Plastics are turned to solve many day-to-day convenience “issues”. Why do some prefer a plastic fork over a metal one? Maybe they’re on the go, and they’ll have to carry this utensil to use it later. Well it’s lighter, it’s disposable, and it’s cheaper than a metal fork. These reasons apply to most other plastic products. It’s simply more convenient. It’s impermanence and lower cost draws us to use and discard, we don’t have to pay special attention to its care because we can buy a new one without breaking the bank. But, considering the detrimental effects plastics have on the earth, is it justified to continue use simply because it benefits our lives in this way? Would decreasing the risk of chemical leaching into our food or saving sea life from toxification caused by microplastics be worth the switch to carrying an actual fork instead? Some of the major problems plastics impose on the environment include non-biodegradable physical waste, chemical run-off, and harm to the surrounding ecosystems.
There are many materials that require fossil fuels in their development process. With these fossil fuels, many ethical questions arise due to some of these natural resources not being able to biodegrade completely. These unsustainable materials affect the earth in a large way. First off, non-biodegradable materials, which can include plastic bags, will remain in the environment for several years after it is thrown away. Certain materials that cannot be broken down by microorganisms are considered non-biodegradable and will affect the environment in a major way. Secondly, run off can be described as part of the water cycle and is caused by certain things such as rainfall amount, permeability, vegetation, and slope. While runoff is not necessarily caused by humans, it does have an environmental impact. Runoff can cause erosion, and specifically with unsustainable materials it can cause pollution. Unsustainable materials can also have harmful effects on animals. If these plastics or papers end up in the environments of animals, there can be significant health impacts. Likewise, these unsustainable materials can have health impacts on human health. For example, chemicals leaking out into food or water bottles in the heat.
Due to the mass production and distribution of plastic related materials, our environment and its inhabitants are subjected to face several ongoing health impacts. For starters, when plastics are improperly disposed into our environment, the debris of these materials can impose several threats on both the wildlife and the health of an ecosystem. For example, in a marine environment, smaller forms of plastic debris, called microplastics, can be ingested by populations of a species and threaten the health of the organisms. These microplastics have been found to contain harmful organic contaminants and have yet to be studied enough to truly determine their potential impacts, yet the amount of plastic debris in environments is rapidly increasing. Apart from the environment, plastics can also affect human health on a range of different levels. Scientists have used a process called biomonitoring, which measures the concentration of contaminants in the human body, to show that, “chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics are present in the human population, and studies using laboratory animals as model organisms indicate potential adverse health effects of these chemicals” (Thompson, 2009). These adverse impacts on the human population can include: reproductive abnormalities, higher toxicity exposure to children, hormonal alterations and more. It is important that we understand the potential risks associated with plastics, as well as the unknown, grey areas that we have yet to discover about the true effects these materials bring to the table.
Another ethical aspect that plays a large role in shaping the environment is social Ecology. This explains how our ecological ills are social in nature. Modern day society is molded by people’s busy lives which values efficiency rather than effectiveness or value. This led us to form unsustainable plastics and single use items. This way of thinking leads to developing solutions to fix the primary problem without caring much about the side effects of the solution which can include landfill waste or other negative effects toward the earth.
It starts with grocery shopping. You’re planning what you will eat this week, and have come to deciding on the snack portion of your diet. Cheese! And maybe crackers. When you’re looking through the cheeses you see one package that has slices stacked just slightly on top of each other, then you compare it to another package that offers individual packets of two slices of cheese. You think, “Oh that would be much more convenient. I can just grab a slice or two and put it into my lunch bag without it touching my fruit!” But what you don’t realize is that the 30 seconds you took to choose convenience, will result in a decomposition process that takes 1000 years (Connor, 2011). That’s right, on average, each plastic bag we use takes about that long to decompose on earth. Now think about how many other products you use have the same type of “convenient” packaging” or the plastic bag(s) you’ll use to transport those products from the grocery to your home. Then, multiply that by how many times you shop per week, month, year or lifetime. America’s Environmental Protection Agency reports that in 2011, America produced 32 million tons of plastic waste within one year (Bond, 2014)!
Despite the adverse environmental consequences of using these materials and excess packaging, it is all too easy to pick the packaging option that seems more convenient for us personally rather than thinking of how our choices affect our ecology. This way of thinking, called anthropocentrism, is the norm of our time and culture. According to Sarah Boslaugh of Encyclopedia Britannica, anthropocentrism is the “philosophical viewpoint arguing that human beings are the central or most significant entities in the world” (Boslaugh, 2016). This view places humans as set apart from and superior to nature, values human life over those of other organisms, and therefore justifies any use or exploitation of nature for human benefit. Because this view is a prominent element of popular western religions, it has come to be embedded in our modern culture. For example, in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, God instructs Adam and Eve, the pinnacle of his creation, to “fill the earth and subdue it” and to “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). In many translations of the Bible, the language suggests a position of authority rather than stewardship. It is therefore no surprise that throughout history, this passage has been interpreted so as to condone the destruction or abuse of natural resources for the sake of humankind or what humankind considered progressive. The prominence of Christianity and the religion’s role in the colonization of the Americas spread this ideology past the European continent and embedded it in common Western culture, making it in a sense the default environmental philosophy of contemporary culture.
