Here’s Your Ultimate Guide to Understanding Why Our Plastic Crisis is a Manufacturing Issue, Not a Waste Issue
Let’s break it down (just the facts, because plastic will be around for HUNDREDS of years).
Did you know that plastic was only invented about 70 years ago? Did you know that there are many different kinds of plastic, not just seven? And that every piece of plastic ever produced still exists in some form today?
Plastic does not biodegrade, as far as we know. Even the massive amounts of plastic that is burned creates a byproduct of gas and residue. Those worst-of-the-worst leftovers are toxic. So… What’s the problem, right? We have recycling programs.
We aren’t talking crazy when we say plastic trash is not just an issue, it’s a crisis.
Truth: There is NO national law that mandates recycling.
Truth: Even in California, “recycled” plastics are often burned or sent to landfills.
Truth: The plastic crisis grows by 407 MILLION TONS of new plastic each year.
Truth: California lawmakers are debating bill AB1080 that would allow the production of "recyclable" PET and HDPE plastics to go unchecked. Again.
Here’s what we mean by unchecked manufacturing creating a plastic crisis...
Most often we see plastics referred to by their recycling code, even though less than 9% of all plastics produced are recycled. This is a convenient tool to use because it separates most plastic by polymerization type. And it makes everyone feel good, right? Thinking all plastics are recyclable? But we've got some unfortunate news.
They aren’t. Here's why.
The 7 codes for plastics and the truth behind their “recycling” symbols
NAME: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET/PETE) is a polymer resin that protects against water, oxygen, CO2, and most solvents. It’s structure makes it shatter resistant. PET is used to make things like single-use beverage bottles, carpet, plastic films, and food packaging.
MOST POPULAR USES:
- Soda bottles
- Water bottles
- Food packaging
- Liquids packaging (bottles)
- Oven-ready food trays
- Salad dressing bottles
- Medicine jars
- Peanut butter jars
- Jelly Jars
- Tote bags
- Fiberfill material in winter clothing
AMOUNT PRODUCED: 33 million tons annually
AMOUNT ACTUALLY RECYCLED (DOWNCYCLED): 30%
TRUTH ABOUT RECYCLING: Look around while you are walking down the street.. You’ll find a plastic bottle or chip bag in the gutter, on the beach, or shoved into the bushes. All that stuff ends up (usually) washing down a drain into the ocean or another water way. If someone picks it up, it might go into the garbage can. Even if you bring the plastic back to a recycling bin, less than 30% of that plastic will be recycled.
Now is the time to double down. China has stopped accepting our plastic trash, and more cities are scrambling to find ways to help recycling centers keep up. As long as WE keep up the pressure, cities and states around the country will be forced to look for better solutions. They will have to admit they can’t keep up with the waste.
Eventually, our government will have to set limitations on how much PET plastic can be produced. That’s what we really need to think about: stop the problem before it even starts.
DO SOMETHING right now: Sign the petition to add PET plastic to CA Bill AB 1080
When it is reclaimed and “recycled,” PET can be DOWNCYCLED INTO:
- textiles, carpets, pillow stuffing, life jackets, storage containers, clothing, boat sails, auto parts, sleeping bags, shoes, luggage, winter coats.
Learn more about why recycling is really downcycling here.
Here's what 33 MILLION TONS looks like:
NAME: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE/PEHD) plastics with pigment are used for packaging household items. They have a higher resistance to cracking and chemicals. Injection-molded containers make up the rest of HDPE. Think juice and milk containers, shampoo bottles, laundry detergent containers, bleach containers, kiddie toys, and even plastic bags.
Most Popular Uses:
- Milk jugs
- Soap containers
- Picnic tables
- Plastic bags
- Playground materials
- Juice containers
- Grocery bags
- Trash bags
- Motor oil containers
- Shampoo and conditioner bottles
- Detergent containers
- Bleach containers
AMOUNT PRODUCED: 52 million tons annually
AMOUNT ACTUALLY RECYCLED (DOWNCYCLED): 31.6%
TRUTH ABOUT RECYCLING: Did you know that HDPE can be recycled up to 10 times? This is what the plastic manufacturers say. However, look at the facts: this experiment was done in a lab, under strictly controlled conditions.
In reality, plastics are often contaminated and whole bales have to be burned or taken to landfills. There is hope that we can change the way we treat our plastic waste and reuse it efficiently in the future. What should we do until then? That’s a big question.
Fun fact: Did you know that there might be polyethylene (the basic polymer in HDPE) in your chewing gum? You're welcome for that visual.
- fencing, crates, patio furniture, flower pots, buckets, recycling bins
NAME: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is a resin that can be found in both rigid and flexible materials. It is used in building materials because it is nonconductive, chemical resistant, and strong.
Most Popular Uses:
- Carpet backing
- Electrical boxes
- Floor tiles
- Cling films
- Window frames
- Sewage pipes
AMOUNT PRODUCED: 38 million tons annually
AMOUNT ACTUALLY RECYCLED: Less that 1%
TRUTH ABOUT RECYCLING: Less than 1% of PVC is recycled each year… probably because it’s toxic. AVOID PVC. Harmful chemicals such as lead, vinyl chloride, and Diethylhydroxylamine (DEHA) are byproducts in the creation and disposal of PVC. These chemicals are linked with birth defects, cancer, and hormone disorders.
