The lifecycle of plastic and why it matters

The lifecycle of plastic and why it matters

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While most of us are aware that plastic is a problem for our environment, we often only focus on the end results like litter in the ocean and on beaches. A lot of the onus to fix the plastic problem is put on consumers; to buy the right thing, not to litter, and to recycle. Really though, many people don't have the knowledge - or the option - to choose plastic alternatives. The real responsibility lies with the companies who sell plastic to the public without any regard for the lifecycle of their products.

Plastic production has a huge carbon footprint and plastic is manufactured using a LOT of oil and energy. On average, the initial production process produces about 6kg of CO2 per 1kg of plastic! This super energy intensive process starts by bonding gas and oil molecules together to create monomers. These little monomers are combined into long polymer (plastic) chains; taking form as millions of tiny pellets. The pellets are melted down, poured into moulds, and cooled down to create the final plastic product.

Plastic Energy Use and Bottled Water

Bottled water is one of the worst offenders for energy use, using between 5.6 and 10.2 million joules of energy per litre. That’s up to 2000 times more energy needed than producing tap water! On top of this, it actually takes more water to produce a bottle of water than you can actually drink out of it. 

A study commissioned by the International Bottled Water Association showed that 1.39 litres of water is consumed to produce one litre of bottled water, and that’s before taking packaging into consideration. Other estimates run at about 3 litres of water to make 1 litre of bottled water. All this waste of energy and water ends up with bottled water costing up to 2000 times more than tap water for the average person.

Consider these facts before saying that developing countries must have bottled water. In a crisis or with no other option, of course, bottled water is a good temporary fix. In the long-term it's cheaper and more efficient to provide clean drinking water with proper infrastructure and pipelines. Also, people in those countries wouldn’t have to be in the pockets of huge corporations who charge them inflated prices for something that is a basic human right. For more on bottled water, check out the Story of Bottled Water.

Landfills and the Ocean

Unfortunately, millions of tons of plastic bottles end up in landfills. There they can take an agonizing 1000 years to break down and never really decompose. Over time, rainwater flows through the landfill and absorbs water-soluble compounds in the plastic, some of which are toxic. The now harmful water pools at the bottom of landfills and turns into a gross, toxic soup called leachate which can end up in our ecosystems.

Plastic that doesn’t make it into landfills will often find its way to the ocean. Even a plastic bottle hundreds of kilometres inland can end up in the ocean by floating down a stream, then into the river, and eventually the ocean. Unfortunately, most of the plastic waste in the ocean is from developing countries that don’t have proper waste management systems.

Most plastic trash in the ocean is swept up into massive accumulations of rubbish called garbage patches. The ocean’s currents trap millions of pieces of plastic debris, creating these huge patches of garbage, almost impossible to measure, that pollute the water and trap marine life.

Plastic in the ocean doesn’t biodegrade; it instead splits into tiny pieces called microplastics, which will probably never fully break down. The term microplastics includes microbeads – tiny plastic beads that some beauty companies put in their products as exfoliator. Microplastics are easily mistaken for food and are eaten by fish and other marine life. In this way, plastic may end up working its way back up the food chain and onto your plate.

Recycling and What You Can Do

Recycling plastics is better than manufacturing from scratch, but is in many ways just a lesser evil. Of course, recycle when you can, but at the end of the day recycling plastic involves burning oil to melt it back down for new products. This starts the cycle again, with plastic products still ending up in landfills, oceans or even our bodies.

Plastic production is unethical, unsustainable and a waste of resources. It’s cheap and profitable for those manufacturing it, though that’s all. What we really need is to replace plastic altogether with efficient, sustainable production methods and materials.

At Ethique we use biodegradable, compostable packaging, free from plastic, though we need help on our mission. Massive change is needed to get other companies on board to stop the unsustainable production of plastic and the use of fossil fuels. Avoid plastic products as much as possible and help your community go as green as they can through good education and information. Governments and companies alike need to step up and help the world give up the bottle.