So What's Actually Wrong With Plastic?

Melanie Blane Plastic plastic pollution

So What Is Wrong With Plastic Header Image

It’s difficult to imagine life without plastic. As I sit at my desk in my home office, I see many examples: speakers, a remote control, my phone case, some pens, a drinking bottle, my computer monitor, the light switch, the charging cable for my phone, the keyboard I am writing this blog post on. It’s everywhere I look, constantly within my field of view and several examples are within my reach.

Never a day goes by without an environmental news story on pollution and the role plastic plays in it. But is all plastic bad? Do we have to completely eliminate plastic or can we keep ourselves and the planet safe while using plastic at the same time?

This blog post explores plastic in detail. We will talk about what we did before its ubiquity, its invention and benefits and how it revolutionised the world. We will talk about what plastic actually is, the myriad types of plastic and their uses.

In addition, we will explore life after plastic: how we dispose of it, what happens when it’s thrown away or recycled, and what alternatives exist.

In addition, we will explore life after plastic: how we dispose of it, what happens when it’s thrown away or recycled, and what alternatives exist.

At White Rabbit Skincare, it’s no secret we want all plastic out of our packaging: we’ll talk about how we are progressing on this front and what the future holds.

Invention of plastic

It’s hard to imagine a time without plastic. How different our lives would be. How would we carry our shopping? What containers would our food come in?

It’s not too difficult to come up with a list of alternatives for food but what about other things? Our cars? They contain a vast amount of plastic: mouldable, flexible and durable.

Planes are full of plastic too: Lightweight and strong.

It really has revolutionised and transformed our way of life.

Alexander Parkes - Inventor of plastic

Alexander Parkes is credited with modern plastic. Patented in 1856, the uniquely named Parkesine won a bronze medal at the 1862 World’s Fair in London. It was not like current, petrochemical plastics: it was made from cellulose – the major component in plant cell walls and used universally in the manufacture of paper and cardboard.

Parkesine was able to be moulded and shaped easily and when cooled, it hardened to form a transparent and flexible material. It could even be coloured using pigments. Quite the revolutionary breakthrough.

Leo Baekeland - Inventor of BakeliteIt wasn’t until the early 1900s that Bakelite was created. Named after its inventor, Leo Baekeland, Bakelite was the first fully synthetic plastic. It had all the properties of Parkesine with the added benefit of heat-resistance. Some applications include electrical insulators, kitchenware, billiard balls, toys and firearms. Coco Chanel even made jewellery from it.

Despite losing ground in the 1940s to newer plastics, Bakelite still finds uses today in the electronics and power-generation industries.

In 1872, BASF created polyvinyl chloride (PVC) but it wasn’t commercially produced until around 60 years later in the 1930s. This was also around the time they discovered polystyrene which gained widespread use as insulation in buildings and packaging.

Today, many of us may not have heard of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) but I bet you’ve drank from a water bottle made from it 😊

Plastic is everywhere and makes vast sums of money for the chemical companies that manufacture it. In 2014 the sales from the top 50 chemical companies totalled $961 Billion with more than half of them in the United States.

It’s fair to say that plastic is big business.

How Things Used to be

How things used to be - Milkman

Although plastic has been with us in one form or another for over a century, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the cost of manufacturing plastic became low enough that it could replace a number of staple products.

This ushered in an era of massive expansion for the plastic industry with almost every product you can think of being made of plastic.

Nowadays we don’t think twice about putting a plastic liner in our bins. Or using plastic clothes pegs to hang up our washing. But it wasn’t always like this.

Plastic revolutionised shopping. Prior to the 1960s we took home our shopping in paper bags or cardboard boxes. Meat and fish came wrapped in grease-proof paper. But food was all fairly local and seasonal.

Remember when clothes pegs were wooden?

There was also a time when the milkman delivered milk in glass bottles. Recycled glass bottles no less. Of course, this still happens but we prefer to buy our milk in a plastic carton from the supermarket now.

Our trash was put directly into metal bins or first, paper bags and then put into the metal bins… yes, there was leakage.

What about modern conveniences? There were no plastic drinking bottles or computers. Clothing was made from woven natural fibres: there were no performance fabrics like Gore-Tex.

Things we don’t even think about like doors and windows were all made of wood: no uPVC triple-glazing before the 60s.

And what about the current favourite: disposable coffee cups? What did we do before Starbucks and Costa? We sat at a table and drank from a cup: not quite as convenient as drinking your drive-thru coffee in the car.

In the medical world, eye glasses were made from metal and glass and if you’ve ever picked up a pair of glasses from this era the weight is quite something.

There were no tamper-proof lids on medicine bottles and artificial limbs were significantly heavier than they are now.