In recent years, there has been a stronger push for a shift towards the spread of an ecocentric philosophy and culture. Additionally, people are starting to partake in moral extensionism which is extending our sphere of moral concern beyond the human realm to animals and other sentient beings. As can be assumed from its name, ecocentrism is a nature-centered environmental ethic that places an intrinsic value on all natural elements regardless of their usefulness to humankind. We practice ecocentrism if and when we place the healthy preservation of nature above our own personal gain. Examples of this would be washing and reusing glass or ceramic dishes instead of constantly purchasing disposable ones to prevent excess waste, paying more for organic or locally grown foods and veganism. This is counter-cultural to the common habits of finding the fastest and most convenient option for every decision we make.
In this case, ecocentrism is both logical and ethical. Ethical in the sense that we are acting altruistically, giving other life forms importance in our decision making. We fail to realize behaving this way also serves our longevity as a species. The earth is what makes life possible, so if we take care of it, we increase our span of access to the life that earth gives: food, water, and air.
It becomes clear that ethical standards are important with regards to using plastics for both the health of humans, animals and the environment. Since plastics can be harmful to the environment, there is a push for other alternative sustainable materials. Large industries or corporations could change their packaging to paper or glass as opposed to plastic since both of these are made from natural elements such as sand and trees instead of natural gas and polymers (Trimarchi). By making this switch our waste would be reusable or biodegradable and would be using a renewable resource. “Once upon a time, milkmen filled glass bottles with milk… sometimes going back in time is a good thing” (Trimarchi). Manufacturers and the common consumer can learn what was sustainable from the past and correct course along the way by adopting newer sustainable materials as they become available. Another easy swap shoppers can make is to bring their own reusable bags to stores. If this practice was adopted worldwide then the need for plastic bags would cease to exist.
Since these problems plastics present are becoming more prevalent, scientists are researching how to convert plastic into a biodegradable substance. Several different new studies have shown that plastic could potentially be converted into a biodegradable substance by either adding “prodegradant concentrates” or replacing its main component, natural gas, with other materials. Prodegradant concentrates allows the plastic to break down into smaller fragments that are ingestible by bacteria which in return breaks them down into “carbon dioxide, water and biomass, which reportedly contains nor harmful residues” (Trimarchi). Other research has found that other materials could be turned into plastics including milk protein, liquid wood, polycaprolactone, or polylactic acid (PLA) (Trimarchi). Liquid wood is a biopolymer “which looks, feels and acts just like plastic but unlike petroleum-based plastics, they’re biodegradable”. Manufacturers mix lignin with water and then expose it to heat and pressure to form this kind of plastic and since it is made of wood it is recyclable too (Trimarchi). Polycaprolactone is a synthetic aliphatic polyester and although it still does use natural gas it can degrade after six weeks of composting (Trimarchi). PLA is formed during starch fermentation during corn wet milling. “It decomposes within 47 days of composting, won’t emit toxic fumes when burned and manufacturing them uses 20-50 percent less fossil fuels than petroleum-based plastic” (Trimarchi). Overall, if society collectively tries to make these swaps while researching and innovation continues to take place, people can begin to use more sustainable materials.
When people make decisions about purchasing or using a product based upon factors such as convenience, there is usually a hidden cost along with this preference. Using a plastic fork instead of a metal one or buying paper plates instead of glass or ceramic plates might save the consumer time and money, but cost through the detrimental effects they have on the Earth. Is saving time and money on convenience worth the damage done by unsustainable materials such as plastics? Ethical questions tie into purchase decisions when dealing with unsustainable materials and their impact on the environment. Anthropocentrism, or the way of viewing the world as a human centered one in which we are the most significant entities, can justify in people’s mind their use of unsustainable materials. In order to educate people on their negative impact on the environment, we must switch to a more ecocentric point of view. An ecocentric culture places more importance on nature than personal gain, which is important to help people think about the hidden costs next time they decide on purchases solely based on convenience. Ethical standards should be of high importance to people because of materials such as plastics and their damage that they cause to the environment. A solution to this is to use reusable materials instead of plastic water bottles or plastics shopping bags. Since the conflicts between price, convenience, and environmental ethics are so closely related, scientists have even started to research ways to make plastics biodegradable. In conclusion, using products with unsustainable materials such as plastics for convenience raises ethical concerns due to the negative impact they have on the environment.
Bond, Shannon. (2014). “Where do Plastic Bags Go?” Environmental Protection Agency Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.epa.gov/blog/2014/03/where-do-plastic-bags-go/
Boslaugh, Sarah. (2016). “Anthropocentrism.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/anthropocentrism
Connor, K. (2011). “How Long Does it Take a Plastic Bottle to Biodegrade?” Postconsumers.com. Retrieved from http://www.postconsumers.com/education/how-long-does-it-take-a-plastic-bottle-to-biodegrade/
Thompson, R., Moore, C., Saal, F. & Swan, S. (2009). “Plastics, the Environment and human health: current consensus and future trends.” NCBI. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873021/
Trimarchi, M. & Giuggio, V. “Top 10 Eco-friendly Substitutes for Plastic.” How Stuff Works, Science. Retrieved from http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-tech/sustainable/5-plastic-substitutes1.htm