An opinion piece by Jesse Leeworthy

It’s never been easy for us to talk about plastic. In fact, we have danced around the topic since the day we started memobottle.

At the beginning of 2021, we decided that for us to become the transparent business we aim to be, we would need to engage in the difficult conversations. It’s the only way that we as a brand and as a society can have a truly positive impact.

Increasingly, plastic is labeled as an evil material and for good reason. Disposed single-use plastic products and packaging are scattered across the entire globe; polluting waterways, leaching from landfills, and floating in our oceans. The global effect that plastic pollution is having on our environment is unmeasurable and only continues to grow. 

For these reasons, it’s fair enough that we’ve labeled plastic as an unacceptable material. But is it possible that we’ve got it wrong? Is it possible that the problem doesn’t sit with the material’s make-up but instead with how it’s used, and therefore how it is valued? 

How we use plastic matters

The application of plastic is often unconsidered and wasteful. The cheaper it is, the more likely we are to consume it. The more trivial its application, the more likely we are to dispose of it incorrectly. Because as individuals, we don’t value the material or the context in which the material is used and we don’t realise how much we actually consume. We can’t comprehend the amount of waste we create as individuals, let alone the collective impact we have as a society. 

Let’s look at an example of where plastic is providing an overall better environmental outcome than the alternative - your car. If you don’t own a car and ride a bike instead then that’s even better (we should all ride more, but that’s another story). The reality is that a large portion of the population does drive cars. The modern-day car is full of plastic. It’s built into the mechanics, the doors, the rearview mirror, the interior, and in a hundred other places that you wouldn’t think of. It makes up the inherent material uses that we may take for granted, but unconsciously value over time. Plastic is used due to its wide range of mechanical and thermal properties—strength, temperature resistance, mouldability, and being inherently very lightweight. 

Lightweight materials are vital in creating energy efficiency

Now, what would a car be like if it didn’t incorporate plastic? You could transport yourself back to the ’50s to get an idea, but basically, we would be driving around in cars made out of metal, wood, and leather.

At first, this doesn’t sound so bad, but the additional weight would increase the energy required to move the vehicle by multiple times over. Not to mention that metals have one of the highest embodied energies of all (Embodied energy is the sum of all energy required to produce, transport, or use any goods or services, considered as if that energy was incorporated or ‘embodied’ in the product itself.). From a Life Cycle Analysis perspective, reducing the mass of a vehicle is one of the best ways to make a car more sustainable.

Oil (a non-renewable resource) from which some plastics are made, is a key component of petrol. The sheer amount of petrol required to move this metal/wooden vehicle around would quickly outweigh the amount of oil used within the plastic, which makes modern-day cars lightweight and fuel-efficient. By burning oil, it immediately loses its value. By making a long-life product out of it, it surely instills a higher value. Oil, like all non-renewables, should be valued, and used sparingly. 

The simple truth is that, because of plastic and other lightweight composites, today’s cars are exceedingly more efficient* despite the addition of all the modern safety features and luxuries that we’ve come to expect.

(*I must note that humans have responded to these efficiencies by buying more powerful cars)

Do you respect plastic?

Somewhere along the line, we developed a respect for metal.  We see it as a valuable commodity, and so it’s not surprising that wastage of metals has reduced dramatically over the years. 

With the exception of aluminum cans, you wouldn’t see lightweight metals being used for single-use takeaway containers en masse. Not to mention they’d have a much higher impact Life Cycle Analysis than plastic options. If we did, you could be sure we would be more likely to recycle them (aluminum recycling rates are 5x greater than plastics), especially as it’s more financially lucrative to do so. 

This just isn’t the case for plastics. Over the years, we have let single-use products become a part of our society. What a lot of people don’t know is that plastic is actually an incredibly good material for single-use products, when compared to almost all other options. It wasn’t plastic that brought on single-use, it was our creation of a throw-away society that did. In turn, industry then found the best option to cater for it functionally, environmentally, and economically. Initially, it surprised me to find out that if you had to choose the best material to be used for single-use products it would be in a form of plastic.

When we started this journey, we were focused on reducing single-use plastic water bottle consumption, but after delving into the issue further, we realised it was all single-use products that we needed to target. If the single-use industry stopped using plastics and moved to another material, then environmentally we would be even worse off. It’s a massive paradox. 

By now you’re probably thinking, this guy really likes plastic. But that’s not the case.

If we can start putting more value on plastic, then we will stop using it for unworthy purposes. Together we need to stop putting the blame on the material and focus more on the detrimental daily routines that involve single-use products. A cultural shift that respects materials is required. If we stop using single-use products, then industry will stop producing them.

Embodied energy and conscious purchasing

Over the past week at memobottle, we have talked a lot about embodied energy, and how important this concept is when making a conscious purchase. Do you think about all of the resources that go into producing a television that often only lasts 3-5 years; or the hundreds of components that make up the device and the energy that is taken to produce them?

Now it sounds like I’m nagging a bit, but hear me out.

We shared a graphic a few days ago which showed the simplified journey of a single-use bottle, from the raw materials being mined, refined in factories, and then molded into bottles. The water was then extracted from the water table, filtered, bottled, and packed for delivery. Depending on where the companies source their water, it’s likely that a bottle of water could have been shipped halfway across the world, trucked to a distribution warehouse, then to your local store, where it sits in a fridge waiting to be purchased. All of these processes to get a chilled bottle of water into your hands use energy. The embodied energy in one single-use water bottle could power a light globe for two days.

“If we can start placing more value on plastic, then we will stop using it for unworthy purposes. Together we need to stop putting the blame on the material and focus more on the detrimental daily routines that involve single-use products.”

Many of these processes in the lifecycle of a single-use plastic bottle are the same as the memobottle, and there is still a large amount of embodied energy in each memobottle once it lands in your hands. But the key difference comes down to it being reusable. Instead of consuming enough energy to power a lightbulb for 2 full days every time you drink 600mls of water, you can distribute the embodied energy in a reusable bottle over a lifetime of usage. Single-use bottled water is so absurd that even bottled water companies are throwing in the towel (we salute you ‘Thankyou’). 

A lot of people say let’s go back to the old days where all drinks were in glass bottles, but wowee, the energy that was used to transport them