Should we respect our most hated material?
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 was astronomical, not to mention how energy-intensive it is to produce a glass bottle, from raw material to finished product. Glass is one of the worst single-use material options on weight alone. Glass is a phenomenal material, but again it needs to be used strategically, respectfully and most of all be reused.
Now let’s talk numbers
Now it starts to get complicated - on the odd occasion single-use can actually have less impact (within reason).
Let’s look at a ceramic coffee mug, vs a single-use paper coffee cup (one without a plastic lining).
Not so fun fact: The majority of single-use paper coffee cups have a thin plastic lining on the inside to prevent the paper from going soggy while you drink. These cannot be recycled, so please use a reusable coffee cup.
Ceramics (along with most metals) use an incredible amount of energy to be produced, being mined from the earth by heavy machinery, refined, and turned into usable material. There is a gigantic amount of energy and water wastage that goes into this process.
As you can imagine, paper cups, on the other hand, have a very low embodied energy. On average it takes about 14 MJ to produce a ceramic coffee cup, and about 0.55 MJ to produce a paper cup.
To reuse a cup, it has to be washed (or should be washed). For this example, we will consider that the ceramic cup is washed in a dishwasher. The efficiency of the dishwasher and the efficiency of the energy system that powers it determines how much energy is required for each wash. It takes approximately 0.09 MJ to wash a cup (this value varies depending on the systems used).
Only after 30 uses does a coffee mug break even on its higher initial investment in embodied energy . And now consider the energy to package and ship ceramic cups from their place of origin - often halfway around the world.
So, having a cupboard full to the brim of ceramic mugs, may not be the best answer, unless you drink a lot of tea! Having a few ceramic cups or a dedicated reusable coffee cup is a good way to go, and if you can source them locally, then that’s even better.
Perception vs Reality
Unfortunately, the entire space gets a little more complicated.
When designing packaging for a recent product, we often get hit with the dilemma of consumer perception vs reality. We could have packaged the product in cardboard packaging, which is a great renewable resource and looks good in the public eye, but little do people know that it still takes quite a lot of energy to produce.
The alternative was that we went minimal, and so we packaged the product in a corn starch bag. The bag was lightweight, low on embodied energy, made from renewable materials, biodegradable, and protected the product during transport. But it looked like a plastic bag.
We decided to stick with our beliefs and proceed with the cornstarch bag.
As expected, when the product hit the shelves, many of our customers' first response was to turn their nose up. This response was largely the result of customers thinking it was a dirty single-use plastic bag (not to mention that it isn’t the most attractive packaging).
It wasn’t until the customers had read the messaging printed on the bags, explaining that it was made from corn starch that they realised that it ticked the majority of the environmental boxes.
The decision comes up regularly in business and design to go with the environmental option or what the public currently perceives as the most environmental option.
There is still a big gap between reality and perception... but having a good grasp of the concept of embodied energy is a great place to start. It’s all about being a conscious business operator and a conscious consumer.
The triple bottom line
At memobottle, we are far from perfect. We use more cardboard packaging than we’d like and still have work to do to reduce wastage in our production process and lots more. We still have a long way to go.
We will continue to consciously reduce our overall impact and keep talking about our shortfalls as well as our environmental wins.
As a society, we have a lot of work to do around effective recycling, energy-efficient production methods, innovation of materials, and reducing the production of single-use products. If we can start to respect our most hated material, by ceasing to be a throwaway society, then maybe, just maybe, we can become a reusable society.
As a consumer, it can be an incredibly difficult space to navigate—weighing up what materials to choose and which to avoid for each circumstance, while being unaware of the embodied energy attached to a product due to a lack of transparency from brands. There are pros and cons for most products and most materials. What is certain is that we should reduce our thirst for single-use products and excessive packaging, and start to respect the materials that make up our world.
The only clear winner here is to consume less, waste less and always reuse.