Plastic is rubbish: why waste valuable resources on single-use throwaway items?

Plastic is rubbish: why waste valuable resources on single-use throwaway items?

I don’t like plastic. I avoid buying it and I talk a lot about plastic-free living on the blog, so I thought it might be useful to provide some background information on plastic, and some of the reasons why I decided to give it up in the first place. There’s so many reasons why plastic is bad (for our health, for the environment, for our sanity) and I’m not going to talk about them all now. I’ll stick to just one – waste.

Plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels, either oil or natural gas. It doesn’t just come from the magic ‘plastic factory’. And the problem with this is that once the non-renewable fossil fuels run out, we don’t have any more. But it’s not even the running out that matters. The problems will begin when production hits its maximum rate, because after this oil prices will increase and production of oil-based industries (transport, agriculture, production) will begin to decline, and continue to do so. And if you think that’s way in the future, think again. It’s happening now. Some people think it may have already happened (in 2006). Have you noticed the prices of fuel at the petrol pumps seem to be on an ever-upward spiral?

oil production
This graph shows the discovery of oil deposits and oil production over time. I found it on Wikipedia but if you search the internet for ‘oil production’ images you’ll find hundreds of similar graphs.

There are, of course, people who claim that peak oil (which is what it’s called, by the way – the point of maximum production) will never happen, or at least for a long long time. But whether they’re wrong or right isn’t the point. Both sides agree that oil and fossil fuels in general are a valuable resource that we rely on to keep civilization going. In fact, we are completely dependent on them.

So if oil is such a valuable commodity, why are we using it to make cheap, single-use, disposable and throwaway items?

Design: Centre for Artistic Activism

There’s no doubt that plastic can be useful, for example in healthcare, medicine and construction. The problem is that it’s become totally ubiquitous and is used for everything – and a lot of these uses are completely unnecessary and a waste of a valuable resource.

The other important thing to remember is that every little bit of plastic ever produced since that first piece is still around. This stuff doesn’t decompose, instead it creates huge amounts of landfill – or worse, makes its way to the oceans where it’s unwittingly ingested by unsuspecting sea life.

So why not cut down the amount of rubbish we sent to landfill and save the fossil fuels for the stuff that we actually need like fuel? Why not stop using fossil fuels so wastefully to make disposable items that we’re just gonna throw away?

But what about plastic recycling?

Plastic recycling is a bit of a con. It makes us feel better about our consumption, because we can put our empty plastic containers in the recycling bin and feel that they will be magically transformed into new plastic containers. But that isn’t what happens. Plastic isn’t technically recycled, it’s downcycled. This means it’s made into a product with inferior quality or functionality. Secondly, not all plastic is equal, and different plastics are processed differently. For some types it is very difficult to make back into useful products. Thirdly, just because plastic has the potential to be recycled, it doesn’t mean that your local council actually recycles it. What happens to your plastic depends on the number on the bottom, written inside what is thought of, ironically, as the recycling arrow.

Some of the numbers you find on the bottom of plastic containers, which tell us what type of plastic the container is made of and whether/how it will be recycled.

There are 7 types of plastic, which are numbered 1 – 7, and not all are commonly recycled. (Technically 1 – 6 are different specific types, whereas 7 is a collection called ‘other’.) It’s easy to assume that if there’s a recycling arrow on the bottom of a container then it will be recycled, but actually only types 1 and 2 are commonly recycled. My local council collects types 1,2, 3 and 5. Any other type of plastic collected in my area is heading to landfill. You can check with your local authority to find out which types they will recycle.

Think it’s not too much of an issue? Here’s some figures for you.

  • In the USA in 2010, 31 million tons of plastic waste was generated and only 8% of plastic was recycled. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency
  • Just under half of this plastic (14 million tons) was food containers and food packaging. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency
  • In Australia in 2007, almost 4 billion lightweight single use plastic bags were used. Almost 3 billion of these came from supermarkets. Source: Australian Government
  • In Australia in 2002, 50-80 million of these bags became litter in the environment. Source: Australian Government
  • The amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag could drive a car 11 metres. Source: Australian Government
  • In the UK, 3 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated every year. 11% of household waste is plastic, and 40% of this is plastic drinks bottles. Source: University of Cambridge
  • In the UK in 2005, 414,000 tonnes of plastic waste was recycled (around 20% of total plastic waste). Of this, 324,000 tonnes of plastic was exported to China, over 8000km away, for recycling. Source: WRAP UK

So a large part of this plastic problem comes from food and drink packaging, which has been driven by our desire for ‘convenience’ and made us into a ‘throwaway society’. But it doesn’t need to be like this – a lot of this packaging is avoidable, and with very little effort. Whilst I don’t want to list of all the things you can do (it would triple the size of this post! – so I’ll save it for another time), most of the solutions are really quite simple. Taking your own bags to the supermarket reduces the need for disposable plastic bags; using tap water (you can treat it with a water filter to remove the chemicals) and carrying a water bottle from home stops the need to buy bottled water; and buying your fruit and vegetables loose rather than prepackaged in cellophane wrap and polystyrene trays cuts out heaps of wasteful and unnecessary packaging. And just refusing to buy things that are ridiculously over-packaged.

Let’s face it. Plastic is rubbish.


Cover Image: Bales of Recyclables, Walter Parenteau via Flickr

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9 Responses to Plastic is rubbish: why waste valuable resources on single-use throwaway items?

  1. Great post. Whether peak oil is reached sooner or later, there are many ways we as consumers can choose less plastic in our lives, as well as recycleable, compostable or biodegradable alternatives. It’s up to us to choose wisely on a personal level and campaign for global change.

  2. What an incredible blog post!! Thank you! It has certainly helped me to think differently and choose more wisely now.
    Here I thought I was helping the environment by recycling just about everything I had purchased and used. I am a frugal person though. I don’t buy cases of stuff, or bottled water/s. I am going to make a much larger effort to seek out and purchase items in glass, metal, and cardboard. I work in a supermarket and have some time to research before I purchase.
    Your blog post has helped me see things in a much better light and will pass this newly learned information on to others. Thank you :D

  3. The arguments and information you posted here is kind of dated or downright wrong. You say: “So if oil is such a valuable commodity, why are we using it to make cheap, single-use, disposable and throwaway items?” – Think of plastic as a byproduct from the oil industry. Plastic is not produced in place of for example gasoline or diesel, it has more to do with the cracking/production process for raw oil.
    Plastic is NOT rubbish. It’s actually a pretty valuable resource these days. End of life plastic can easily be used to make diesel and other fuels (Cynar already does this).

    • Hi Orlando, thanks for your comment. There is nothing dated about my arguments – this is a 21st Century problem.

      Some plastic is produced from by-products from the oil industry, but a significant amount of plastic is produced directly from oil that isn’t a by-product. Wherever it comes from, using it to make disposable products is a poor use of resources. There is no disputing that plastic is used for single-use, disposable items. These are either burned in incinerators, producing dioxin or toxic ash, sent to landfill, or remain as litter which pollutes the environment. The potential for plastic to be turned into fuel may exist, but most plastic ends up in landfill or as litter in the ocean.

      As I said in the article, using anything for a few minutes and throwing it away is a waste of resources.

  4. A comment not related to the theme of the article – you might want to go to your wp blog settings to change the color of the links to make them more visible. Not that I’m telling you what to do at your blog, but as a reader I’d appreciate it – the way they are now I can’t always tell they are there.

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