In the U.S., plastic is still largely considered to be an integral and necessary part of daily life. A stroll through any grocery store will reveal this unhealthy plastic dependence not only in the form of plastic grocery bags but also in the food packaging itself.
Fresh produce, which comes in its own biodegradable “packaging,” is often wrapped in plastic or bundled into plastic bags and containers. Ears of corn come shucked and wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic; garlic cloves are peeled and shrink wrapped; even apples are sliced and packaged in baggies.
Everything from nuts and cheese to milk and lettuce comes encased in plastic. Sometimes, the food is wrapped in plastic and then put inside another plastic bag or container.
It’s said that plastic bags tend to be used for an average of 12 minutes, but can take 500 to 1,000 years to break down in the environment.1,2 While some stores and cities have made moves to ban plastic bags, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reducing plastic waste.
How much plastic is generated by US supermarkets?
The answer is, nobody knows. The Guardian launched a series titled “United States of Plastic,”3 which included an attempt to gauge the scale. Five grocery stores, including natural chains like Whole Foods, in New York City were perused, revealing plastic to be virtually everywhere. According to The Guardian:4
“Plastic, often low-quality and unrecyclable, felt like the only thing more ubiquitous than the food itself — and it was prevalent everywhere we shopped. H-Mart sold a single butternut squash in red plastic netting.
At Whole Foods, whose entire business is based on marketing sustainability, plastic-wrapped vegetables were sold alongside hard plastic containers bagged in plastic. Whole Foods also sold a plastic bag holding individually plastic wrapped salmon filets in the freezer section. In another aisle, there were plastic-lined juice boxes with plastic straws wrapped in plastic.”
It’s a sickening display, especially as it becomes clear that plastic waste is endangering the planet. In 2015, 34.5 million tons of plastic were generated in the U.S., accounting for 13.1% of municipal solid waste (MSW) generation.5
Plastics are found in all MSW categories, but containers and packaging have the most plastic, coming in at 14 million tons in 2015. This includes much of the plastic waste seen in supermarkets, such as:6
- Bags, sacks and wraps
- Other packaging
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and jars
- High-density polyethylene (HDPE) natural bottles
- Other containers
Still, The Guardian noted, “American supermarkets continue carrying products that use excessive and difficult to recycle plastics in the name of convenience, cleanliness or individual and child-sized portions.”7
In the case of plastic packaging, a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in partnership with the World Economic Forum, revealed that 95% of the material value, an estimated $80 billion to $120 billion annually, is lost after its first usage, adding economic problems to its already loaded drawbacks:8
“When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use. Plastics that do get recycled are mostly recycled into lower-value applications that are not again recyclable after use.
The recycling rate for plastics in general is even lower than for plastic packaging, and both are far below the global recycling rates for paper (58%) and iron and steel (70 – 90%). In addition, plastic packaging is almost exclusively single-use, especially in business-to-consumer applications.”
Most plastic is not recycled
The fact that some plastic can be recycled is often touted as its saving grace, but even if it can be, it typically isn’t. Using data from the American Chemistry Council and the National Association for PET Container Resources, the U.S. EPA measured the recycling of plastic in the U.S., revealing that only 3.1 million tons — or 9.1% — of plastic was recycled in 2015.9
Even among specific types of plastic that had better recycling rates, the levels were still low. For instance, 29.9 % of PET bottles and jars were recycled in 2015, as were 30.3% of HDPE natural bottles.10 Meanwhile, 26 million tons of plastic were sent to U.S. landfills that year and another 5.4 million tons were combusted, or burned.
Burning plastic waste brings up a host of new problems, however. In some cases, plastic waste is burned to produce heat and steam that turn turbine blades and generate electricity.11But in so doing, the combustion may release toxic emissions of dioxins, heavy metals and carbon dioxide into the environment.
According to a report by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), the production and incineration of plastic will produce more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2019, which is equal to the emissions released from 189 500-megawatt coal power plants.12 With the plastic industry planning to expand instead of scale back, the report notes that the problem may get even worse:13
“If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year — equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal- red power plants. By 2050, the cumulation of these greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons — 10–13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.”