Benefits of Plastic

MRI Scanner

Plastic has a bad reputation these days but it’s impact on modern life is nothing short of revolutionary.

Cheap, lightweight packaging means we can get any type of food year-round. It’s not hard to remember a time when certain food was seasonal: no strawberries or salads in winter.

With plastic being lightweight and cheap, shipping food across the globe, and keeping it fresh in transit has become simple and cheap.

Take a look at some of the fruits and vegetables in your local supermarket and you will see numerous far-flung countries of origin.

It’s always warm and sunny somewhere.

The medical world has been revolutionised too. MRI scanners could not exist without plastic: they’re basically giant magnets so everything in and around them needs to be non-magnetic and what’s more versatile than plastic?

Artificial limbs are made possible with the use of plastics and polymers: they existed prior to the explosion of cheap plastic but they were heavy and expensive being made from metals.

Single-use sterile plastic medical utensils have massively reduced infections and costs across the world.

Modern eye-glasses are made with plastic frames and lenses, keeping the cost and weight to a minimum.

Plastic bags have an unpleasant reputation for littering landfills and contributing to the growing resentment towards single-use plastics but you can fit 7 times the number of plastic bags in a delivery truck as paper bags thus significantly reducing emissions.

This blog post is being written on a computer with a plastic keyboard, staring at a plastic monitor. Prior to the advent of cheap, mouldable plastic I would have had to use an all-metal typewriter. Even all-aluminium laptops require plastic for the screens and circuitry inside.

Synthetic fibres are largely plastic too. Nylon, made by DuPont, and created in the 1920s has been in constant use with many applications. The first commercial use was in toothbrushes and has extended into clothing, engine moulds, parachutes, tents, World War II flak jackets, ropes, food packaging, guitar strings and many more products.

It’s fair to say that plastic has changed humanity.

Do we need all plastic?

Sweeping statements like “we don’t need plastic” oversimplify the problem as not all plastic is equal.

If we just look at how plastic has revolutionised food management and production there is no argument that encasing fresh products in plastic can prolong their lives. It allows us to buy food from our local supermarket in the middle of winter that was grown in a country on the other side of the world only a couple of weeks prior.

Plastic packaging can be used to protect food in transit. It can keep food fresh for long periods of time where, in the past, we would have to consume the food within days of harvest or it would go off.

This isn’t to say that all food should be encased in plastic.

One of the most obscure uses of plastic packaging is single-use plastic bags with fruit in them. You’ve likely seen these in the supermarket containing bananas, oranges and apples.

All fruit comes in its own, natural bag, called skin. This protects and encases the food in a jacket designed by mother nature and perfected over millions of years. In most cases the plastic bag is to ensure the logo of the manufacturer has a medium for display. It serves no other practical purpose than marketing and merely becomes another problem for humanity to deal with later.

On the other hand, single-use plastics are absolutely crucial in medicine in order to ensure sterilisation of utensils, needles, medicines etc. Despite the potential issues of disposing of the packaging, there is little argument to be made against the medicinal benefits of ensuring that patients are given the very best, and safest care. Single-use, sterilized, plastic packaging is vital in achieving that aim.

Mentioned earlier, the MRI scanner, truly a wonder of modern technology, would not be possible without plastic: It’s an enormous magnet at its core.

Packaging, however, probably has the most egregious overuse and abuse of plastic in the consumer space. We see it every day. So much so that it becomes almost unnoticeable until we buy something.

Electronic products line shelves encased in protective, one-time-use-only, non-recyclable shells. It shows off the product while protecting it and allowing the manufacturer to display their logo.

No thought is given to the fate of the packaging once it’s brought home and opened. It becomes another problem we have to bury in landfill. Another straw on the camel’s back, so to speak. And while it would be impractical to sell such products in glass or aluminium containers, a balance must be met that allows display and protection without consequences.

Alternatives to plastic

Alternatives to plastic - Aluminium and glass

So, we have established that plastic is everywhere. That its invention has made a great many things possible and others more practical.

But if you watch the news, the prevailing theory is that plastic, where possible should be replaced with something more sustainable.

What can we use instead of plastic?

It turns out the answer isn’t as straightforward as saying “ok, let’s swap all plastic for glass”. It is much more nuanced than this.

First, what is the problem with plastic?

Its biggest issue is that it’s made, primarily, from a finite resource: petroleum.

It is believed that for around a 40-million-year period, approximately 160 million years ago, the remains of plants and marine organisms piled up and over millions of years transformed into the crude oil that forms the raw base material of petroleum-based plastics. This was a one-time event in our prehistoric past, as there were no biological processes at that time to break down the dead organic matter so there were no bacteria to eat the remains like we have today.

This implies that plastic derived from petroleum, is a finite resource. This is known as the biogenic theory of petroleum formation.

