You’ll Never Look At A Soda Bottle The Same Way Ever Again
The general consensus among most people is that plastic is bad for the environment. A plastic bag blowing in the wind has become an icon of humankind’s impact on the world around us. We are told that plastic never biodegrades, that it ends up in our oceans, and that’s all true. I’m not arguing that plastic isn’t to blame for some very real ecological disasters, instead what I’m arguing against is the way we think about this material. Right now I’m taking Plastics II at Chico State, and what I’ve learned in there has changed the way I think about this topic. I want to get us past the blanket assumption that plastic is the cheap, dirty commodity that we’d be better off without. People should be informed about this material that has become such a huge part of our modern lives.
In order for the rest of this article to make sense, it’s important to understand some basics about plastic. The most common plastics in the world right now are are petroleum based commodity plastics. This means that greenhouse gas is produced during the production phase and that these plastics are commonly used in consumer trade goods.
Without these plastics, you’d have to live without your food foils to wrap the foodstuff, your highly resistant sacks, vending cups, and borders of the cars.
Funny Korean translation aside, the above graphic is actually pretty accurate and informative. Let’s dive in and explore some common myths and little known facts about plastics.
Myth: Bioplastics are the sustainable plastic of the future
Many people see the new bioplastics made from corn, sugarcane, or other natural sources and think that natural = sustainable. This is true in some regards, but it’s not black and white. Bioplastics definitely produce far less greenhouse gas than petroleum based plastics to be sure. Where bioplastics fall short is in areas like water use, land use, and solid waste creation. Furthermore, bioplastics are often assumed to be biodegradable, but that isn’t always the case.
Fact: Biodegradable doesn’t mean what you probably think it means
When a plastic is deemed “biodegradable,” what that actually means is this: 90% of the plastic must be converted to CO2 in 6 months in an industrial compost facility. In short, this means that your soda bottle made from sugarcane will not biodegrade in your backyard, the ocean, or pretty much anywhere else in nature. A more simple way to look at it is that the material has to be food for something else. Almost always bacteria, but some insects have been observed eating plastic as well.
Myth: Petroleum plastics can’t biodegrade
There are indeed fossil fuel based plastics that will biodegrade. One such product is called Ecoflex, and it is commonly blended with other biodegradable plastics and then turned into a finished product. Recently, Japanese researchers have found a strain of bacteria living near a PET recycling facility that secretes an enzyme that breaks PET into its component chemicals, which the bacteria then eats. This enzyme, called PETase, has the potential to make PET plastic infinitely recyclable.
Myth: Petroleum based plastics are inherently unsustainable
Petroleum based plastics like PET win out against their bio-based peers in important areas like land use and solid waste generation. Another important thing to note is that some petroleum based plastics are easier to recycle than bioplastics. New recycling advances like PETase may lead to a future where commodity plastics are truly sustainable.
Fact: It’s all about the additives
Plastics would be largely useless to us without additives and stabilizers that keep the plastic from breaking down during use. Common additives include plasticisers, UV protectants, fire retardants, and colorants. There are too many of these chemicals to count. While some are harmless, others can adversely affect human health and the environment. You might have heard of BPA, it’s commonly used in the manufacturing of Polycarbonate; the tough, clear plastic used in safety glasses, greenhouse walls, bulletproof windows, and some food containers. When a Polycarbonate container with BPA comes in contact with water, some of the BPA leaches into the liquid and then into you. BPA has been found in human breast milk and urine, and BPA has been linked to birth defects in animals. More and more, polycarbonate is made BPA-free, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s food safe. That being said, polycarbonate makes really good safety glass.
Myth: All plastics can be recycled.
Some plastic products are made of composites that are incredibly hard to recycle or even reuse. Take the heinz ketchup bottle for example. “The old bottle was made largely of polypropylene, which is not recycled commercially, and the barrier layer was attached by an adhesive, which made separating the plastics all but impossible.” Keep in mind that this information is all the way back from 1990, and the Heinz bottle is PET now. That being said, it illustrates the challenges faced by people who make everyday items like food packaging. Aside from composites, there are other types of plastic that you shouldn’t throw into the recycle bin. It’s important to understand that not all communities are equipped to recycle certain recyclable goods. As a rule of thumb, the higher the little number inside the recycling logo, the less likely you are to be able to recycle it. If you’re interested, you can find a list of materials and where to recycle them in Butte County here.
Myth: Recycled plastics are recyclable
PET is absolutely recyclable, but 100% recycled PET is almost useless by itself. What almost always happens is that recycled PET is mixed with “fresh” PET to make new products. Usually, recycled PET is made into products like carpet that . The plastic begins to Try not to think of this as dishonest so much as it is a necessity. Recycled plastics are much more sustainable than new plastics. The fact is that when you make a part out of new plastic, the heating and cooling causes the molecules to crystallize. The more you repeat this process, the more crystallization happens. Eventually, your plastic’s mechanical properties become abysmal.
The Bottom line
The problem is not that we use plastic, but that we overuse plastic. Either we figure out a sustainable way to use this technology, or we watch it contaminate our air and water. If you take anything away from this, it’s that you should always recycle your cans and bottles. Don’t stop there, actively try to avoid buying disposable products, no matter what material they’re made from. No matter how we as a society progress into the future, plastic is going to be there. Let’s just hope it’s safely in your home, and not the ocean.