Before we get too deep into our sustainability talks and our advocacy for plastic free living, we do want to make something very clear – we are not villainizing plastic. On the contrary, we believe that plastic is a very useful and practical material and one which is so critical in certain industries.
To start with this, we want to stress that we agree that plastic is very important to specific industries, not to ALL industries. In case we haven’t already made it so clear (lol), our goal is to offer our customers quality pieces and alternatives to products that are conventionally made from plastic, but don’t HAVE to be. For example, using a natural fibre loofah is going to pose much less stress on the environment than using a plastic one that will likely leach microplastics into your local water stream, and will never biodegrade. Unlike some products in our world, the loofah does not have to be made from plastic for reasons such as safety or hygiene. Same goes for your morning metal straw in your smoothie etc.
In this blog post, we want to go over a couple of industries where we think plastic is so important, and how the effects of plastic in those industries can be worth the while.
It is ironic to say, but the properties that make plastic so harmful to the environment (i.e. durability, lifetime, flexibility etc.) are also the characteristics that make it so useful in many industries. A plastic that never breaks down is going to be harmful to our ecosystem and produce massive waste issues when produced on a grand scale. However, a plastic that will never break down also means it can be re-used indefinitely, which ultimately could save additional natural resources from being extracted to create a new material that does not necessarily have this characteristic of an indefinite lifetime. This leads us to the sizable statement that plastic isn’t really the problem, but that it’s irresponsible production and usage is1. Industries that use plastic for needs such as health, hygiene, sustainability etc. are a little harder to argue with when it comes to using plastic, because we believe they are using the material in a responsible and essential manner (generally speaking). Below we go over a couple plastic-using industries that ultimately require plastic, and why.
The medical industry is definitely one that uses a lot of plastic, and to top that, single-use plastics. In the hospital, you will find plastic all over, most widely used in the forms of medical gloves, vials, syringes, catheters, biohazard bins etc. The list can go over forever. The important message to get from this is that these plastic constituents are used as a means of infection control and for health and safety2. Before plastics, the medical industry was much less effective, and plastics have been a huge breakthrough in the medical industry, providing much higher safety standards to patients and improving ease for doctors carrying out procedures. We deem this to be a legitimate reason for the use of plastic, and we believe this is not an irresponsible act, which other industries may be making (cough… plastic water bottle industry). Another couple examples of plastic being a critical component to the medical/health industry include:
- MRI: an MRI is made up of magnetic forces, and thus any metals in its surrounding proximity will be charged toward it, which would be very dysfunctional. Therefore, a plastic guard is always around the MRI machine to prevent this from happening… A necessity.
- Prosthetics: artificial limbs, knees, hips etc. are life changing for those who need them, and with high tech polymers, these devices can be lightweight and much more comfortable than materials used in the past.
- Contact lenses: contact lenses used to be made of glass, a very dangerous material to put into your eye with the danger of shattering. Contact lenses today made of plastic are a much safer option.
Traditionally, the medical industry would use metals, ceramics, and glass for their implants or instruments, but plastic has been found to have better biocompatibility with the body, is lighter and more comfortable, and is lower in cost3.
The examples we have provided above are very simple examples of how plastic can be beneficial and responsibly used in the medical industry, with superior alternatives unavailable. Adding to this, if we can pinpoint to appropriate sanitation streams and recycling streams for these plastics, then this is even better! For example, we know that the amazing company Terracycle has a recycling program for your contact lenses so that they don’t end up in landfill. How great!
Plastic is obviously used tremendously in the food industry, and when you go to the grocery store, you cannot close your eyes, turn around, and open them again without seeing some shape or form of plastic. A term that has peaked some interest is “Intelligent plastic packaging”. This term refers to the packaging process that has been carefully engineered and designed with the sole purpose to protect our health and safeguard us against food poisoning, while also minimizing food wastage. The design is therefore centered both around health and the environment.
It is important to realize that from farm to store, your food endures a lot of stress. From harvest to transportation to distribution, a lot of environmental stress is taken on by your poor tomatoes or cucumbers. What’s more is that it requires more resources to distribute your food than it does to produce the plastic that encases it. The point here is that if plastic is protecting your food and giving it a longer life span, this benefit outweighs the cost, since it would require the depletion of more resources to continue having food distributed to the grocery store more frequently due to damaged goods. The consequences of food spoilage or damage brought on by the absence of a plastic protective layer or casing would actually consume more resources than food with it’s plastic protection, deeming it less sustainable4. On top of this, food wastage is a huge environmental burden, as it produces and contributes to the global production of methane, which is a GHG. Therefore, proper packaging, as odd as it sounds, usually means less GHG emissions
Now you may be thinking wow, so it is better for me to buy the plastic with my food? But this isn’t entirely true. The simple solution to this is to buy local. Buy from your local farmer’s market! There is no easier way to gravitationally reduce your climate impact. When you buy local you are reducing distribution stresses and packaging requirements while upgrading the quality and the health benefits of your food! On top of that, don’t you want to support your local community?
When it comes to your car, plastic has a large role in terms of your protection and the engineering of the vehicle. Today, plastic comprises approximately 15% of the makeup of your car, and we believe this is for good reason. Some of the most important safety features of your car are made from plastic. A few of these include:
- Child safety seats
- Plastic foam in side panels and bumpers for collisions
- Head and tail light covers
- Plastic coating around your windshield etc4.
The automobile is yet another industry where plastic usage is inevitable and where existing valuable alternatives do not exist. On the brighter side of things, we hope that most plastic used in the car industry can be recycled and re-used in the manufacturing process or for other goods.
We would like to be clear that we recognize we have only very briefly covered 3 industries in this blog post and that there are many more that should / could be included.
The takeaway we would like to deliver here is that plastic is a very useful substance in some industries and can be lifesaving. Furthermore, if these industries to which plastic is so crucial enforce standardized and regulated recycling streams for their plastic waste, improvements could be made with regards to the implications this waste is causing to the planet. If these industries could improve the waste handling of their plastic by resorting to sustainable and innovative recycling processes, much less waste would be produced or imposed onto the planet’s health.
In the meantime, we will continue to promote and enforce the enormous number of alternatives there are to unnecessary plastics existing much too freely outside of these industries. Let's leave plastic to the industries that really need it.
- Architect’s Daughter