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The biggest environmental impacts of single-use plastics are largely overlooked

In a new article, Professor Shelie Miller of the University of Michigan has set out to debunk five common myths about the environmental impacts of single-use plastics. One the most common misperceptions is that the packaging itself is the main problem, but it is actually the product that is inside.

When it comes to single-use plastics, the production and disposal of packaging often represents only a few percent of a product’s lifetime environmental impacts, according to Professor Miller.

“Consumers tend to focus on the impact of the packaging, rather than the impact of the product itself. But mindful consumption that reduces the need for products and eliminates wastefulness is far more effective at reducing overall environmental impact than recycling.”

“Nevertheless, it is fundamentally easier for consumers to recycle the packaging of a product than to voluntarily reduce their demand for that product, which is likely one reason why recycling efforts are so popular.”

Professor Miller is addressing five common myths about single-use plastics. These misperceptions, along with Professor Miller’s insights, include:

Plastic packaging is the largest contributor to a product’s environmental impact. In reality, the product inside the package usually has a much greater environmental impact.

The environmental impacts of plastics are greater than any other packaging material. Actually, plastic generally has lower overall environmental impacts than single-use glass or metal in most impact categories.

Reusable products are always better than single-use plastics. Actually, reusable products have lower environmental impacts only when they are reused enough times to offset the materials and energy used to make them.

Recycling and composting should be the highest priority. Truth be told, the environmental benefits associated with recycling and composting tend to be small when compared with efforts to reduce overall consumption.

“Zero waste” efforts that eliminate single-use plastics minimize the environmental impacts of an event. In reality, the benefits of diverting waste from the landfill are small. Waste reduction and mindful consumption, including a careful consideration of the types and quantities of products consumed, are far larger factors dictating the environmental impact of an event.

Professor Miller challenges beliefs that are not supported by scientific evidence while urging other environmental scientists and engineers to broaden the conversation.

“Efforts to reduce the use of single-use plastics and to increase recycling may distract from less visible and often more damaging environmental impacts associated with energy use, manufacturing and resource extraction. We need to take a much more holistic view that considers larger environmental issues.”

Professor Miller says that in order to place the plastic-waste problem in proper context, it is critical to examine the environmental impacts that occur at every stage of a product’s lifetime. At the same time, she emphasizes that she is not trying to downplay environmental concerns associated with plastics and plastic waste.

Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a tool that researchers can use to estimate lifetime environmental impacts in multiple categories, such as climate change and energy use, biodiversity loss, and water and resource depletion.

It is easy for consumers to focus on packaging waste because they see it every day yet other environmental impacts are largely invisible to them, but LCA measures impacts that may otherwise be overlooked, explains Professor Miller.

“Although the use of single-use plastics has created a number of environmental problems that need to be addressed, there are also numerous upstream consequences of a consumer-oriented society that will not be eliminated, even if plastic waste is drastically reduced.”

“The resource extraction, manufacturing and use phases generally dominate the environmental impacts of most products. So, reduction in materials consumption is always preferable to recycling, since the need for additional production is eliminated.”

The study is published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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