It is impermeable to water and super versatile. Very cheap and easy to manufacture, and so light, that even its transportation costs are reduced to half, compared to other materials. Being so light and cheap, makes it so much more practical for production companies and consumers to prefer it over other materials such as wood, metal, glass, ceramic, stone, etc.
The 20th century hype material, Plastic, has become a huge part of our everyday lives. From office supplies, jewellery, accessories, clothes, toys, kitchen and bathroom appliances and products, to building materials, huge vehicles and spacecraft, the world of plastic is all around us, and in so many cute colors too!
All that sounds really good and wonderful, but unfortunately it turns out to be “too good to be true”. Plastic very soon showed us its real face, being one of the biggest causes of pollution in the world, starting from environmental and wildlife concerns, to human health!
Marine life, birds and humans
Depending on the type of plastic, it may take up to hundreds of years for a plastic product to decompose. During those years, when we don’t recycle them, plastics just pile up in landfills and in the oceans. What happens there?
Entanglement alone, causes the death of hundreds of thousands of marine mammals and even birds every year! Being trapped in circular plastic packaging materials, an animal will grow bigger in size, and the plastic will cut into its flesh. Being trapped in plastic bags or fishing nets, causes suffocation and drowing of those mammals that need to come out of the water for oxygen. Any plastic ring or rope that makes its way around a bird’s beak, can cause it to starve to death, since the bird won’t be able to eat. If the whole body of a bird gets entangled in fishing nets or ropes, it will prevent it from flying and avoid its predators, or will simply strangle it.
Entering the Food Chain, is the next big problem caused to marine life and birds by plastics. Plastic bags and other plastic pieces in the sea are mistaken for food, causing fish and mammals to die of starvation, not being able to digest the plastics, and having no room for real food.
Decomposition of plastics would normally occur faster in the oceans, due to exposure to sun, rain and other conditions. This is not the case though, since the increased volume of plastics in the oceans has slowed down the process after all.
But even when plastic decomposes, it releases toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A. (BPA), which are ultimately absorbed by the marine life. BPA affects growth, reproduction and development in aquatic organisms.
Humans stand on top of the Food Chain, so these chemicals can make their way into your body. BPA is an endocrine disruptor, which means it can cause cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders to us.
Oceans are not the only place plastics end up in. Taking up space in Landfills is the next thing. As Landfills reach their full capacity, new ones must be created to hold the next millions of tons of our trash. Space needs to be saved, and for that to happen we better choose recycling over dumping whenever we can. Especially with such long lasting materials like plastic.
Space is only one of the problems though. Certain microorganisms in landfills can actually speedup the degradation process of plastics, but this in turn releases methane, which contributes to global warming.
Other plastics contain toxic chemicals that leak out and pollute the soil and groundwater. Uncontrolled burning of plastic releases carcinogenic and toxic fumes.
Pretty bad and pretty ugly.
Symbol me Crazy
Plastic pollution is one of the biggest challenges the Earth is currently facing. In fact, one could argue that its environmental impact rivals that of climate change and overpopulation. We really need to cut down on our consumption of plastics and recycle whenever possible.
But not all plastics were created equal. There are many different types of plastic; some are recyclable and some are not. So how do we know which plastics can be separated for recycling?
The Society of The Plastics Industry (SPI) has developed a numbering system ranging from 1-7 that serves as a guide to help consumers know what plastics to recycle and how to separate them for recycling. This number appears on the plastic product/packaging/container, inside the chasing arrows recycling symbol, and a letter code that identifies the type of plastic is typically found underneath.
Decoding the Alphabet Soup
In an attempt to help consumers better understand these codes — which, lets face it, are as clear as mud — a simplified guide is outlined below.
As we can see from the above, plastic items numbered 1-6 can all be recycled, only items with number 7 cannot be recycled. However, the recycling effort is generated by the demand for the recycled material. If there is little or no demand for a material, recycling depots will have little to no incentive to recycle that material. Therefore not all recycling programs accept all types of plastic. Some recycling depots only accept certain types of plastic, so you would need to check what your local recycling program accepts and sort your plastic for recycling accordingly.
The Bottle Cap Dilemma
Depending on what type of plastic your recycling program accepts, it may be advisable to remove plastic caps from plastic bottles that are destined to be recycled. Very often plastic caps consist of a different plastic polymer to that of the bottle and they will therefore melt at different temperatures. Too many bottle caps can contaminate the load, however, the ring at the base of the neck can be left attached as a minimal amount of contamination will not affect the quality of the recycled plastic that much. If your recycling depot accepts polypropylene plastics (PP-5), which generally tends to be used for bottle caps, you can leave the caps on the bottles, or remove and hand to them separately to save them the trouble of sorting. If the caps are made from PET (1) or HDPE (2) plastic they can be recycled along with the bottles.
Good news is that plastic caps are collected and recycled separately in countries around the world, usually through initiatives with the aim to donate to people in need. Find out if there is such a collection program near you, and not only will you have the chance to save the environment from nasty plastic waste, but also to help fellow human beings.