. Because it is so lightweight, it has a very low carbon footprint when transporting plastic products as it can be used very thinly, and still be waterproof. Plastic is a great material but it has it's downsides too.
Plastic is petroleum based, meaning it comes from fossil fuels, which are a non-renewable resource and have to be accessed in unsustainable ways such as drilling for oil which can lead to disruption of ecosystems and oil spills. These methods are also very energy intensive and polluting. Reliance on a non-renewable resource is far from ideal as they will eventually run out.
There are three other issues with plastic, and actually the issues aren't with plastic, it's with how we have chosen to use it.
The main issue from an environmental stand point is that plastic just doesn't biodegrade, so it will last in nature for hundreds of years. They do start to break down, but not in a natural way like compost, but breaking up into smaller and smaller bits of plastic. We haven't actually had plastic long enough to know what happens to it in the end but it is estimated to exist for at least hundreds of years. As it exists for many years, after being thrown away by someone it can exist in nature and cause many problems like blocking waterways or accidentally being ingested by animals which leaves them unable to eat and digest proper food. Even if it is thrown away into landfill it will sit there for hundreds of years and we are continuing to add to landfill every day, taking valuable land and using it as a dump. So the fact that we are making disposable items like single use water bottles, single use coffee cups, disposable cutlery etc, from a material that will exist for hundreds of years is ludicrous.
Often we see plastic being sold as "recyclable" but in reality only 9.5% of plastic that has ever existed has been recycled (1) meaning 8.3 billion metric tons are in the world, most as rubbish (2). Even a plastic bottle that is recycled doesn't become another plastic bottle, its actually "down-cycled" to a different type of plastic, a process which continues until the plastic can no longer be down-cycled and ends up as waste. So despite being told by companies selling plastic that their product packaging is recyclable, that isn't really the case.
The other concern talked about with plastic is that it may leach out chemicals that may cause harm to us and to other animals if we ingest or touch them. You may have heard people mention "endocrine disruptors" as chemicals that come from plastic and as the name suggests, interfere with our body's natural endocrine system that creates and secretes hormones. "Endocrine disruptors" are not specific to plastics and relate to any chemical that can have an impact on the endocrine system (3). There are some links to adverse health effects but there is not yet an established cause-and-effect relationship. But this concern often leads people to say that plastic is terrible and we should never use it, whereas I think that's an over simplification and we should just be more cautious about when we use it (due to it's numerous advantages especially in medicine) and consider avoiding it in certain situations, such as for single use food items. If you want to learn more, Laura from WasteFreePhD has some amazing resources on Endocrine Disruptors and BPA in plastic. The Endocrine Society recommends some precautionary steps to limit exposure such as (4):
- Avoiding disposable plastics when possible
- Avoiding microwaving plastic containers
- Avoid storing hot liquids in plastic, choosing glass, porcelain or steel instead
- Avoid food cans and tins which have an internal plastic lining
- Avoiding plastics #3, #6, and #7 (if you cannot avoid completely, choosing #1, #2 & #4 instead as they do not contain BPA)
- If you need to buy plastic, look for "BPA free"
- Minimize handling of receipts and thermal paper (the coating is plastic)
So are natural materials better? Yes and no.
Interestingly natural materials can also be endocrine disruptors, and depending how we process them may no longer biodegrade naturally even if the original material did. Natural doesn't always mean safe, for example arsenic is natural, and a natural material can be processed in a very unnatural way to the point where it is arguably no longer natural. Be vary when brands try to sell you something as "natural" without any more detail as it can be a common form of greenwashing.
What are the alternatives to plastic?
Glass - Made of sand which is surprisingly a resource we can run out of (did you know we use more sand than oil?), but thankfully if clean, glass can be recycled over and over, which is good as it doesn't biodegrade. It can be easy to reuse and repurpose and does not leach chemicals into the contents of glass container. It is strong but can shatter. It can be transparent, but also be coloured darker to protect contents from sunlight, but this can impact how easily it is recycled, as can if it is not cleaned or separated from parts of other materials. However a lot of energy is used creating glass and even if recycled, a lot of energy (and usually carbon producing energy) is used transporting it as glass is heavy. And to be honest, with recycling rates still lower than we would like, even glass that can be theoretically recycled forever, may not be getting recycled - in fact the UK only recycles 50% of its glass.
- Good for containing liquids travelling short distances to reduce travel emissions, and when recycled properly.
