I have been avoiding the topic of manufacturing and recycling plastic goods and packaging. There is a part of me that would rather focus on the wonderful things we can do to take ourselves out of the plastic consumption equation. But of course the problems with plastic are a driving force behind this project, so I think it’s important to address this complicated and messy issue.
There are those who will argue that processing plastic food packaging is better for the environment than processing metals or glass. As a lightweight material, less fuel is needed in the shipment of plastic goods than those made out of metal and glass. Because it can so easily be molded and manipulated, while still possessing great strength and durability characteristics, plastic holds extraordinary potential from a design and engineering perspective. But while there may be many conveniences in manufacturing and using plastic, the environmental and heath impacts of our reliance on plastics can’t be ignored. Though the technology exists to recycle most plastics, many recycling challenges remain. Plastic recycling requires a greater amount of processing than glass and metal recycling. Plastic products cannot be returned to their original state, so they are downcycled. Bottles are turned into plastic lumber, carpeting, synthetic clothing, and furniture stuffing. Eventually those products end up in a landfill where they may take decades or even centuries to biodegrade.
Growing evidence has revealed that petroleum based products can be harmful to our health. Chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), styrene, and Diethylhexyl Phthalate(DEHP) can leach out of plastic containers into our food and beverages, and as we consume these contaminated foods we are taking the chemicals into our bodies. The health risks posed by exposure to these leached chemicals are all over the anatomical map. Most are carcinogenic and have been shown to adversely affect the endocrine system. Some may impact the behavior of cardiac cells.
I think it’s important to know how the things we use are made. This project has led me to spend a lot of time looking at the objects I encounter with new curiosity about their life from the earth to the factory and eventually back to the earth. I recently stumbled into an online video vortex that inspired me to search for videos on the processing of plastic bottles. Made from Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) #1 plastics are pushed as a safer food grade plastic. But recent studies show that PET may leach phthalate–a plasticizer shown to be an endocrine disruptor. Above are two well-made videos–each under five minutes. The Discovery Channel produced the first video–it illustrates the process of manufacturing new plastic bottles. The second is made by a plastics recycling company to demonstrate the process of recycling used bottles. After watching both clips together, I am left bewildered by the amount of energy and resources required to bring consumers single-serving beverages.