Editorial: Waste Not, Want Not | AIChE

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Editorial: Waste Not, Want Not

December
2020

Last month, I wrote that addressing our plastic waste problem will require action by all of us and that (among other things) we as consumers will need to rethink our relationship with single-use plastics. No sooner had the November issue gone to press than I came across two articles that made me rethink what I wrote.

In a recent paper, Shelie Miller, a professor of environmental engineering at the Univ. of Michigan, uses insights gained from lifecycle assessment (LCA) to dispel common misperceptions surrounding the environmental impacts of single-use plastics. Chief among them is the notion that plastic packaging is the largest contributor to a product’s environmental impact. It’s easy for consumers to focus on packaging waste because they can see boxes, bottles, cans, and other types of containers littering parks and streets, but other impacts are largely invisible to the average consumer.

LCA quantifies lifetime impacts in a variety of categories, including air and water emissions, solid waste generation, energy use, resource depletion, biodiversity loss, human and ecological toxicity, and climate change. “Consumers tend to focus on the impact of the packaging. In reality, when it comes to single-use plastics in particular, the production and disposal of packaging often represents only a few percent of a product’s lifetime environmental impacts,” Miller says. For example, she reports that a study on coffee pods showed that coffee brewed with coffee pods has lower environmental impacts than coffee brewed via traditional drip coffee makers.

Miller cautions that “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.” That same point is also made by an interdisciplinary team of researchers in a different paper.

“The current war on plastic is detracting from the bigger threats to the environment. While plastic waste is an issue, its prominence in the general public’s concern for the environment is overshadowing greater threats, for example climate change and biodiversity loss,” warns Thomas Stanton, a lecturer in environmental science at Nottingham Trent Univ. He and his colleagues say that small gestures — such as banning cosmetic microplastics and taxing plastic bags, financial incentives for using reusable containers, and the promotion of products as green because they contain less plastic than alternatives — risk instilling a complacency in society toward other environmental problems that are not as tangible as plastic pollution.

Stanton says, “We are seeing unprecedented engagement with environmental issues, particularly plastic pollution, from the public, and we believe this presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to promote other, potentially greater environmental issues.”

While I do not advocate giving up all of the conveniences of daily life, I do think we need to be more aware of the many impacts our consumption has on the environment — for our own sake and for future generations.

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