In recent years, major articles, postings, and discussions about plastic pollution and related topics seem to come from all directions almost every week.
One of the key reasons I founded Ohmmm Care and decided that it will be a plastic-free brand was the conclusion I came to after considering various perspectives and theories, as well as personally observing the situation on the ground.
Plastic pollution (and for that matter, climate change) is a very complex and multi-faceted 'wicked' problem. While this sharing can only cover a few aspects that I learned about (and continue to learn), I hope it sheds more light and a better understanding of the scale of the issues we all face globally and how our individual actions can make a difference.
This will be a multi-part sharing over a couple of weeks, so do keep checking back for updates!
Part I: Is Plastic Recycling Sustainable?
Interestingly, almost all proponents of plastic recycling seem to focus on the singular aspect of carbon emissions / footprint and plastic’s comparative performance / requirement. From these comparisons, plastic comes out looking rather favorable vs. paper and many other alternative materials. Source
More intriguingly, one member of a research team quoted by the article said that under a specific context, “…using plastic bags may be the best option that is currently available, provided that there is no significant leakage of waste into the environment.”
A researcher described climate change, which plastic waste plays an important part, as a ‘wicked problem’ that presented ‘great complexity…deep uncertainties’ and ‘profound ethical issues.’
Even research that focused only on carbon footprint took into account only part of the production chain.
On plastic vs. others, we need to look beyond just the parts and specific aspects of emissions, and look into the entire chain as well as other factors, including waste / pollution, related health and living issues, etc.
Take 1: The Circular Economy
One of the solutions touted for the global waste problem (including plastic) is the circular economy. It sounds great but when we looked at the math, the definition of circular needs to seriously rejig the ‘recycling’ component.
Plastic waste was already a concern back in the ‘70s. The ‘solution’ then? ‘Recycling’!
Fast forward to 2020 and what is the total plastic annual recycling capacity globally? Less than 10% of annual production…This is but one of the serious challenges, aside from commercial and technical considerations.
Personally, we found that Reduce or Refuse is the quickest way we can make a positive impact as a producer & a consumer. It requires a few small changes in habits and lifestyle, and we will invest all our efforts and resources into making a difference, even if it only has a limited positive impact on global plastic waste.
Take 2: The Plastic 'price wars'
As many know by now, the early gains of reduced emissions during the early days of lockdowns is now history. In its place, we find the plastic pandemic as billions of disposable masks and PPE (which plastic constitutes the overwhelming % material for almost all) become de rigueur in the virus fight.
Happening further in the background is the ‘price war’ between new vs. recycled plastic, which now costs almost 2X the price of new. Oil is the raw material for plastic and with its price plunge following the pandemic, it was only a matter of time this trickled down to plastic prices. Our previous post discussed plastic’s advantage over other packaging materials, chief of which is cost.
Since cost is the no.1 commercial decision-driver, industry will choose cheaper new plastic over more expensive recycled all day long (or at least until the price situation begins to tilt in favor of recycled)!
As ethical producers & consumers, one choice we have is to reuse, with caveat. E.g. we can reuse plastic water bottles as long as: 1. We wash after every use, 2. It doesn’t show discoloration (sign of breaking down), or 3. There’s no cracks,
Meaning there’s a significant limit to its reusability, as compared with e.g. glass.
Take 3: Plastic Recycling Practically Unsustainable
In the first 2 takes, I pondered the health-related impact of plastic pollution, the challenges of the proposed circular economy, and the current economic realities of plastic.
So in Singapore’s (and the global) current context, is plastic recycling really sustainable?
Out of the 7 types of plastic packaging / container types, commercial recyclers typically accept types 1 (PET) and 2 (HDPE) for any sort of recycling mainly due to the higher value of the recycled product.
Almost all plastics accepted for recycling in the industrialized world are then exported for recycling in another country (mostly Southeast Asia). Technically, most first world countries do not recycle any plastic domestically.
The mainstays of the F&B industry – Styrofoam and plastic bags – are single-use and goes directly to the offshore landfill or the incinerator once disposed of.
As an example, Singapore consumes close to 1 billion plastic bags annually (0.5 bag every day, day-in and day-out, for every man, woman, and child resident). Reusing can help to improve the situation but there is a limit.
It becomes clear that recycling gets us nowhere. Only refusing and reusing can begin to help us navigate out of this quagmire. To this end, Ohmmm's mission is to offer consumers credible zero-plastic alternatives that breaks free of the historical performance constraints of sustainable products.