Excess plastic packaging is a wasteful use of energy and other resources. The life cycle of plastic packaging begins with the extraction, transportation and refining of oil. At each of these steps, and those that follow, energy is consumed and carbon is released into the atmosphere. Furthermore, oil is a non-renewable resource and is highly polluting (think of refinery emissions of toxic chemicals, oil spills, etc.) Although large, fancy plastic packaging may give some consumers the impression they are purchasing a higher-quality product, the truth is unnecessary packaging only contributes to increase a product’s carbon footprint.
A lot has been said about the wastefulness of consuming bottled water, but aside from switching to tap water there are other important ways we can reduce the use of plastics. Besides purchasing products with minimal amounts of packaging, we can also reduce this type of waste by purchasing refillable and/or concentrated products, as well as products in recycled packaging. This is the case with personal care and cleaning products. Take liquid hand soap, for example. Eight 8-oz. pump bottles of hand soap may contain 40 or 50 percent more plastic and often cost over 60 percent more than a 64-oz. refill bottle, even though they contain the same amount of product. Instead of buying pump bottles every time, a better option is to buy one pump bottle and refill it as needed from a large refill bottle. Similar money-saving, waste-reducing refills are available for home cleaners. The same is true of products such as baby wipes, cleaning wipes and makeup removing towelettes, which come in small plastic tubs that can be refilled from large packages that come wrapped in thinner plastic, resulting in less waste and approximately 30 percent less cost.
Concentrated cleaning products such as dishwashing liquid and laundry detergent also help us reduce plastic waste because they pack more cleaning power per bottle, so that we clean more with less product. These cleaners are two or three times more concentrated than their regular counterparts, so when properly used we are reducing our consumption of plastic packaging by at least half.
When we must purchase plastic-packaged products, we should look for those that come in recycled packaging, preferably those with post-consumer recycled content. This means that a certain percentage of the plastic contained in the packaging comes from plastic that has been used and recycled by consumers, as opposed to just recycled manufacturing waste. In this manner, we increase the market for plastics recycled by end-users, helping sustain programs for the recycling of household plastics. And let’s also make sure that we recycle those plastics. Although a study by Moore Recycling Associates estimated that 94 percent of the population have access to plastic recycling programs,1 only 30.5% of plastic bottles were being recycled as of 2012, according to a report by the Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers.2 Obviously, this means that most plastic bottles are needlessly going to landfills even where end-users have the opportunity to recycle them. There is still much room for improvement in access to recycling programs that accept all non-bottle rigid plastics (which include, among others, several varieties of plastic packaging like clamshells, food tubs, and thermoform packaging), because these programs are available to only 60% of the population.1 But those of us who have access to them in our communities should make full use of them to keep millions of pounds of plastics out of landfills and reduce the energy and oil demand associated with the manufacture of plastic packaging.
1 Moore Recycling Associates. 2011. Plastic Recycling Collection: National Reach Study. http://plastics.americanchemistry.com/National-Reach-Study.
2 Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, and American Chemistry Council. 2012. 2012 United States National Post-Consumer Plastics Bottle Recycling Report. http://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Education-Resources/Publications/2012-National-Post-Consumer-Plastics-Bottle-Recycling-Report.pdf.
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