Okay the time has finally come for me to explain my position on plastic. A lot of people I talk to tend to fall into one of two categories: they either think I am totally anti-plastic or they think I’m over-reacting because plastic can be recycled… the truth actually lies somewhere in between these two extremes. I’ll err towards other materials over plastic, but sometimes it is unavoidable, and that’s okay – I’m not expecting everyone to suddenly remove all plastic from their lives, but I would like people to reduce their dependence on plastic items when more eco-friendly alternatives are available (and often cheaper).
There are so many different angles to discuss when it comes to plastic, so I’m going to start at the beginning of the manufacturing process and go all the way through to why I consider BPA-free plastics to be a load of BS!
So plastic begins life as a nurdle – tiny little pellets that look kind of like fish eggs, and unfortunately there has been an occasion where giant sacks full of nurdles have broken open in the ocean and, despite a massive clean-up effort, some of the nurdles have been consumed by marine life. These nurdles are the raw material from which manufacturers then go on to make the plastic items we come into contact with each day.
Other substances will be added to the nurdles during the manufacturing process in order to achieve a desired finish – as in how hard or flexible the plastic should be, how opaque should it be, will the plastic be on it’s own or will it be used to coat another substance etc? This leads to there being different types of plastic – and not all can be recycled! So, here’s how to know which plastics can be recycled: Somewhere on the item or the packaging the item came in there will be a triangle with a single number inside, ranging from 1-7, and some letters below the triangle. The number will tell what ‘family’ the plastic belongs to and will also indicate whether the item can be recycled; the letters underneath will tell you which specific type of plastic you are dealing with.
1 – PETE – usually clear and commonly used to form bottles. Will usually be recycled into carpeting and clothing fibres… in fact the plastic microfibres in clothes are being lost in the washing machine and ending up in the oceans, affecting marine life – if you have any fabrics containing plastic microfibres (and I pretty much guarantee you have!) then I highly recommend purchasing a super fine mesh laundry bag (such as a Guppy Friend) which will catch all the plastic particles in the was and prevent them from entering our waterways.
2 – HDPE – usually used for items such as milk bottles (come join me in having the milkman deliver glass milk bottles) and toiletries containers. Widely recycled and will typically wind up as pens or may be turned into fencing panels. This type of plastic is one of three types of plastic considered to be safe and has less chance of leaching chemicals into the product it contains (i.e. the milk).
3 – V or PVC – think food wrap, cooking oil bottles, even some shampoo bottles. It is unlikely your local recycling centre (or roadside collection) will accept this type of plastic. If you do live in an area that will accept it, your items will likely end up as flooring. Many of these types of plastic contain phthalates which have been linked to numerous health issues, and many will also contain DEHA which has also been linked to health issues as well as being considered carcinogenic with long-term exposure. NEVER burn these types of plastics! If you can’t live without wrapping your sandwiches in cling film then relax – there’s an eco-friendly alternative that I’ll be talking about in a later post.
4 – LDPE – Squeezy bottles, shopping bags (when you forget to take your cotton ones to the supermarket) and even the bag the bread comes in. Check with your local recycling centre as to whether they will accept this type or not – if they do, your old items will likely end up as a bin liner or postage bag. Number 4 plastics are also in the ‘safe’ category.
5 – PP – Usually found in yoghurt pots and medicine bottles. Is often recycled into car ice scrapers and bins. Also considered to be a safe plastic.
6 – PS – Polystyrene, or Styrofoam, which you will most likely come across in a package to protect the contents from being damaged in transit. You may also find it in CDs and disposable partyware. PS usually cannot be recycled but where possible may find its way to becoming insulation.
7 – Other, Misc – this is basically all other types of plastics that fall into any of the other 6 categories. Common items in this category include sunglasses, consumer electronics cases and nylon materials. Again, check with local recycling centres for specific items.
So yes, most plastics can be recycled but that’s definitely not the answer to our problems. The recycling process still requires a large amount of energy and water, albeit slightly less than producing plastics from raw materials making it the better option, but certainly not the best option.
I’ve said before that all the plastic ever produced is still in existence in one form or another, whether they’re recycled into something else or are sent to landfill. When you throw plastic away it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces – and has been found to have entered the food chain… the small pieces (sometimes whole pieces) of plastic are ingested by animals which are then consumed by us.
For some species this consumption of plastic is filling up their stomachs and preventing them from being able to consume their regular diet, resulting in starvation. As mentioned earlier some plastics can contain carcinogenic links and some are also known to have hormone disrupting properties, such as being able to mimic the effects of oestrogen in the body. When our food eats these plastics, so do we! Sometimes our consumption of these chemicals from plastics doesn’t come from the animals we eat but directly from the packaging the food comes in from the supermarket… Some plastics are sensitive to, and leach into our food as a result of, extreme heat (when put in the oven or microwave) and cold (when placed in the freezer, plus there are those that require no extremes at all, for instance the BPA found in the lining of some cans.
Ahhh the great BPA debate! So BPA has been found to leach from the container into the food/drink item contained within. In laboratory tests on animals BPA has been found to be carcinogenic and hormone disrupting, so everyone jumped on the ‘stay away from BPA’ bandwagon. In most cases BPA was replaced with BPS but when tested under the same conditions, BPS was found to be just as bad as BPA, yet no one seems to be trying to avoid BPS – I have seen hundreds of plastic items advertising themselves as BPA-free but only a couple also advertising themselves as being BPA & BPS free. So, in theory BPA and BPS are bad and should be avoided, right? Well, not so fast… like I said, these tests took place on laboratory animals and the levels of BPA/BPS administered was extremely high. I recall reading a study in which the levels of BPA being being passed in human urine was measured but to this day no one yet knows how much exposure is considered dangerous to humans. The bottom line: lets try to reduce our plastic usage in general, then whatever essential plastic remains in our lives, whether it contains BPA or not, is unlikely to have an impact our health. It will always have an impact on the environment and wildlife though… so please consider the true cost of an item before purchasing and decide if you really need it.
Earlier I mentioned the nurdles that have made their way into our oceans and consumed by marine life. I’ve also talked about the plastic microfibres that are being released from our clothes, but there is also another area that causes plastic to enter our waterways: toiletries. From toothpaste to exfoliating body wash – you’ll likely find tiny microbeads that will be washed away through your sewers and, because they’re so small, will find their way into the ocean… and I think you can already guess what is likely to happen to them then.
So this is obviously not the most comprehensive guide on plastics out there, and I’ll no doubt revisit the subject another time, but I hope it’s a good starting point for you to begin reducing your reliance on plastic. If you have any questions about plastics, just let me know and I’ll do my best to either answer myself or point you in the right direction.