Recycling is important. It’s also overrated. Here’s what truly makes a dent in environmental pollution


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In recent years, consumers have become much more environmentally conscious and mindful of the products they purchase. For instance, consumers might choose to avoid single-use plastic bottles or look to recycle on a consistent basis. That’s definitely a good thing. However, it can also be easy to miss the forest for the trees when making lifestyle choices with the intention of reducing one’s environmental footprint.

For instance, while it’s definitely important to recycle plastic products and avoid plastic packaging, in the grand scheme of things, there are other things that have a greater environmental impact, such as reducing and reusing products.

Writing in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology, University of Michigan environmental engineer Shelie Miller lists the five most common myths surrounding the environmental impact of single-use plastic. Her study is based on the life cycle assessment of products, which takes into account all of the energy and material needs of a product from extraction and manufacturing to the moment it ends up on the supermarket shelf. Not all products are equal in terms of their carbon and plastic footprints, so you may be surprised to learn that what may seem to be an obvious environmentally-friendly choice is not that great after all.

“I know lots of people who are trying to reduce their environmental impacts and who ask me to weigh in on what they can do to do more. In these conversations, it became apparent how much emphasis people place on reducing the solid waste that they generate, with a lot of concerns focusing on single-use plastic. My work tries to highlight the importance of understanding the full environmental impacts of products, especially the impacts that are less visible to consumers — energy use, resource extraction, and environmental damage that occur throughout the full supply chain. This article is intended to help people trying to reduce their environmental impacts to become better informed and make choices that are the most impactful.,” Miller told ZME Science.

Myth #1: plastic packaging contributes the most to a product’s environmental impact

When we see rows upon rows of plastic bottles in the supermarket or damning images of landfills stacked with them, it can be natural to conclude that herein lies the problem. So, if we were to recycle more plastic bottles and other types of plastic packaging, our contribution to environmental pollution would be greatly reduced.

False. What we see as consumers is just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, it is the product inside the packaging that 99% of the time has the greatest environmental impact. It’s just that packaging is the first thing that consumers see, so they naturally believe that is the part of the product with the most potential for environmental pollution.

Myth #2: plastic is the worst packaging material for the environment

That actually depends. Single-use plastic has a much lower overall environmental impact than single-use glass or metal in the vast majority of product categories.

Myth #3: reusable products are always better than single-use products

Plastic cutlery and foam food containers are definitely a problem if you use them on a daily basis, as are all single-use plastic containers. But for a reusable product to offset the materials and energy required to manufacture them, these typically have to be reused many, many times. Otherwise, these reusable products can actually be worse than plastic.

In a 2018 life-cycle assessment, Denmark’s ministry of environment and food found that cotton bags must be reused thousands of times before they meet the environmental performance of plastic bags. What’s more, organic cotton bags have to be reused many more times than conventional cotton bags (20,000 versus 7,000 times). This study, however, does not take into account the impact of plastic litter on marine animals and other wildlife — this assessment only discusses the energy and CO2 emissions that are involved in the product’s lifecycle.

Myth #4: Recycling and composting are the most important environmental-friendly things you can do

When compared to the impact of reducing overall consumption, recycling and composting actually have low environmental benefits. What’s more, composting has its own flaws and weaknesses. For instance, many consumers tend to throw in non-compostable look-alike items into their bins. This contamination increases the use of water, energy, and other resources and drives up operating costs.

In 2018, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) performed a review of over 1,200 comparisons involving compostable packaging and over 360 comparisons for food servicewear spanning 18 years of life-cycle assessments. Most of the time, the assessment found that the use of compostable products and the process of composting resulted in a higher impact on the environment than the use of non-compostable packaging or products.

Myth #5: “Zero waste” minimizes the environmental impact of a product or event

Zero waste — a set of principles that minimizes the waste we produce and links communities, businesses and industries so that one’s waste becomes another’s feedstock — is a fantastic idea. However, in terms of single-use plastic, the benefits of diverting plastic waste from the landfill aren’t that important compared to the impact of waste reduction and mindful consumption.

“Narrowing the number of misperceptions about single use plastics to five was pretty tough!  But hopefully the five that I’ve chosen to highlight resonate with people and make them have a better understanding of some of the tradeoffs associated with single use plastic reduction,” Miller told me.

All of this is not to say that recycling is useless or that composting isn’t beneficial for the environment in some situations. It’s just that the discussion surrounding our impact on the environment has to be more nuanced.

In her study, Miller mentions the old adage of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, or the 3Rs of environmentally friendly living. However, the researcher stresses that this is actually a hierarchy. The most important thing we can do to lessen our environmental impact is simply to reduce our consumption, followed by reuse, and lastly recycling.

“The results of life cycle studies generally depend on the specific product being analyzed.  There’s lots of nuances to the hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle.  But we can definitively say that reducing consumption of environmentally intensive products is easily the most impactful thing a consumer can do to minimize environmental impact,” said Miller.

“We need to do a much better job preventing single use plastics from causing ecological damage.  Luckily, there are lots of efforts underway to reduce plastic its way into ecosystems and developing better business models to reclaim plastics to form a more circular plastic economy.”

Oftentimes, environmental messaging overemphasizes the importance of recycling packaging. While this definitely has its merits, especially in terms of reducing the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean, this study paints a broader picture of the entire plastic-waste system.

“Our group tries to promote holistic, systematic thinking about sustainability and the environment.   We try to help consumers and industrial partners think beyond a single environmental problem into trying to better understand the complexity and tradeoffs of systems.  My research group is trying to help put individual actions people can take to reduce their environmental impact into more context.  Yes, it’s good to recycle, and use a smart thermostat, and take public transportation, and reduce food waste — but if you have to choose where to put your energy, which has the most bang for the buck in terms of environmental improvement versus effort expended?” Miller concluded.

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