Guest blogger Emily Main, Online Editor,†Rodale.com
Iím three days in to my†plastic-free week for Rodale.com, and despite the title of this blog post, Iím not giving up yet, I promise. Itís been tough, though. Yesterday, I tallied up all the plastic items, food-related or otherwise, that I have in my life, and it was pretty eye-openingó32 items that I use on a regular basis, 30 percent of which are disposable.
Sunday, when I went grocery shopping, I couldnít seem to avoid plastic in the meat department (I didnít happen to visit the cheese department that day because I already had too much at home, but there, too, it seemed impossible to find organic cheeses that werenít smothering in plastic).
That got me thinking. Is plastic really that bad of a material? There must be some reason itís become the packaging material of choice for everything from crackers to contact lens solution. And, as it turns out, there is. Back in 1969, Coca Cola commissioned the very first life cycle analysis on packaging materials to determine whether the company should stick with its returnable glass bottles, switch over primarily to aluminum cans, or go with plastic bottles. The plastic bottles won out because, the analysis found, they used the least amount of oil and natural gas of the three alternatives. Glass is too heavy and requires more trucks to ship, and aluminum is extremely energy-intensive to manufacture.
More recently, greener factions of the wine industry have been adopting boxes (which utilize plastic bags inside a cardboard container) and ascetic cartons for the very same reasons. A company called TetraPak, who makes those cartons you buy boxed soup in, did a similar analysis comparing its 750-milliliter and 1-liter cartons (which are made of layers of plastic sandwiched between paper and foil) to equal-size glass wine bottles, and found that paperboard and plastic, though harder to recycle, were still less polluting and required fewer fossil fuels than glass.
Then thereís the overwhelming issue of†food waste. One billion people go hungry every day on this planet, yet in the U.S., there are†1,400 calories of food wasted per person per dayóenough to feed a single hungry person every day. Thatís bad enough, and it seems as though the numbers would be even worse if we were to switch to less-airtight packaging materials. According to a 1991 issue of a journal called†Food Review (the only figures I could dig up on food waste as it relates to packaging), food waste in underdeveloped and developing nations, where food packaging is minimal or nonexistent, is as high as 50 percent. In the U.S., our reliance on plastic packaging actually keeps food waste pretty low, around 3 percent, while the amount of unpackaged fresh food thatís wasted rises to between 10 and 15 percent. (Which brings up the point, if weíre wasting 1,400 calories per person per day, and thatís still somewhere between 3 to 15 percent of our total food supply, weíre producing TOO MUCH FOOD! But thatís a different rant for a different dayÖ)