DETROIT – Go into any store right now to buy pretty much anything, and you’ll find literal tons of plastic packaging.
Goods are shrink-wrapped, sealed and stored, all in plastic.
The one thing these items all have in common -- well, it isn’t just that it seems like overkill to put all that packaging around the products.
It’s that most of it can never be recycled.
But why did we start using this in the first place?
Simply put, pretty much since humans have been making stuff, we’ve been making things to put that stuff in.
Much of it is known in the packaging industry as “flexible packaging.”
The first recorded pieces of packaging date back to ancient China in the first- or second-century BC, according to research from Ohio State University. Sheets of mulberry tree bark were treated and used to wrap foods.
As time went on, obviously, companies experimented with and still use what’s known as “rigid packaging,” like glass or metal; think of the classic Coke bottles that are still seen as iconic.
But plastics have dominated the last 70 years. Plastics were originally off limits to consumers -- the first plastics with names like styrene, vinyl chloride and celluloid -- those were developed in the late 1800s, meant only for military use.
The first flexible plastic was celluloid acetate. It was made from wood pulp, literally using cellulose, the sturdy but still-flexible fibers that give plants their strength and shape.
The first were made in 1900, and initially used for photography by about 1909. It also had the advantage of being slightly breathable and totally biodegradable. But it was expensive to produce.
So, between 1910 and the 1950s, companies experimented with all sorts of flexible, fibrous plastics with names like “polypropylene.”
Polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate, or PETE, became the most-used plastic by the 1980s.
The rise and effect of e-commerce
All of those have a few things in common that made them great choices for packaging: For starters, they’re non-breathable, so they can keep food fresher for longer.
They’re generally clear, so consumers can actually see what they’re buying. And maybe the biggest advantage is, they’re just cheaper to make than other plastics or rigid packaging.
With the rise of e-commerce in the past 20 years, flexible plastic has become the most efficient way to ship things we buy, too.
One study from Oceana magazine found Amazon produced 465 million pounds of plastic waste in 2019 alone. That’s enough to take those air-filled packaging pillows that come in the boxes and circle the Earth 500 times.
Plastic waste has also become a huge environmental and health problem.
In the United States, Great Lakes researchers with the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, found that 10,000 metric tons, or about 22 million pounds of plastic waste, ends up in the ecosystems of our largest bodies of fresh water.
There’s plastic waste buildup in the oceans too, where 80% of the litter is plastic, according to findings from Pew Research.
It also never breaks down, creating what are called microplastics that end up in the food chain -- and eventually in humans.
Just this year, scientists found microplastics, which are pieces of plastic that get made when plastic pollution is ground down over time, in human blood. Researchers published their findings in Environmental International.
Striving for improvement -- through kids
Despite knowing the environmental harm, Americans are still really bad at recycling.
Since the 1950s, only 2% of all of the world’s plastic has been recycled, and every year (since) in the U.S., according to most estimates.
But there are people working to help solve that problem at the most local levels.
“We started with our youth, and we’ve grown to now work with businesses and we work with the community on the Detroit recycles curbside recycling program,” said Natali Jakob, the executive director of Green Living Science.
Jakob helps teach kids about trash and recycling in Detroit, where the city deals with millions of pounds of litter each year.
In 2018 alone, Detroit’s Department of Public Works collected 92 million pounds of trash from illegal dumping sites around the city.
People like Jakob have been instrumental in getting recycling into Detroit Public Schools and in apartment buildings in downtown Detroit.
Their lessons are meant to teach kids about recycling, why it’s important, and how they can start -- but some of it can be a little frightening.
“For the education to be impactful, we have to have some scare factor in there,” Jakob said. “So, we do let them know the negative impacts plastic has, you know, on the animals we’ve (seen) in some cases. We have shown them pictures. You know ... it breaks their heart to see. It breaks our hearts to see it. And so we do have some element of that, but we do focus a lot more on ‘Here’s what you can do, and here’s why it’s important.’”
At the local level, getting kids to think about recycling can create a lifelong habit and one that trickles up to their parents, too.
“Kids get it,” Jakob said. “Kids get it more than their parents do. One of the things we hear the most is that the reason that a family is here is because of their child, so they learned about it in school. They made their families recycle and they wanted to come here.”
While all of the recycling work is great and really makes a difference in our neighborhoods and communities, solving the problem of plastics isn’t something we can “crush our way out of.” It’s going to take real change at the biggest levels, too.
A stick and carrot
That’s where the work of researchers such as Michigan State University’s Dr. Muhammed Rabnawaz comes in.
“Plastic recycling is a big problem,” Rabnawaz said. “Literally speaking today, 40 percent of the plastic that is produced -- it goes into the packaging, and packaging essentially is creating almost 50 percent of the packaging/plastic waste.”
Rabnawaz works on developing new kinds of packaging that are more biodegradable, and can help reduce waste, but even he would say it’s just as much about getting companies to start using better packaging as it about design.
And that’s why, Rabnawaz said, one of the solutions to this problem is to give big companies incentives to change their packaging or tax them for using environmentally unfriendly plastic, sort of like a stick and carrot for corporations.
“If you’re using virgin material, like new plastic in the package, you need to pay a penalty extra tax,” Rabnawaz said. “And the carrot is for the companies. If you are putting (out) more recycled content, you get (a) tax incentive. So basically, (you’re) giving them both options. You want to go this way or that way. Or you will have the benefits if you move forward with the recycling.”
Rabnawaz said that stick and carrot method has already been shown to work.
In the European Union, for example, companies are forced to pay up front for the cost of the plastics they use that can’t be recycled, or the use of new plastic, sometimes referred to as “virgin plastic.”
That means now 40% of their plastics get recycled.
In the U.S., where we don’t have that system, it’s just 9%.
An uphill battle
Companies at every level of plastic and packaging have spent decades fueling research and funding campaigns to keep non-recyclable plastics on the market -- and it has worked; not to mention, they’ve used that same research to put the cost of finding ways to recycle on the consumer, rather than on themselves.
“It’s not easy, because you are competing against the low-cost material like polyethylene, right, which is so cheap,” Rabnawaz said. “But we cannot (continue on like this). So eventually, it will be a combination of something like a biomass material, which essentially (is) biodegradable, there’s one aspect, and then reducing the creation of the new plastic by adding more and more recycled content into the packaging. So, those are two things that I see should go together.”
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