The Price of Plastic
Plastic is a fact of everyday life. No matter how #plasticfree your lifestyle is, we are all, at some point, using plastic - and it makes sense. Plastic is durable, waterproof and affordable. It can come in a variety of incarnations - clear plastic sandwich bags, brightly-coloured children’s toys and industrial tools. Consumers buy plastic every week - in food packaging, cleaning supplies and in the personal care aisle. They buy them every time they pick up a bag of conventional disposable pads and tampons.
Disposable pads and tampons are minefields of plastic. A standard tampon not only can have a plastic wrapper and applicator, but the tampon itself often contains polyester in the wadding and string itself. The average menstrual pad is estimated to be nearly 90% plastic, with the average package of disposable pads containing as much plastic as five disposable shopping bags.
Obviously, all this plastic adds up. Our own estimates place the number of pads and tampons entering North American landfills in excess of 20 billion annually, and it is well-known that tampon applicators litter beaches and pollute oceans. None of this plastic can be recycled. Period products are classified as medical waste, and do not enter recycling streams. It is estimated that these products will take 500 years to decompose - meaning if Queen Elizabeth I had used tampons, they’d still be around.
If Queen Elizabeth I had used tampons, they’d still be around.
However, it doesn’t just stop at garbage. All that plastic has a major impact on our climate. Plastic is primarily made from fossil fuels, and in North America, that means ethane from natural gas, often the byproduct of fracking. We cannot continue to consume plastic at this rate. By 2050, the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons—10-13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget. With current planned expansions by plastic and petrochemical producers, there is no chance of capping global temperature rise at 1.5 ℃. Plastic isn’t just filling garbage cans. It’s endangering life on this planet.
Extrapolating from data collected on plastic bag usage, we estimate that every menstruating human uses over 42 lbs of fossil fuel and 73 gallons of clean water over their lifetime. This requires a ton of plastic that often just gets put in the trash. Our addiction to plastic is strangling the things we need for life on Earth - clean water and air.
Plastic isn’t just filling garbage cans. It’s endangering life on this planet.
Switching to reusable products is one way to reduce your personal plastic use, and this needs to be encouraged on a systemic level (in Canada, only 37% of overall plastic use is in durable products - the rest is single-use plastic or packaging). However, we need new technologies, new systems and new strategies. Overall, we need the political will at every level of government to generate a carbon-neutral economy. Please choose reusables, but also, don’t forget to choose elected officials who support ecological sustainability.
We all use plastic. We need to find a way to use it so our planet will last as long as our trash does.