In the U.S., plastic is still largely considered to be an integral and necessary part of daily life. A stroll through any grocery store will reveal this unhealthy plastic dependence not only in the form of plastic grocery bags but also in the food packaging itself.
Fresh produce, which comes in its own biodegradable “packaging,” is often wrapped in plastic or bundled into plastic bags and containers. Ears of corn come shucked and wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic; garlic cloves are peeled and shrink wrapped; even apples are sliced and packaged in baggies.
Everything from nuts and cheese to milk and lettuce comes encased in plastic. Sometimes, the food is wrapped in plastic and then place inside another plastic bag or container.
It’s said that plastic bags tend to be used for an average of 12 minutes, but can take 500 to 1,000 years to break down in the environment.1,2 While some stores and cities have made moves to ban plastic bags, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reducing plastic waste.
How much plastic is generated by US supermarkets?
The answer is, nobody knows. The Guardian launched a series titled “United States of Plastic,”3 which included an attempt to gauge the scale. Five grocery stores, including natural chains like Whole Foods, in New York City were perused, revealing plastic to be virtually everywhere. According to The Guardian:4
“Plastic, often low-quality and unrecyclable, felt like the only thing more ubiquitous than the food itself — and it was prevalent everywhere we shopped. H-Mart sold a single butternut squash in red plastic netting.
At Whole Foods, whose entire business is based on marketing sustainability, plastic-wrapped vegetables were sold alongside hard plastic containers bagged in plastic. Whole Foods also sold a plastic bag holding individually plastic wrapped salmon filets in the freezer section. In another aisle, there were plastic-lined juice boxes with plastic straws wrapped in plastic.”
It’s a sickening show, especially as it becomes clear that plastic waste is endangering the planet. In 2015, 34.5 million tons of plastic were generated in the U.S., accounting for 13.1% of municipal solid waste (MSW) generation.5
Plastics are found in all MSW categories, but containers and packaging have the most plastic, coming in at 14 million tons in 2015. This includes much of the plastic waste seen in supermarkets, such as:6
- Bags, sacks and wraps
- Other packaging
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and jars
- High-density polyethylene (HDPE) natural bottles
- Other containers
Still, The Guardian noted, “American supermarkets continue carrying products that use excessive and hard to recycle plastics in the name of convenience, cleanliness or individual and child-sized parts.”7
In the case of plastic packaging, a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in partnership with the World Economic Forum, revealed that 95% of the material value, an estimated $80 billion to $120 billion annually, is lost after its first usage, adding economic problems to its already loaded drawbacks:8
“When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use. Plastics that do get recycled are mostly recycled into lower-value applications that are not again recyclable after use.
The recycling rate for plastics in general is even lower than for plastic packaging, and both are far below the global recycling rates for paper (58%) and iron and steel (70 – 90%). In addition, plastic packaging is nearly exclusively single-use, especially in business-to-consumer applications.”
Most plastic is not recycled
The fact that some plastic can be recycled is often touted as its saving grace, but even if it can be, it typically isn’t. Using data from the American Chemistry Council and the National Association for PET Container Resources, the U.S. EPA measured the recycling of plastic in the U.S., revealing that only 3.1 million tons — or 9.1% — of plastic was recycled in 2015.9
Even among specific types of plastic that had better recycling rates, the levels were still low. For instance, 29.9 % of PET bottles and jars were recycled in 2015, as were 30.3% of HDPE natural bottles.10 Meanwhile, 26 million tons of plastic were sent to U.S. landfills that year and another 5.4 million tons were combusted, or burned.
Burning plastic waste brings up a host of new problems, but. In some cases, plastic waste is burned to produce heat and steam that turn turbine blades and generate electricity.11 But in so doing, the combustion may release toxic emissions of dioxins, heavy metals and carbon dioxide into the environment.
According to a report by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), the production and incineration of plastic will produce more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2019, which is equal to the emissions released from 189 500-megawatt coal power plants.12 With the plastic industry plotting to expand instead of scale back, the report notes that the problem may get even worse:13
“If plastic production and use grow as currently plotted, by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year — equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal- red power plants. By 2050, the cumulation of these greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons — 10–13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.”
Problems with plastic incineration
While modern incinerator plants are supposed to use filters to capture toxic air emissions, this depends on the plants operating properly and controlling emissions. If burned openly, plastics incineration is clearly toxic and a major source of air pollution.
Because of the toxic gases it releases, researchers wrote in Procedia Environmental Sciences,“ … [B]urning of plastic wastes increase the risk of heart disease, aggravates respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema and cause rashes, nausea or headaches, and hurts the nervous system.”14 Further, according to CIEL:15
“US emissions from plastic incineration in 2015 are estimated at 5.9 million metric tons of CO2e [carbon dioxide equivalents] for plastic packaging, which represents 40 percent of plastic demand, global emissions from incineration of this particular type of plastic waste totaled 16 million metric tons of CO2e in 2015.