However, there is another theory that petroleum is something that the earth produces naturally in a process known as abiogenesis. That it is made naturally, far below the surface and seeps up through cracks in the crust.

So far, there haven’t been any commercially viable amounts of this abiogenic petroleum found but if it were to be proven, it’s likely still a finite resource, much like petroleum made from dead plants and dinosaurs.

So, what can we use if we know that at some point in the future we may run out of the raw material?

One of the most recyclable materials we have is aluminium. Not only is it incredibly light and strong but it’s highly abundant with about 8% of the earth’s crust made of aluminium.

Manufacturing aluminium is a high-energy process requiring access to cheap power in order to make it commercially viable. However, it is highly recyclable, requiring only 5% of the original energy in order to melt scrap aluminium.

In the 1960s, with the increase in use of drinks cans, processes were perfected to recycle the aluminium cans and melt them down into more aluminium cans.

Planes use aluminium extensively due to its light weight and great strength. It is fair to say that aluminium is the backbone of modern aviation but modern planes extensively use plastic these days too for the same reason as aluminium.

Efficient cars are made largely with aluminium as well as a wide range of household items like cooking utensils and furniture.

Steel is cheaper than aluminium and is used widely in the construction industry but aluminium is preferred where corrosion resistance or lightness is required.

Lime and Coconut Cleansing Water - Aluminium Bottle

At White Rabbit Skincare we use aluminium bottles in place of plastic ones as they are chemically stable and highly recyclable.

Aluminium is incredibly versatile but it is also more expensive than petroleum-based plastic so it is not suitable for cheaper products as the cost is often prohibitive.

Glass is another material that is highly recyclable, chemically very stable and can be made from an abundant resource. We think of glass as being transparent but many materials are classed as glass, for instance, porcelain is a form of glass.

The most common constituent of glass is Silicon Dioxide, which is commonly found in sand, giving us a practically unlimited supply of the raw material.

Glass is chemically very stable: few things react with it, making it ideal for long-term storage of food. In addition, it’s highly corrosion-resistant too.

While strong, glass can be extremely brittle, making it somewhat problematic when dropped. It’s also very heavy compared to plastic: an empty 2L plastic cola bottle weighs approximately 90g but the equivalent in glass, in order to make it strong, would weigh up to 1Kg. This makes glass more difficult and less efficient to transport.

Glass can replace many things that we currently use plastic for. I use a glass water bottle, for instance. It weighs much more than a plastic one but can be reused almost indefinitely: It’s nearly 4 years old at the time of writing this blog post.

I also use glass containers to store leftover food. They can be taken directly from the freezer and heated in the microwave with no damage. These are also many years old.

Recycling is not a magic bullet

Recycling is not a magic bullet

Broadly, there are two main ways to recycle plastic: by mechanical recycling (chopping it up, grinding it down and melting it) and chemically separating the plastic into its basic components.

First, plastic has to be sorted based on different parameters and the different types of plastics. For example, plastic drinks bottles, the kind fizzy drinks are routinely sold in, are largely recyclable, but the lids are very often not. To separate them is laborious and the cost of the recycled plastic is so low that it’s often cheaper to discard than recycle.

Even if plastics are easy to recycle, many plastics are polymers: the final material is made from many others. Recycling weakens the bonds between the polymers resulting in separation with the remedy adding more material to compensate, thus driving up the cost.

Contaminants are a huge problem requiring cleaning the plastic as part of the recycling process but it’s not as simple as washing the plastic: stickers on plastic containers mean otherwise recyclable plastic will be discarded due to the cost of removing the stickers.

Not all plastic is equal. Some plastic cannot be recycled but many consumers are perplexed by labelling and the bewildering array of plastics available with the simple solution often to just throw it in with the regular household trash.

Council recycling facilities in the UK can be hit and miss with some only accepting certain plastics and others not. An added issue is that kerb-side recycling can often be at odds with your local council recycling and refuse collection, with one accepting something and the other refusing.

What about the energy cost of recycling? Is it worth it?

You will likely be familiar with the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. It’s taught regularly in schools across the world. The tag line is part of what is known as “The Waste Hierarchy” with the actions listed from best to worst. Or, more accurately, most favourable to least favourable.

Recycling is the least favourable of the three R’s. It stands to reason that if you don’t create something in the first place, you’ll be better off. From an energy-expended standpoint at least.

It’s much more efficient not to have to create plastic packaging than it is to recycle it later.

Modern recycling began in the late 1980s but there were few reasons to recycle plastic. After all, the raw material was incredibly cheap to produce.

The primary impetus for recycling was initially due to running out of space to store our garbage. One calculation stated that all trash in the United States for the next 1000 years could fit into a space 35 miles on each side and 100 yards deep: In the grand scheme of things it’s absolutely tiny.

