Is Plastic a Sustainable Material?

crop male crushing plastic water bottle in park

As a sustainability advocate, you may find it strange that I am asking if plastic is a sustainable material… if we know anything about sustainability at this point, it’s probably that plastic is the worst.

But there is good reason to ask the question, since it’s so hard to avoid plastics.

Personally, I don’t like plastic.  I often don’t like the look of it.  I don’t like the feel of it.  It’s unsettling to have a lot of it in my space.

I’d rather use and be surrounded by natural materials.

I only realized this a few years ago actually, when considering decorating styles.  Some people like the contemporary look, with colorful, hard plastic, while I’m stuck in the boho magic of soft, natural elements.

But, that’s me.  And escaping plastic is hard.

bamboo bamboo whisk board bowls
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Sustainable materials

But these things matter. Material use is hugely important to sustainability. 

And, like all things, there are certain materials that are more sustainable than others.  Most often they are natural elements that are prevalent, renewable, and easy to harvest. And virgin plastic, my dear friends, is not one of them.

Plastic pollutes, doesn’t biodegrade, leaks toxins, and kills wildlife.  It’s quickly permeating every bit of the world, and has been found in plants, animals, humans, and the more remote places on earth.

Every piece of plastic ever made still exists.  And we’ve been using it consistently for over 50 years.

That’s astonishing to think about.

Every piece of plastic ever made still exists.

But is it ever okay to buy something made of plastic?

The quick, useless answer is: sort of. I think the medical field needs plastic. And maybe food, but I’d prefer to localize and seasonalize the food industry where plastic isn’t as essential.

But there are times when I think plastic may be considered a sustainable material.

Wait… what?

Hear me out.

There are billions of tiny pieces of plastic floating around the ocean, on air currents, and stuck in our soil. They aren’t going to biodegrade, and instead are just going to keep wreaking havoc on the planet, wildlife, and people. So, we need to stop making virgin plastic where possible, and find a way to capture and reuse existing plastic.

Virgin plastic is not a sustainable material. It is nonbiodegradable.  It’s petroleum-based, meaning, made from fossil fuels, and its synthetic ingredients only photodegrade, meaning they just get smaller, while leaking toxic chemicals into the environment.

And because we are swimming in plastic (sometimes literally, depending on what part of the world you are in), we need to find a way to capture that plastic and store it differently.

And this is where I think it can be considered a sustainable material: by storing it in useful products.

photo of person holding pen
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two kinds of plastic

So, if you caught that, I am breaking plastic down into two separate categories.

Virgin plastic, and recycled plastic.

The former is the plastic we want to avoid where possible.  Most of our plastic is virgin plastic.  It’s easy and cheap to make and is everywhere.

The second kind, recycled plastic, is the one that I’d like us to consider as a *possibly, at times, in unique circumstance* sustainable option.

More than ever, we are finding ways to divert plastic waste streams and turn discarded plastic into useful input materials again.

This is the only solution for plastic waste at this point in time – although I have heard about plastic eating fungi…  But until we have an army of these little buggers that can devour and chemically alter plastic into a natural element by the truckload every hour, we’ve got to find another solution.

And that solution often comes in the form of clothing, plastic lawn furniture, household goods, and other consumer products.

what recycled plastic products are best

Recycled plastic may be used for a myriad of products.  Some are more recommendable than others.  But here is what you should look for: longevity and use case.

Think long-lasting, sturdy, and doesn’t require a lot of washing.

Unfortunately, although clothing is a popular way to reuse plastic, I have a concern about small microplastics making their way back to the ocean each wash.  This is already happening with synthetic blended clothing.

We also have to consider the energy required to turn this waste back into a useful product.  The longer it lasts, the less energy per use is required. 

Still, as always, please avoid anything single use, or temporary, or obviously breakable.

Think long lasting (longevity) and use case (am I going to use this product in a manner that justifies its existence and perpetuates sustainability?).

plastic is here to stay

Plastic isn’t going anywhere.

By design, it doesn’t break down. 

It’s cheap to make.

And we can make it, instead of growing, harvesting, mining, or extracting it.

Hence, its popularity for nearly everything.

There are two things we need to do to reverse its damage to the environment: 1. stop producing unnecessary virgin plastic and 2. start capturing existing plastic and turning it into useful, long lasting functional products as a replacement for virgin plastic.

I’m sure if you’re here, on The Guilty Granola blog, you’re a person who tries avoiding plastic- and that’s great.  Thank you! But when plastic is inevitable, looking for recycled plastic is definitely the way to go.

What products do you have that are recycled products?

One of my favorites is a Recycled Ocean Plastic Clothespin by NONA.

It helps me save energy by line drying, and it captures discarded, end of life fishing gear and repurposes it into an unbreakable, sustainability-promoting product.

I’d say that’s probably as good as it gets.

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