Are the alternatives to plastic much more superior in their environmental impact?
Looking closer at glass, silicone, bamboo & stainless steel.
In part 1 of this 3-part series I discussed what plastic was, and why it is that there is currently a massive movement toward ditching it. The pollution alone is impacting our waterways, our landfills, and our wildlife, especially single-use plastics.
It made sense to me to explore in part 2 whether the alternatives to plastic are really that much better. You’ve probably seen it, an influx of bamboo kitchen supplies & fabrics, silicone bakeware, and stainless steel water bottles. Or you’ve been hearing a lot about storing our food in glass instead of plastic.
Please note: this information has been simplified and can differ depending on country, product and circumstance. Factors that I considered when discussing each material below include: manufacturing, weight, transportation, recycling, reusability and end of life disposal. All materials require the extraction of needed substances, minerals, and “ingredients.” This requires energy output in the machinery used in the process as well as the travel required to transport it to its manufacturing destination.
We are continually interacting with glass in our everyday life. The list includes: spectacles, light bulbs, windows, storage containers, and tableware. So much of our daily lives depend on it. In terms of food storage, I love it! It can withstand both extreme temperatures by being placed in the freezer, thrown in the oven or microwave, and then in the dishwasher to get cleaned. I can also rest assured that it does not contaminate the food that is stored in it. Out of the 4 materials, I was most excited to learn about glass because I love it so much, but how does it hold up in comparison to plastic?
Glass has existed for around 5000 years. It is made through collecting non-renewable natural raw materials such as sand and minerals. These are then heated and melted at an incredibly high heat until it turns into a liquid. From there it is then shaped and manufactured into whatever glass product we use.
The Disappointing Discovery of Sand Mining
My husband listens to the radio every day and keeps me up on relevant news topics. He was the one that first told me about sand mining, and at first I thought, “wait, what? Glass is made from sand??” But then I progressed to the more important information, sand mining. My husband at the time didn’t know a lot of detail about it, so I was hopeful it wasn’t as serious, but alas…
“Sand mining is the world’s largest mining endeavor, responsible for 85 percent of all mineral extraction. It is also the least regulated, and quite possibly the most corrupt and environmentally destructive.” Although mainly for the production of concrete, sand mining is how we get the sand that eventually turns into the glass we use (and also into the Silicone products we use, but I talk more about that below). “This little-noticed and largely unregulated activity has serious costs — damaging rivers, wreaking havoc on coastal ecosystems, and even wiping away entire islands.”
Sand mining in and of itself is not a bad thing, but because it is not regulated and involves corruption for the sake of profit, sand is being extracted at a rate that the ecosystem is unable to replenish itself. “Rivers will attempt to fill in the holes dug out by sand miners, but with twice as much sand estimated to be taken from the world’s rivers as natural processes of sedimentation can restore, they will rarely do it fast enough to undo the damage.” If you’d like to read more about this, please do at the Yale360 article, which is where I extracted the quotes from.
Glass is durable, and can be reused (if not broken) indefinitely. I did find information that the manufacturing of glass produces more greenhouse gasses overall during its lifecycle, but reusing glass several times significantly reduces its overall environmental impact.
Glass also weighs more and therefore requires more gas and oil to transport. “Lighter products require fewer raw materials, which means they take less energy to make and usually produce a smaller carbon footprint. They take less energy to transport to the consumer, and it’s easier to dispose of them when the peanut butter, baby food or soda runs out” (Washington Post). Of course, if a company buys its glass containers from a nearby manufacturing plant and those buying the product walk to the grocery store, the environmental impact of weight and transport of glass significantly decreases.
Glass has been estimated to take 1 million years to decompose (yikes!). This is that much more incentive for me to avoid sending glass to the landfill by ensuring nothing breaks! Glass can be recycled. If a facility has the ability and equipment, glass can be broken down, melted, and made into a new glass bottle. Its integrity is not compromised through the recycling process, whereas plastic does break down the more it is recycled and has an end life. Not all companies or recycling facilities are able/willing to do this though. In the U.S. only 33% of glass is recycled compared to 90% in European countries. At my local recycling facility (Niagara, Ontario), glass is broken down back into sand and sold in bags for sandblasting.
Recycling is a better option than the landfill, but requires energy for transportation and machinery to sort, recycle, and redistribute. Recycling is an element to consider in the overall conversation, but not to be relied on as a reason to use a particular product.
Due to the chemistry headache I got researching Silicone, I have made a purposeful effort to simplify the information below.
