Leon Farahnik is the Chairman and CEO of CarbonLite Recycling in the United States, a company that recycles used plastics to make new ones. When interviewing hundreds of people around the world about plastic, many talked about glass, saying that it was probably a better material. We showed Farahnik a selection of these testimonies and then asked him to comment and give us keys to understanding the complex topic of plastics. The video shows a selection of his answers, and you can read his full interview below.
20 Questions About Water: What is your first reaction to these testimonies?
Leon Farahnik: For the most part, I see a lack of information, a lack of knowledge. They talk about glass versus plastics, but for instance, if you want to ship a truckload of glass instead of plastics, you need to consider the extra energy and the amount of carbon footprint needed. They also don’t understand how glass is collected and broken up: recycling glass isn’t as easy as people think. I am a plastic recycler, so I obviously have my own vision about plastics. I feel people turn to glass because of a lack of knowledge, which is reminiscent of the situation of plastic bags versus paper bags: people didn’t realize that, in order to manufacture paper, you need to cut down trees and eight truckloads of paper equate to one truckload of plastics, so you can imagine the amount of carbon footprint and its impact on the environment.
20QAW: Even before glass, do you know how water was transported?
L.F.: I have some background in the Middle East, where they used to carry water in large metal drums. And trucks for larger quantities. That’s how I remember it was before there were glass or plastic containers.
"In fifty years, digging out landfills to make new products out of it will be a huge business, and they will think we were crazy to throw away these plastics in landfills and the oceans."
20QAW: When did the switch between glass and plastic happen, and why?
L.F.: I would say fifteen to twenty years ago, plastics started to take over glass because of breakage issues, people getting hurt with glass, mostly in outside areas such as pools, stadiums, etc. We realized it wasn’t possible to use glass considering this danger and all the legal issues you can face in the United States. The trend edged towards plastic because of its weight advantage, nowadays a bottle weighs around 7.5g, down from 14-15g, so strong improvements have been made in the use and reusability of plastics.
20QAW: What are the advantages of plastic vs. glass, and vice versa?
L.F.: The advantages of plastic include ease of transportation, lower risk of breakage, less injury risks, the weight of the material, as well as its processing: making a glass bottle requires tremendous amounts of energy, and this process has a higher carbon footprint than the production of plastic bottles. There’s a tremendous difference as far as I know.
20QAW: Why is plastic so heavily criticized today?
L.F.: People in far-eastern countries and in poorer areas of the world discard plastics in the oceans and waterways, and do not recycle it, which creates this bad-boy image of plastic. It’s a fantastic product, but we, the people, are responsible for creating a situation that makes it appear to be a bad product. We are the true culprits.
20QAW: How long does plastic stay in nature?
L.F.: Plastic lasts a very long time, especially in landfills where there is no water, no air, no light. In fifty years, digging out landfills to make new products out of it will be a huge business, and they will think we were crazy to throw away these plastics in landfills and the oceans. I’m sure as we move forward that the collection of plastic will improve, but the main point is that people simply cannot discard plastics everywhere.
"I don’t know what we would use if there were no plastics, probably something even more harmful to the environment."
20QAW: How do you imagine the future of plastic in a hundred years?
L.F.: Plastics are here to stay. I’m sure a technology will be developed to make plastic degrade much faster, or melt away when thrown in waterways. Of course there are already bio-based plastics, there are a lot of things happening as we go forward. It’s a fantastic product, used in everything you touch, from your car to your office and your home. I don’t know what we would use if there were no plastics, probably something even more harmful to the environment.