Keeping the Peace
This is a story about water, sustainability and a fight with my teenage daughter.
I'll start with the water. My daughter has the good habit of drinking plenty of water. A glass of water is within her reach 24/7, including a glass on her nightstand while she sleeps. We could all learn a lesson from her on hydration.
Recently, we moved across town. It was not a long distance. However, in our city if you live inside the city limits you have city water. If you live outside the city limits, your water is supplied from Lake Michigan. People here have strong opinions about the water from these two different sources, and one of them is my well hydrated, youngest daughter.
Upon moving to the new house, my daughter declared that she could not drink the "funny tasting" tap water. Moving is a very busy time so I quickly dealt with this problem by running to the store and buying a few jugs of distilled water. She was happy.
But after a few days she said, "Dad, we're almost out of water. I need you to buy more when you go to the store." And that is how the fight started.
I said, "Wait a minute. We are not going to supply drinking water in the house with plastic jugs of water indefinitely. That's bad for the planet, and the tap water is perfectly fine. As a person who has dedicated his life to sustainability, I refuse to buy water in plastic jugs for home drinking water."
She insisted, "Well, I can't drink that funny tasting tap water!"
This deteriorated into the most emotional fight I have ever had with my daughter. For brevity, I'll summarize: I argued that drinking perfectly safe tap water, that may taste a little different, was a sacrifice that a decent person is morally obligated to make when the alternative causes permanent damage to the planet. Her (admittedly strong) argument was that we can recycle the plastic jugs.
Now, as the AmSty director of innovation and sustainability, I could have been proud of her well-informed arguments about the recyclability of natural HDPE jugs (water jugs)and PET bottles (water bottles). But this is my story, so I'm going to explain why Dad gets to win this argument.
According to a 2019 study by the Plastics Recycling Corporation of California there is up to 35 percent yield loss in the recycling of clear PET bottles.
Don't argue about recycling with a recycling professional, grasshopper.
Just kidding. If you're a parent, you know I didn't win this argument outright. We compromised. I went to the store and bought a highly rated refillable water pitcher with a filter. These are great filters, and the water comes out tasting very clean. She was happy with the water, and I was happy that we found a sustainable solution.
Now that we knew we were back on good terms we could talk about the waste hierarchy lessons from this experience.
Reducing your consumption of plastics reduces your impact on the environment. Every bit of plastic you don't use, will never end up in a landfill. However, there are many situations where innovations enabled by plastics products are necessary, and even lifesaving – like the petri dishes used to develop the COVID-19 vaccines.
In cases where disposable packaging is needed, it should be made from the most sustainable material. The plastic used in water jugs and water bottles are two of the most widely recycled plastics in use. Although I work for a polystyrene (PS) company, I do not advocate for replacing these with polystyrene. I tip my hat to the professionals who has successfully made these products widely recycled.
But here's another, possibly surprising, way to reduce: an EPS foam cup is more than 95 percent air. A PET drink cup is three times the weight of a PS foam cup. Even if the PS foam cup is not recycled, a disposed PS foam cup results in five percent less plastic waste than a PET cup that is recycled with a 35 percent yield loss. In other words, if you send 100 pounds of PET to be recycled, you only get 65 pounds of PET out of that process. (Note: Although PET bottles are widely recycled, PET cups are not yet. So today, a PET cup generates 300 percent more waste than a PS foam cup.)
Also important: Do not reduce your consumption of water!
My daughter and I compromised on a reusable solution. Reuse is the second-best choice in the waste hierarchy(reduce-reuse-recycle). In this situation, our reusable solution is made with plastic. The water pitcher is a great product, however filters are not yet recyclable. The filter must be replaced after several months of use, so there is still some waste. But significantly less. (Side note for the folks who make these pitchers: we can make the filters out of recycled polystyrene and recycle them – let's chat!) Drinking water straight from the tap (reduce) would have been the most sustainable solution. However, this is not just about sustainability, this is also about keeping my picky daughter hydrated and healthy.
While arguing against the use of water jugs in the house, I told my daughter, "Even though plastics are recyclable, only 15 percent of plastic packaging actually gets recycled."
She countered with, "I thought you were fixing that." (In that sarcastic teenage daughter way, with a look that said, "Do your job, Dad!"). I felt that one.
At AmSty, we are working to fix the recycling system. It's our goal that one day no polystyrene products will need to be landfilled. We're making great strides with circular recycling. Regenyx, our joint venture with Agilyx, is the first commercial-scale recycling facility using an innovative circular technology that breaks down polystyrene products to their original molecular form. Once broken down, the material is used to create the exact same products with the original quality and durability. To date, Regenyx has recycled more than 2 million pounds of used polystyrene into all-new materials, and we're planning a new facility, which will increase that number exponentially. There are also numerous other dedicated professionals working on projects to improve plastic recycling. It's very exciting how much work is being done in this space.
However, these things take time and we're not there yet. So, the decisions we make today, this week, and this year, should account for the fact that our recycling system is not yet able to handle a lot of the materials in our economy.
We'll get there. Until then, I'll be vigilant to pass along the important lessons about protecting our environment to my daughters. Reduce, reuse, and AFTER that, recycle.