Metal - there are many different options of metals here which affect how sustainable it is. Metals need to be mined from the ground which is very energy intensive, can be incredibly polluting and mining practices can often be rife with modern slavery and child labour. It is a strong material and is waterproof. Metals such as aluminium can often be recycled at the kerbside, but even though other metals can theoretically be melted down and used again and again, there is often not good access to metal recycling for everyday consumers. Metals can be lighter than options like glass reducing the carbon footprint of transportation. It is also often packaged with a layer of plastic to stop chemicals from the metal leaching into the products, so still requiring plastic, and requiring more energy to separate layers before recycling.
- Good for carrying liquids longer distances if made from recycled metal, and recycled after use.
Cardboard/paper - Lightweight and very easy to recycle, or compost if dirty. However if not sustainably sourced, or made from recycled paper stock, can contribute to deforestation, which removed the ability to take CO2 out of our atmosphere. It is also not particularly strong and can breakdown if it becomes wet, meaning it is not suitable for many products. In fact a paper bag which is reused may have a larger carbon footprint than a plastic bag, which is reused, as paper is more fragile so will not last as long as a plastic bag and not be able to get as much use.
- Good for dry products when made of recycled paper-stock, and recycled or composted.
Wood - Strong and attractive, and can often be reused in the form of reclaimed wood. Wood can biodegrade in composts if not treated with veneers or other coatings but it can contribute to deforestation if not sustainably sourced, however if it is grown sustainably, it can contribute to good soil quality during its life. It can be lightweight but often is a heavy product to work with and is water permeable so without treatment is not suitable for liquids.
- Good for hardwearing products you want to last and can be heavy.
Bamboo - similar to wood but it is faster growing, easier to produce, and more lightweight. It can be grown without traditional farming meaning it is great for carbon capture and for soil. Again it is compostable. However can also be unsustainably grown if demand increases. Often lined with plastic or coated which can stop composting or make it harder to biodegrade. Generally bamboo has to be imported long distances adding to the carbon footprint of it.
- Good for where you want the properties of wood but want a lightweight option, best grown in a sustainable manner.
Stone - not commonly used for similar things to plastic but some examples e.g. chopping boards. There are many different varieties and all will have different properties. Similarly to metal, this has to be mined or quarried which can be very energy and resource intensive. Stone can be very strong, but is heavy and often brittle so will break easily. It cannot be recycled but may be able to be reused in other ways.
- Good for flat surfaces that you want to be hardwearing, like counter tops.
As you can see, there are many alternatives to plastic, but despite all having benefits, they also all have their problems. This is why plastic has become such a widely used material - because it is cheap and is actually much more versatile than the alternatives. It is really not easy to say what the best alternative to plastic is as there is no clear winner. In each individual circumstance there may be a best alternative but that will likely vary between situations and will need some research to identify it. This is why I believe that the answer to "what is the most sustainable option?" will almost always be - buying second hand. If an item already exists then there doesn't need to be repeated energy usage in creating it and you're saving an item from ending up in landfill or being burnt.
What about bioplastics?
Oh wow. Okay, this probably needs a whole article but briefly, bio-plastics are plastics (polymers) made from "natural" materials instead of ones made from fossil fuels. They are sold as alternatives as you don't need to extract fossil fuels to create them so are seen as less damaging. However, most plastic that is created is never recycled, and bioplastics may not be able to be recycled in the same way meaning that it ends up in landfill when a conventional plastic may have been recycled. Some bioplastics are compostable - but often not "home-compostable" meaning that you need access to an industrial composter that most people don't have access to, so again that item is ending up in landfill despite being termed compostable. Even ones that are "home-compostable" may not be the perfect solution as many people lack access to even home composting facilities and these are often not accepted in food waste collections, where as conventional plastic may be accepted in kerbside recycling. Basically bio-plastics for now have solved one problem only to generate a whole host more to find answers for.
What about synthetic clothing materials?
Plastic is also found in the clothes we wear in the form of commonly used fabrics such as polyester and acrylic. There is even more to consider when thinking about the most sustainable fabric type so look out of an upcoming article on this topic as I think it's too much to tackle in one sitting!
Okay, so what we can see from this article is that there isn't one perfect material we all should be using, which is why we need to move away from packaging as a whole, and disposable products, wherever possible. In fact, even if a single use item is made of natural materials, like paper towels, it is still wasteful to use something designed only for single use. We need to be prioritising reusing. All these materials have a negative impact in some way and if we can do without them, without inadvertently generating more waste, then that is what our focus should be, not from getting fast food restaurants to swap from plastic to paper straws which are not even recyclable. If we can do without it, the best material will be no material. But if we do need packaging then we just need to choose the best material we can in each individual situation and do the best we can we the information we have. It's not easy I know, but we can only do the best we can with what our lives and communities allow.