It’s the 21st century, and plastic is everywhere. From food and product packaging to eating utensils and straws, it seems that plastic is everywhere in the modern lifestyle. So whether you are in a metropolitan city or the most remote areas on the planet, you will most likely come across some plastic products.
We can’t deny that plastic is an ingenious invention that has helped protect goods during transportation and keep foods lasting longer. But, on the other hand, the environmental consequences are proving to be expensive. So, what is the actual cost of using plastic?
Why Do We Use Plastic So Much?
It can be helpful to understand why we love plastic so much. John Wesley Hyatt invented the very first form of synthetic polymer, aka plastic, in 1869. Yet, its prevalence did not grow until the 1970s, when manufacturers realized just how efficient and economical plastic was.
One of the main reasons people love using plastic is its affordability, lightweight, and flexibility. It is especially true in packaging, where plastic can significantly extend the life of produce and poultry. Plastic is also versatile, robust, and durable; in short, it’s the most accessible and most convenient option we have.
The Cost of Using Plastic
Plastic may be cheap to produce and distribute, but the indirect cost of using plastic can be much higher than we imagine. For instance, a 2014 study by the United Nations Environment Programme observed the environmental costs of plastic packaging, including money spent on disposal and greenhouse gas emission. The result is quite shocking, as it found that the number adds up to $75 billion per year, with the food and drink industry contributing to 35% of that in total.
That’s not all. Some people would argue that plastic is recyclable. However, did you know that the recycling rate in 2018 is only 8.7%? That is only 3 out of the 35.7 million tons produced!
Furthermore, when you think about it, the lasting impact of using plastic is not worth the benefit it gives. We use highly engineered packaging for a few weeks at most, but it will rot in a landfill for centuries. Not to mention the significant portion that ends up in the ocean and destroys marine life.
The Toll of Plastic on Human Health
We have seen the environmental and economic cost of using plastic, but some health consequences may arise, which many of us may not realize.
The use and disposal of plastic can impact our health, whether directly or indirectly. Here are a few ways how:
Our bodies can absorb the chemicals in plastic, which has physical consequences like altering hormones.
When marine animals consume toxins released by plastic in the ocean, these harmful substances can move into our bodies when we eat them.
Chemicals from plastic in landfills can seep into groundwater.
It’s important to point out a particular chemical known as phthalates, which you can find as plasticizers in packaging, flooring, wallpaper, and even medical devices. Studies have shown that 80% of babies and almost all adults contain significant levels of phthalates.
Some of its impacts include sperm abnormalities and decreased testosterone levels. Not only that, but this chemical can also inhibit brain development in babies and lower IQ and higher risks of conditions like ADHD.
Does This Mean Plastic Is Evil?
We can demonize plastic as much as we want, but we cannot deny the benefits that plastic has proven to offer when all is said and done. After all, we do use plastic in our day-to-day activities, from the biscuit packaging to your toothbrush.
However, one way to go about this problem is not to eliminate plastic but to find a method to innovate plastic. Plenty of enterprising companies are focusing on repurposing existing plastic or changing its chemical structure.
For example, Filabot converts unused plastic into filaments for 3D printers, which is an excellent alternative to simply disposing of plastic or burning it (this could further worsen the environment).
Is Not Using Plastic Cheaper?
Let us briefly circle back to the topic of costs. Many claim that a zero-waste lifestyle is expensive, but sustainable living is much cheaper than we think. Buy reusable products such as reusable bags, straws, and bottles, may be more expensive the first time around. However, they can help you cut costs in the long run.
To illustrate, imagine buying a reusable coffee cup. Then, instead of buying iced coffee every day and dumping the plastic cup, you can simply brew your coffee at home. Even if you prefer buying than making the beverage, many shops offer discounts if you bring your own cup.
Plastic is not something that can disappear in the blink of an eye. It has been an inextricable part of our lives for over fifty years, and so the change has to be gradual. So the next time you’re about to use plastic, ask yourself this: am I ready to pay the cost?