Food grade silicone is a synthetic material that has grown in popularity in recent years. Similarly to glass it can withstand extreme temperatures (is microwave & dishwasher safe), is durable, and as far as we are aware it is safe for our bodies and non-toxic. It does not release the same chemicals when heated as plastic does. Keep in mind though, there seems to be little overall research out there on the food grade silicone and its safety.
Silicone is a synthetic rubber that contains bonded silicone and oxygen. Silicone is made from silica sand. This is the same sand used to create glass. Silica sand is also used in the creation of concrete, ceramics, silicon chips (ever hear of Silicon Valley?), computer mouses, grout and caulking filler, wood finishing products, paints, and solar panels. As you can see, we depend heavily on this sand for a ton of the products we use. Silica sand is also extracted through sand mining, so the same environmental concerns that were discussed above with glass also apply to silicone.
Creating silicone products requires extremely high heat, where it is melted down, pigment is added and then it is molded into the intended shape. Manufacturing this material is energy-intensive, similarly to glass.
Silicone is not biodegradable, and is thought to take around 500 years to break down. It is recyclable, but only where facilities are able to. Here in Niagara it is not recyclable. It is very durable though, less likely to break than glass, and has the potential to last longer than most (if not all) of their alternatives. It also does not break down in the same way as plastic, and therefore does not produce the same amount of pollution.
Low grade silicone can contain fillers, which are not disclosed to the consumer, so check the labeling to ensure it is high quality food grade. I read online that a quick test for this is to pinch it and if you see white, that means it has fillers.
“Bamboo forests have many environmental benefits because they function as carbon sinks, produce oxygen, control soil erosion, provide organic matter, regulate water levels in watersheds, conserve biodiversity, beautify the landscape, and essentially contribute to the purification and regulation of the environment” (source).
Wow, that is a big claim. It feels like we should stop right there. Of course the above information is true, if bamboo is left alone to be just a plant instead of a material we extract and use to manufacture products.
Bamboo is a plant, a raw material, and is one of the fastest (if not the fastest) developing plants. With 1,500 different species it can grow anywhere from sea level to 12,000 feet and is grown in sub tropical zones, mainly South East Asia and Central America. It is adaptable with a short life cycle. Where trees can be harvested anywhere from 10-30 years, the bamboo lifecycle is anywhere from 2-5 years. It replenishes quickly, which makes it very sustainable. Bamboo can then be planted over and over without incurring any damage to the environment or to forests, and can survive with significantly less water supply than its alternatives. Bamboo produces more than 35% more oxygen than trees. Research in Japan and elsewhere has demonstrated that bamboo can absorb as much as 12 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare per year. It is also very light weight and can be transported easily. Amazing!
Bamboo has been used in furniture production, for food products, pulp & paper, fuel, textiles, and housing materials. Vitamins, steroids, and amino acids have also been extracted from the plant, and has also been made into beverages, medicines, and pesticides.
It has grown in global popularity as a sustainable eco-friendly alternative for good reason. Unfortunately this growth has lead to illegal logging, negatively impacting natural forests. These forests have been split into fragmented pieces surrounded by human activity. This has also had the consequence of putting the Giant Panda at risk of survival because bamboo is their source of sustenance.
This growth in popularity has also lead to mass deforestation in China as they have increased in number their bamboo plantations, with little government regulation. Having a bamboo plantation with no biodiversity leads to an increase in insect populations, leading to a high amount of pesticide use. There are now broad initiatives underway in China to attempt to rehabilitate degraded forest lands by restoring biodiversity and improving soil and forest condition.
Bamboo is grown and harvested overseas from Canada, which means it takes a lot of energy to travel before it ends up in our home. Although at this point in history in our globalized world, it is difficult to find anything 100% made locally when you look at and consider all stages from extraction to consumption.
There has been a lot of information published recently about bamboo fabric. It has been advertised as an eco-friendly alternative, especially in comparison to cotton. Typically the fabric is made by soaking the bamboo in a variety of chemicals in order to break it down into a soft pulp. These chemicals are known to be harmful to human health and aquatic life, and are released into our water supplies. If you want to read more about this, please read this very informative article by The Green Hub. In this article they clarify the many terms used to describe different bamboo fabrics and what they mean. This article also talks about how Bamboo Linen is a chemical-free alternative, but is rare to find.
What about other bamboo products? Bamboo is cut down, split into strips, and dried out. It is then layered and shaped into the product it is meant to be, glued and/or polished. Heat is sometimes used to shape it into the end product. Some bamboo products are “carbonized,” which is exposing the wood to high heat to give it a brown colour (example: bamboo flooring). The more the bamboo product is in its natural solid form (for example: plates, toothbrush, hair brush, etc.), the more environmentally friendly it is. It is naturally a very hard material, which is why it takes a lot of chemical processing for it to be broken down into fabrics such as towels, clothes, or sheets.