This estimate does not account for 32 percent of plastic packaging waste that is known to remain unmanaged, open burning of plastic, incineration that occurs without any energy recovery, or other practices that are widespread and di cult to quantify.”
Coral and fish are eating plastic
When plastic breaks down, it turns into tiny microplastic particles (less than 5 millimeters) that are polluting waterways and oceans. In 2008, researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney showed that tiny plastic particles don’t simply pass through sea creatures unnoticed, as was once thought.
Using mussels as an example, the study revealed that ingested microplastics first accumulated in the gut but, within three days, traveled to the circulatory system where they remained for more than 48 days.16
Even coral is ingesting plastic. Boston University scientists collected wild coral known as Astrangia poculata off the coast of Rhode Island, then inspected their polyps. An average of over 100 microplastic particles were found in each polyp.17
Consuming microplastics is perilous for a number of reasons. The microplastics may contain chemicals that are transferred to the organism, and they may also trick the animals into believing they’re full, causing them to stop eating and starve to death.18
In the laboratory, the Boston University researchers offered plastic microbeads or tiny brine shrimp eggs to coral, and the coral overwhelmingly preferred the plastic for their meal. “Corals preferred microplastic beads and declined subsequent offerings of brine shrimp eggs of the same diameter, suggesting that microplastic ingestion can inhibit food intake,” the researchers noted.19
Freshwater environments are also being inundated with plastic. In one such study, 83% of the fish had plastic debris in their gut, mostly microplastics, particularly microfibers.20 In fact, rivers are a major source of transport of plastic into oceans, with researchers suggesting they should be a major focus of plastics cleanup and prevention efforts.21
Ocean will soon have more plastic than fish
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation report highlighted the case for rethinking plastics, starting with packaging, as plastic packaging is the materials’ largest use, representing 26% of the total volume.22
Forty percent of plastic packaging ends up in landfills while another 32% “leaks out of the collection system,” ending up being mismanaged or illegally dumped. Some of it inevitably ends up in the ocean as well, where it’s possible that more plastic than fish could soon accumulate:23
“Each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean — which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050. Estimates suggest that plastic packaging represents the major share of this leakage.
The best research currently available estimates that there are over 150 million tonnes of plastics in the ocean today. In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).”
Even if the flow of plastics into the ocean were reduced, the amount of plastic in the ocean wouldn’t necessarily decline but rather would become stabilized.
Agriculture’s plastic problem
Even in agriculture, plastic is a problem. Researchers have looked into how polyester microfibers may be affecting microorganisms in the soil, especially since sewage sludge, which is applied as a fertilizer in industrial agriculture, is loaded with microfibers.24 They found that the microplastics did, indeed, lead to changes in the soil, including altering the bulk density, water-holding capacity and microbial activity.
Black plastic, sometimes referred to as plastic mulch, is also a primary method of weed control for many organic farmers, particularly for tomato, pepper and melon plants. Many grass and perennial weeds are unable to penetrate the plastic, which also prevents sunlight from hitting the ground and stimulating the growth of weeds.
Unfortunately, at the end of the season most of the plastic ends up in landfills. This represents a massive amount of plastic waste, as it’s not unusual for large organic farms to spread plastic over thousands of acres. While some have had success with recycling programs, they didn’t last long, leaving landfills as the primary landing point for the plastic.25
Biodegradable plastics aren’t the answer either, as it’s unknown what effects plastic breakdown products could have on the environment, and ultimately the impacts of biodegradable plastic mulches on soil health remain completely unknown.
A healthier alternative would be a film made from 100% plant materials — and right now this is the only type of biodegradable mulch allowed under the National Organic Program. Unfortunately, such a solution isn’t widely available, while other natural mulches, such as straw or paper, are often too expensive or labor intensive for farmers.26
Time to get serious about plastic
Everyone can play a role in reducing plastic waste, starting at the supermarket, where you can choose food items that are free of plastic packaging as much as possible. Eating a whole food diet lends itself to minimal plastic packaging, but be careful to avoid plastic-wrapped produce as well.
Following are some additional straightforward steps you can take to cut down on plastics usage in your life. Share them with a friend or two and the positive impacts will only continue to be magnified:
Use reusable shopping bags for groceries
Take your own leftovers container to restaurants
Bring your own mug for coffee, and bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles instead of buying bottled water
Request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning
Store foods in glass containers or Mason jars rather than plastic containers and plastic freezer bags
Avoid disposable utensils and straws and buy foods in bulk when you can, putting the food in a reusable bag to take home
Opt for nondisposable razors, washable feminine hygiene products for women, cloth diapers, handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, rags in lieu of paper towels, and infant toys made of wood rather than plastic
Avoid processed foods (which are stored in plastic bags with chemicals). Buy fresh produce instead, and forgo the plastic bags