By Sonam Lhamo
Plastics are ubiquitous in our life; they are found in our common household items such as toothbrushes and toys, they make up parts in our cars, and they are used even in life-saving medical devices. Plastics are usually made from crude oil extracted from the ground and contain long chains of carbon atoms, along with various additives to make them more rigid or soft. Plastics are inexpensive, light, durable, and flexible for molding into different shapes, all of which make plastic a widely used material for a variety of products. We have benefited from plastics as they make our modern life more convenient. However, the majority of plastics (40%) produced each year -which are the single-use types like water bottles, shopping bags, and food packaging- persist in the landfills because they are very hard to recycle1. Most of these single-use plastics are not suitable for recycling because their quality breaks down during the recycling process. Even for recyclable plastics like the water bottle, only 30% of them actually get recycled. And while these single-use plastics are used for only a few minutes to hours, they persist in our landfills for tens to hundreds of years. For example, it takes 10 to 20 years for a plastic bag and 500 years for a plastic water bottle to break down in the landfills2. Because plastics persist in the environment for so long, they commonly leach into our waterways and oceans, which has devastating effects on marine lives.
Every year, around 8 million metric tons of plastic trash- equivalent to the size of 50,000 blue whales- ends up in the ocean. This is on top of the 150 million tons of plastic trash that is already circulating in the ocean3. When plastics end up in the ocean, marine animals like sea turtles and sea birds can get tangled up in plastic debris and suffocate. Or these animals can mistake the plastic for food and ingest them. When the plastic makes its way into the animal’s stomach, it can clog the animal’s digestive tract and choke the animal or fill up their stomach so much to the point that the animal cannot eat anymore. In fact, plastics are commonly found in the digestive tracts of marine animals. For instance, plastics were found in 60% of more than 100 different seabird species and in 50% of sea turtles and these numbers are predicted to increase to 90% by 20504.
So then, are we helplessly addicted to plastics or is there something we can do to reduce our plastic trash and pollution? One solution is to recycle plastics. But whether a plastic can be recycled depends on the type of plastic it is. The recycling code number listed on a plastic product indicates the type of plastic it contains and whether it is recyclable or not. Plastics that can be recycled include those with numbers 1 (plastic water bottles), 2 (milk jugs), and 5 (yogurt containers). Plastics with a number 4 (pipes) cannot be recycled safely since they produce a toxic gas during the recycling process. Plastics with a number 3, like grocery bags, cannot be recycled using curbside recycling boxes but there are grocery stores that have recycling drop-off boxes for these plastic grocery bags. Number 6 plastics (Styrofoam) are not recylable. Finally, number 7 plastics are difficult to recycle as they are made using a mixture of different types of plastics that need to be separated and recycled individually. Because of this complex process, these plastics are not accepted by recycling factories. More concerningly, some of these plastics are not even safe to use because they contain chemicals such as Bisphenol A or phthalates which are known as carcinogenic that can disrupt our hormonal balance5. Despite the fact that some plastics can be recycled, recycling them is a complex process because each type of plastic has a different melting temperature, which requires different recycling methods. On top of that, the quality of plastic degrades after each recycling process so that they are recycled only 2-3 times6. In contrast, products made of other materials like aluminum can be melted and recycled repeatedly without losing its quality.
Recently, it has become more expensive to recycle plastics in the U.S. In the past, China imported recyclable plastics from the U.S. which were then recycled and sold at a higher price in China. But due to foreign waste polluting their local environment, China stopped the import of recyclable plastics from the U.S. in 20187. China had also pledged to ban its production and sale of non-degradable bags and single-use plastic straws by the end of 2020 as part of its movement to reduce its plastic waste. The import ban increased the recycling cost of plastics in the U.S. because the recycling factories did not have the infrastructures to handle the huge amount of plastic wastes that used to be exported to China2. As a result, more plastics are ending up in the U.S. landfills, from where they can leach into the ocean and harm marine lives.
Another solution to reducing our plastic waste or production is to reuse them. It is safe to reuse plastics with numbers 2, 4, and 5. However, these plastics can become unusable if exposed to high temperature under the sun or during the cooking process. Plastics that should not be reused are those that can leach toxic chemicals under high heat such as those with numbers 1, 3, 7, and single-use plastic food packaging6. Banning single-use plastics in the first place will reduce plastic trash more dramatically since single-use plastics are the major plastics produced and trashed. As of 2020, eight U.S. states have banned single-use plastic bags in retail stores. A study has shown that after the ban took into effect in California, the number of retail plastic bags used decreased by 85% in just six months, as more people brought their own reusable grocery bags made of materials like cloth8. This study demonstrates that we humans are not as reliant on plastics as we might think and that there are other more environmental-friendly alternatives to plastics that we can use. To conclude, we do not have to fight against our plastic addiction alone. We can learn more about plastic altervatives and reducing plastic pollution by getting involved in organizations like Oceanic Society, Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5 Gyres, Algalita, Plastic Soup Foundation, or those found in our local community.