“Consumers tend to focus on the impact of the packaging, rather than the impact of the product itself,” explains the researcher. “But nevertheless, reducing the need for products and eliminating waste is much more effective than recycling itself. For consumers recycling the packaging is easier than voluntarily reducing their demand for that product, which is probably one of the reasons why recycling efforts are so popular, ”he adds. This is one of the biggest confusions that recycling generates: it is very good to separate the garbage in the different containers so that part of it can be recycled, but this should be the last step, Recycling is also a polluting process and, in addition, there are many materials that cannot be directly recycled.
Before throwing something into its corresponding container, the best thing is, firstly, to reduce the consumption of superfluous packaging, secondly, to find a second or third life after that first use and, finally, to take it to the recycling container . “When it comes to single-use plastics in particular, packaging production and disposal often accounts for only a small percentage of a product’s lifetime environmental impacts”, Explains the researcher.
The five misperceptions around single-use plastics
Plastic packaging is the factor that contributes the most to a product’s environmental impact. As we have already mentioned, many times the product that comes in the package has a greater impact. The environmental impacts of plastics are greater than those of any other packaging material. Actually, and in most categories, plastic generally has a lower environmental impact than glass or single-use metal.Reusable products are always better than single-use plastics. In reality, reusable products have a lower environmental impact only when they are reused long enough to compensate for the materials and energy used to make them.Recycling and composting should be the top priority. In fact, the environmental benefits associated with recycling and composting tend to be small compared to the efforts to reduce overall consumption.“Zero waste” efforts that eliminate single-use plastics minimize a product’s environmental impacts. In reality, the benefits of diverting waste from the landfill are small. Reducing waste and conscientious consumption, including careful consideration of the types and quantities of products consumed, are much more important factors that dictate the environmental impact of our consumption.
Reduce, reduce and reduce
“Efforts to reduce the use of single-use plastics and increase recycling can distract attention from the less visible and often more damaging environmental impacts associated with energy use, manufacturing, and resource extraction,” explains the author. “We need to take a much more holistic view that considers more important environmental issues.”
Miller emphasizes that he is not trying to downplay the environmental concerns associated with plastics and plastic waste. But, to put the problem of plastic waste in the right context, it is essential examine the environmental impacts that occur at each stage of a product’s useful life, from the extraction of natural resources and the energy required to manufacture the item to its final disposal or reuse.
Miller notes that the famous 3R’s rule “reduce, reuse, recycle” was created to provide an easy-to-remember hierarchy of preferable ways to reduce environmental impact. However, most environmental messages do not emphasize the inherent hierarchy of the 3Rs: the fact that reduction and reuse are listed before recycling. As a result, Consumers often exaggerate the importance of recycling packaging rather than reducing product consumption as much as possible and reusing items to extend their useful life.
“Although the use of single-use plastics has created a number of environmental problems that need to be addressed, there are also numerous early consequences of a consumer-oriented society that will not be eliminated, even if plastic waste is drastically reduced,” he said.
“The extraction, manufacturing and resource use phases generally dominate the environmental impacts of most products. Therefore, the reduction in the consumption of materials is always preferable to recycling, since the need for additional production is eliminated ”.
Study the entire life cycle
Life cycle assessment is a tool researchers like Miller use to quantify lifetime environmental impacts across multiple categories, including climate change and energy use, water and resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, solid waste generation and human and ecological toxicity.
It’s easy for consumers to focus on packaging waste because they see boxes, bottles, and cans every day, while a wide range of other environmental impacts are largely invisible. But life cycle assessment analyzes systematically assess the entire supply chain, measuring impacts that might otherwise be missed, explains the researcher.
Packaged food products, for example, incorporate largely invisible impacts that may include intensive agricultural production, power generation and refrigeration and transportation along the supply chain, along with the processing and manufacturing associated with food and its packaging.