A potential spanner in the works is the energy cost. It was often questioned in the early days whether more trucks ferrying garbage from landfill to recycling centres was efficient.

Calculations of total energy consumption of recycled goods is very favourable these days:

  1. Aluminium requires 95% less energy to recycle than to create from raw material
  2. Glass requires 21% less energy
  3. Recycled plastic bottles require 76% less energy
  4. Even newspapers can be recycled, requiring 45% less energy

In the early days, recycling facilities were often sparse and required many miles of travel to reach, resulting in increased emissions but there are many more facilities to recycle nowadays.

The cost of recycled goods has also increased. This brings more competition and efficiency: there is now money to be made in recycling.

Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

The Dark Side of Recycling

The Dark Side of Recycling - Malaysia (image from The Guardian)

In the UK we recycle 79% of paper and cardboard, 71.3% of metal and 67.6% of glass according to https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/uk-waste-data. Between 2012 and 2017 we increased our plastic recycling from 25.2% to 46.2%. But what does this mean?

These figures, produced by the UK government, are taken from councils and other organisations across the UK. While the figures show an upwards trend in the volume of recycling the numbers are tailing off. From 2012 to 2013 it increased by over 6% but from 2016 to 2017 it only increased by 1.3%.

Councils are being told by the government to do more with less. To recycle more stuff but do it within existing budgets.

 

These stories from UK media show the dark side of “recycling” in the UK:

  1. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/08/30/british-councils-sending-recycling-indonesia-burnt-unauthorised/
  2. https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/uk-plastic-pollution-oceans-recycling-export-waste-malaysia-vietnam-thailand-a8400761.html
  3. https://www.standard.co.uk/futurelondon/theplasticfreeproject/why-does-the-uk-send-plastic-waste-abroad-to-be-recycled-a4153966.html

In 2018 China declared it would no longer take over 20 types of plastic for recycling due to contamination.

For decades, we had just shipped our plastic to China for them to deal with but they have decided enough is enough and have shut their doors to many different plastics. However, instead of dealing with it ourselves, we found other far-flung countries to take it instead, e.g. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand.

Using a complex network of private third parties, our councils have taken the problem of dealing with our recyclable waste and made it someone else’s issue. In fairness, the councils can hardly account for every ounce of recyclable material received but by passing it on, they can absolve themselves of the consequences of the environmental impact.

This recyclable trash is routinely sent to landfills in places like Malaysia and Thailand where it rots, giving off toxic fumes, polluting the land and water supplies of nearby villages.

It is regularly burned, creating even worse conditions for the locals.

The Future for White Rabbit Skincare

The Future for White Rabbit Skincare

We love the environment here at White Rabbit Skincare. Our entire business is built upon our dedication to leave the planet better than we found it.

If we could conjure up a spell to rid us of the plastic in our product containers, we wouldn’t hesitate to use it. We’d cast it in a flash.

However, despite our founder’s obsession with Harry Potter, she hasn’t found one that works. Not yet anyway. Perhaps a few more watches just to be sure :)

Plastic reduction, and eventual elimination, is one of our top priorities in 2020.

We haven’t managed to get rid of it entirely but as an eco-conscious company we have put our money where our mouth is and ensured that we do everything we can to minimise our footprint.

Currently our product labels are printed on recycled paper with sustainable inks derived from plants. Our boxes are all made from recycled card and we routinely re-use boxes that our suppliers send to us.

Our stationery is printed on recycled paper and our packing “peanuts” are made from potatoes… yep, actual potatoes you make chips from! Even our packing tape is recycled paper, biodegradable and printed with plant-based ink.

We’d love to get on our high-horse, puff out our chests and say how perfect we are but as of the time of writing this blog post, we’re not quite there. As a percentage of the total packaging in White Rabbit Skincare products, plastic accounts for less than 1%. Still not zero but it’s a start.

It doesn’t mean we’re resting on our laurels though: we are working with our suppliers to reduce the plastic packaging they use when sending us materials and we are constantly evaluating plastic-free alternatives for the tiny number of our products that still use it.

In 2020 we will be researching new methods to dispense our products without using plastic: at the moment we use plastic atomisers on our Orange Blossom & Aloe Vera Toner and plastic pump lids on our Lavender & Apricot Glycolic Cleanser. These are entirely optional and we encourage customers to refill their existing bottles where possible. As it happens, less than 5% of customers who buy these products select the plastic lids, so a great big thank you for that :)

Plastic-free is a journey for us. We’ve been on it for a long time and we are near the end: We can see a future, a very near future, where White Rabbit Skincare packaging is 100% plastic-free and leaves practically no environmental footprint.

We’re not 100% plastic-free yet but we will be one day. For sure!


Mick Docherty

White Rabbit Skincare




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