It seems to me there are several categories of plastics that we use so I thought I would list them.
- Single use “fast food” plastics: Styrofoam clam shells, cups, wrappers, utensils, straws, bags. This would also include plastic grocery bags.
- Processed grocery packaging. Frozen foods in plastic bags and containers. Plastic film, meat trays, Bottles. Includes garbage bags.
- Plastics in clothing. Particularly “microfiber”.
- Plastic durable goods: multi use products like toys, furniture, electronics casings, garbage cans made of plastic.
- Plastics in construction materials: carpets, siding, insulation, etc.
Single use Plastics/Fast food plastics: This is the low hanging fruit. This is also the stuff that often is turned to litter and makes it’s way into waterways and eventually lakes and oceans. We can force change on this rather quickly. There are alternatives: waxed paper instead of plastic film, paper bags instead of plastic, reusable grocery bags instead of the thin plastic kind. Plastic utensils might be the hardest to replace but the rest can go fairly quickly if we give clear guidance now so the paper industry can gear up. We should encourage use of produce other than wood pulp in our paper making: bamboo, sugar cane fiber, industrial hemp if they work.
Processed grocery packaging: I recommend leaving this for last. A lot of this packaging has greatly helped with food safety and food sanitation as well as storage. Some of this gets recycled, bottles in particular. A lot goes into landfills where, deprived of light and oxygen, at least it is theoretically stable and not entering streams. Plastic garbage bags hold all this stuff together until it gets to the landfill so they serve a purpose here. Companies talk about plastic garbage bags that photo-degrade, but that just means they eventually break down to fine plastic particles which gets into the water system – including our drinking water.
Plastics in clothing and cloth: Microfiber is the worse culprit here. You might use microfiber cleaning rags and wash them for reuse thinking this is saving trees because you are not using paper towels, but every time you wash those microfiber rags, small plastic particles break off and go into the sewer system. They are too small to get filtered out and they don’t break down. So wildlife ingests them and so do we in our drinking water and all those chemicals work their way into us. It would be great if we started phasing out some of the plastic fibers in clothing and stuck to natural materials as much as possible for as long as possible. Wool, cotton, linen, hemp, silk and other natural fibers have been used for thousands of years by humans and we should go back to them.
Plastics in durable goods: I’m not a fan. All these are out-gassing a chemical soup that we breath in. But they do have the advantage of lasting years and getting many uses. Some gets recycled, a lot goes into landfills. Eliminating this stuff will be hard although many of these products were made of steel back in the 1950’s – 1960’s and we could go back to that. Eliminating these plastics is a much lower priority that the three categories above.
Plastic building materials: Again, a lot of this stuff, carpets, padding, upholstery, even boats gives off chemical gasses just by sitting there. Same with exterior products. But the trade off of exterior products is less painting which saves lots of money, energy and most important air pollution. These would be the last plastics I would try to eliminate.