Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 9.22.20
Just Outside Washington



Plastic, it's complicated

My friend Anne sent me the link to the NPR piece on plastic, which is in two forms, a podcast and a paper to read. It is a good piece and makes the point that the oil industry misled the people of the U.S about plastic recycling.

This, of course, was not the only con job by industry in pursuit of profit; think tobacco. Also, there is the impact of waste plastic on the environment, particularly, in the ocean where it gets ingested by fish and other sea life.

Some things about plastic are very handy: it is lightweight, doesn't break easily, cheap, durable, etc. These qualities also turn into drawbacks. For example: I met a friend at a brewery for lunch this week and was served water, before my beer, in a plastic 'glass' with a plastic straw. The straw immediately became trash and the 'glass' will be discarded after it gets scratched and ugly from use and washings.

A beer enthusiast would never knowingly drink beer from plastic because it alters the taste. Did you ever notice that your favorite beer tastes different from the can vs the bottle. Cans are lined with plastic.

Almost anything, particularly liquids, in plastic containers has plastic from the container migrating into the contents.

This is not new news; in the 1960s Science Magazine published a paper which quantified the amount of plastic migrating into blood for transfusions, contained in plastic bags. The amount increased over time.

There have been additional studies about plastic and plastic components in the human body, see 2009 National Geographic article and the Forbes 2020 article below.

So, if plastic is bad for us, why is industry so keen on it?

NPR explains the oil industry.s motivation, but what about the beer industry? A case of beer, 24 cans, weighs about 20 pounds and takes up 0.8 cubic feet of space, in cans, lined with plastic; a case of beer, 24 bottles, weighs about 36 pounds and takes up about 1.1 cubic feet. So less weight and less space for 288 oz. of beer.

The savings in storage, shipping and handling resulting from the smaller size and weight are significant and distributed all down the supply chain from Budweiser to the local Target.

Many of us make the same calculation -- cans are lighter, more compact and besides, they cool quicker. The trade-off is plastic in our bodies, but that is like climate change; a long-term slow change, which we may not even notice.

So, what is the solution?

As NPR points out, plastic has become a waste management problem. The EPA developed a waste management hierarchy: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Energy Recovery and Treatment and Disposal. Reducing our use of plastic is something we all can do. I do not have to take a plastic bottle of water on my walk, I can use the stainless steel (no liner) water bottle that I bought a couple of years ago.

Besides, when my water is gone, I am much less likely to toss (nooo, I would never do that) my $20 stainless bottle than that one-use plastic bottle. We have many such choices, but I will cite only one more: left-over food, do I store left-over food in the Tupperware (plastic) or the Corningware (ceramic and glass).

The EPA waste management hierarchy element of Recycling is the subject of the NPR piece. I will add my thoughts on plastic recycling and Energy Recovery in a subsequent email. In the meantime, let's all Reduce our plastic use and never, never discard it as litter, which contributes to plastic in the oceans (gutter to stormwater drain to stream to river to bay and ocean).