DOWNCYCLED INTO: decks, paneling, mats, mud flaps, roadway gutters and speed bumps.
NAME: Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE/LD) is a thermoplastic. It can be heated and frozen repeatedly in order to reshape the product. It is used to make packaging and film-like material because it is a resistant, flexible plastic.
Most Popular Uses:
- Computer components
- Food containers
- Plastic wraps
- Six-pack beverage rings
AMOUNT PRODUCED: 64 million tons annually
TRUTH ABOUT RECYCLING: Many recycling centers have stopped taking LDPE plastics altogether. The ring to your six pack is probably going to end up around the neck of a Seagull or a Sea Otter.
DOWNCYCLED INTO: shipping envelopes, paneling, tiles, plastic lumber, trash can liners and trash cans.
NAME: Polypropylene (PP) is another thermoplastic. Because it is so adaptable, it is the most commonly used plastic. It has a very high melting point, so it is often used in packaging that contains a hot liquid. PP is semi-transparent and has a low-friction surface so it is used in living hinges and textiles. It is a good electrical insulator so it is used in packaging and for automotive parts.
Most Popular Uses:
- Auto accessories
- Bike racks
- Garden rakes
- Shipping pallets
- Storage bins
- Plastic diapers
- Microwavable meal trays
- Margarine tubs
- Yogurt containers
- Prescription bottles
- Stadium cups
- Bottle caps
- Take-out containers
- Disposable cups and plates
AMOUNT PRODUCED: 68 million tons annually
DOWNCYCLED INTO: battery cables and cases, brooms, brushes, bicycle racks and ice scrapers
Polystyrene (PS) is a soft or rigid foam with a low melting point. It is usually used for insulation or packing material commonly called Styrofoam. When mixed with rubber it becomes a high-impact polystyrene.
Most Popular Uses:
- Plastic cutlery
- Protective packaging
- Some vending cups
- Thermal insulation
- Disposable coffee cups
- Plastic food boxes
- Plastic cutlery
- Packing foam
- Packing peanuts
AMOUNT PRODUCED: 25 million tons annually
TRUTH ABOUT RECYCLING: Well, the jury is IN on this plastic: PS is OUT! Although it is labeled as recyclable, most recycling centers in the US don’t take it. An estimated 25 billion Styrofoam cups are tossed every single year. Now multiply that by 10, because polystyrene is everywhere.
DOWNCYCLED INTO: Nothing. It isn’t recycled. BUT, you can use it at home. Refill bean bag chairs or stuffed toys that have flattened out. Add it to the bottom of giant planters to lower weight (unless you’re planting edibles). Use it as homemade insulation. Check Pinterest.
You guessed it-- #7 "recycling" symbol means NOT RECYCABLE. Yes, you read that right.
UPWARDS OF 100 MILLION TONS PRODUCED EACH YEAR
Polycarbonate (PC) is transparent and extremely strong. Uses include: greenhouses, riot gear.
Acrylic (PMMA) is transparent, scratch resistant, and doesn’t shatter like glass. Uses include: eyeglasses.
Acetal (Polyoxymethylene, POM) has a high resistance to chemicals, water, heat, and scratching. Uses include: gears.
Nylon (PA) is heat resistant, is compatible with chemicals, and is very strong. Uses include: rubber reinforcement, clothing, rope, thread, injectable molded parts.
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is extremely resistant to corrosive chemicals and high impacts. Uses include: 3D printing, injection mold manufacturing.
Is there any Future for Plastic? Perhaps Bioplastics?
Polylactic Acid (PLA) is a #7, non-recyclable plastic made from fermented plant-based (usually corn) starch. Because it is created from biomass instead of petroleum, it is considered a safer and better alternative to traditional plastics. Right now, PLA is considered a #7 plastic. It has the same float properties as PET plastic, and sorting machines can’t tell them apart. This is a problem because plastic can become contaminated and whole batches are deemed unusable if contamination occurs.
Hopefully you have a better understanding of all the different types of plastic now. Almost everything we buy today comes with some sort of plastic attached, and this is why we are in crisis. Plastic is cheap, easy, and light-weight. Manufacturers can use additives to make it strong, almost indestructible - making it highly profitable. The only way forward is to hold the companies, and THE MANUFACTURERS, who make these products accountable for the waste they create.
They get rich and we (and especially marine life) drown in poisonous garbage.
In the meantime, we can make better decisions. Stop buying fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic (hey, Trader Joe’s…). Bring your own cup to the coffee shop. Take bags with you to ALL stores (not just the grocery store). Refuse straws, and stop buying water in single-use plastic bottles.
PATHWATER offers a sustainable option in the first reusable, refillable aluminum bottle. Better yet, bring your own bottle from home. Whichever way you go, make sure you #RefillNotLandfill.