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“single-use” anything is not sustainable (and hardly green)

May 13 2009 | Plastics, Jim's Blog,
by Jim

A friend sent me a link to the design on the right. Aside from the clever/clean design aesthetic I think it’s a bit off the mark. It's a metaphor for a large category of products/services aimed at "green" audiences being off the mark.

It's mid 2009, there are Garbage Patchs of plastic waste floating around the oceans, the most remote beaches in the world are the new dumps with tons of plastic littering their shores... people are finally aware that single-use plastic water bottles are horrible on the environment.

So... they think “oh, it's the that's plastic bad... what’s a substitute material?”

Then clever designers come up with substitutes like the one to the right (more info on this design here).

But, like many of our environmental challenges, the answers simply not that easy. In my opinion this kind of thinking totally misses the mark.

Single-use plastic bottles are bad. That phrase has two adjectives... plastic is one, single-use is the other. They are both bad. We all know by now why the plastic part is bad... so let me talk about the other phrase.

Why would we use ANY valuable materials for a 2 minute use and then discard?

The real issue is that the phrase should have been “reduce, reuse... and then if absolutely necessary, recycle.”

Anything "single-use" is, by definition, bad for the environment.

The phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle" made a lot of people think that all they really had to do was recycle. That's wrong.

First, reduce the amount of... everything that you use and consume. Reduce = use less. Use less petroleum-based products because petroleum is a finite natural resource. Use less paper products as, even though they are renewable, they still require energy and (most of the time) harvesting more natural resources. Etc.

Reuse means literally "don't use something once." Don't use single-use... anything. It means if you buy a coffee then bring a mug. Then bring it again. Bring it for your coffee until you can't anylonger.

Reuse is the anti-single-use.

Recycle means when all else fails, recycle. In other words AFTER you've already reduced the amount of stuff you buy/consume and AFTER you've reused everything you can... THEN recycle it. So that coffee mug I talked about above, after you've used it a thousand times and it starts to leak... recycle the material in the best way you can.

My point is that this phrase is meant to be taken as a whole and as a comprehensive mantra... not just taking one word out of context and ending up with "sure, I bought twelve cases of bottled water but I recycle!" That's a bad decision because the use of single-use products the first time around used up energy and natural resources and a bad decision because your bottles will probably end up in a landfill anyway.

The paper used in the bottle above is recyclable yet it still takes natural resources to create and is used for one, single use and then discarded. ANYthing we use once and throw away, whether it's recyclable or not, is poorly designed. It may not be poorly designed from an asthetic point of view. In fact I love the design of the above bottle visually, but that's only one component. In my opinion it's poorly designed from a sustainability standpoint. Why would we use x% of a tree to hold water for you to take a 2 minute sip from and then discard?

If you want a drink of water, get a glass. This was common sense for thousands of years but all of the sudden it's not common sense. The water in a bottle isn't better than your tap with a filter.

If you want to take water with you somewhere where a glass won't work, use a container that can be used multiple times.

We don't drive a car to work and then abandon it... and buy another car for the drive home (only to abandon a second one). Would we do that if the car was recyclable? No, it would be too expensive, it would use a ton of natural resources to create... I'm guessing we all think THAT would be stupid.

So let's apply that same logic to the rest of our lives.

I'm thirsty... hmmm.
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