Food grade bamboo is made from bamboo or something called bamboo fibre. Bamboo fibre is extracted from bamboo pulp and then made into tableware. There are chemical and natural ways to extract the fibre, so I would do my research prior to buying any bamboo product claimed to be made from its fibre.
Bamboo is biodegradable because it is a natural raw material, but only if it has not been chemically treated. How long it takes to biodegrade is anywhere from around 6 months to a couple of years depending on the product. Recycling bamboo will depend on your local facility. I had a difficult time finding much information on this, but I did read a lot of sources that were confident that you can just burry it in your backyard and it will naturally biodegrade.
If you want to read about bamboo toilet paper, click here.
Stainless steel is everywhere. It’s in our buildings, infrastructure, tools, ships, trains, automobiles, machines, appliances, and so much more.
Steel production is the most energy consuming and CO2 emitting industry in the world. Stainless steel is a complicated material in the extraction and manufacturing processes, involving 1,400 steps each with its own environmental impact (eek!). For example, the mining of chromium ore, which is an essential piece of the stainless steel ingredient list, involves energy-intense heating to extract the metals needed that eventually becomes stainless steel. This process releases greenhouse gasses, carcinogens, and toxic material into soil, air and water.
Manufacturing stainless steel requires 10x more pollution than regular steel. To make it, raw materials such as iron ore, silicon, nickel, and other things, are melted together in an electric furnace. This usually involves 8-10 hours of intense heat. It is melted, welded, ground, cut, polished & formed. Steel production requires something called coke (similar to coal) in its heating ovens, and emits highly toxic air pollution. “Coking” also disposes toxic chemicals into our waterways.
The industry is starting to make changes, at least that is what the steel company websites are all boasting about. During production companies are recycling scrap metal that would have normally been discarded, and some companies are stating that up to 70% of the end product is coming from recycled material.
Food grade stainless steel is safe to use (for example: water bottle, straw, cutlery, storage containers). There may be leaching of some elements of stainless steel into your food or liquid, but they are generally not toxic and are at levels that are safe to consume. Stainless steel should not be confused with aluminum, although at times they look very similar (example: water bottles). Aluminum products are coated with plastic, so ensure that what you’re buying is actually stainless steel.
These items we use in our everyday lives are durable and will not break down easily. If taken care of they have the potential to last forever. Stainless steel is 100% able to be recycled, and can be dropped off at a scrap metal recycling yard.
- GLASS: is safe, non-toxic, reusable, although heavy and can be easily breakable. Sand mining is unregulated, corrupt, and environmentally destructive.
- SILICONE: newer material that is extremely durable and reusable, lightweight, and non-toxic. This material also is created through sand mining.
- BAMBOO: super renewable resource that naturally biodegrades after it becomes unusable. Safe to use & non-toxic. Not able to be grown in Canada. Popularity in the resource has caused environmental destruction in China due to bamboo plantations. Bamboo textiles are chemically treated and polluting our air and water.
- STAINLESS STEEL: most energy consuming industries globally. Polluting our air and water. Durable, long life span, and light weight.
So, is plastic really THAT bad? Yes. Plastic is by far the biggest land and water pollutant compared to any other material. Made from fossil fuels, it is full of toxic chemicals. It isn’t durable and breaks down into tiny pieces, and makes its way into our earth and oceans. With most of this pollution coming from single-use plastics, no wonder there is a push for reusable materials like the ones mentioned here.
The above materials have their own environmental issues, but what makes them far superior is that they can be reused for their entire lifetime, which could be as long as our entire lifetime. There are also some plastic products that can be reused (but with a shorter lifespan and more potential to break), and so no matter what product we are using, we need to REUSE them until their end.
Moving forward we should be looking to replace our plastic with its alternatives, but simply ditching all the plastic we have and consuming the same amount in another material form is not the answer. As you can see, even the production of these alternatives has an environmental cost. This type of thinking – our chronic consumptive culture – has more of an environmental impact than what material an item is made of.
Single-use items need to go. No matter if it’s paper straws, “biodegradable” cups, or wooden cutlery at a fast food restaurant (yes, McDonalds, I’m talking about you), going through the extraction and production process for any item to use only once is incredibly wasteful and harmful to our planet, especially when we have reusable resources right at our finger tips!
What I hope part 2 has done is give you the information needed to make an informed choice if you need to buy something new. But ultimately I hope it has also inspired you to use what you have, to think through your purchases more intentionally, and be an end-user.