We give you some information about what happens to the plastic we throw away and what can be done to reduce its impact on the environment
Manufacturers love plastics. They’re cheap to make, light to transport, durable and flexible, and can be made into all sorts of useful things. 50 billion plastic water bottles are created every year. The problem is, making them go away.
Whoever came up with the term ‘degradable plastic’ has a lot to answer for. The idea that ‘degradable’ means things will eventually simply disappear into thin air is a myth, and Friends of the Earth point out that it only encourages littering and casual waste. It’s degradable, so it’ll soon be gone? Wrong.
There are several sorts of degradable plastics.
Photodegradable plastics are broken down by light. They include oil-based plastics like PET, which most water bottles are made from (see below). If they go into landfill, they don’t readily break down, because they are not exposed to sufficient UV light or oxygen. When they do break down, through the action of light, heat, oxygen or mechanical stress (such as the action of the sea), they don’t separate into harmless chemical components but simply fragment into tiny pieces which remain in the environment.
Biodegradable plastics are broken down by bacteria. They’re usually made from renewable materials that can be broken down by naturally-occurring micro-organisms into simple natural compounds such as carbon dioxide and water. But labelling something biodegradable doesn’t mean there is any set time scale for this to occur – it could take centuries.
Compostable plastics are a developing subset of biodegradable plastics which are designed to break down in a composting environment and leave no toxic residue. It’s a good theory, but most of us don’t have compost heaps with actions anything like the EU industrial-standard ones that these plastics are tested in. And although plastics made from corn starch are in development, they’re are not yet durable enough to be widely used, and need water and air to compost properly – commodities that are in short supply in a landfill pit.
Bio-based plastics are made from ‘renewable biomass’, such as sugar cane. The production process produces lower levels of carbon dioxide than the manufacture of conventional plastics, but campaigners point out that the CO2 produced by the necessary farming, pesticide production, harvesting and crop transportation crops should really be taken into consideration.
Can we burn it?
There is ongoing research into whether we could get rid of our plastic waste by burning it, and in turn, producing energy. A win-win? But the amount of energy you can get from burning plastics is far less than the amount that can be saved by recycling it. In addition, incineration contributes to climate change, increasing the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere, creating air pollution and toxic ash.
It’s also a spectacular waste of valuable resources. Burning plastics is burning oil – and then we want more plastics, so we continue mining, transporting and manufacturing more and more. Incinerators need a steady stream of waste to keep them going. That removes any incentive for reducing waste or recycling, and just completes the vicious circle – we have to keep making new plastic stuff and then burning it, just to feed the incinerators!
Can we bury it?
Bulky plastics take up a lot of space in land-fill sites, space that now comes with hefty taxes and penalties attached. Even so-called degradable items can last an awful long time when there’s no light, water or air to help break them down. Even if you chop a plastic bottle into pieces, it will probably take more than your lifetime to decompose. The arguments about wasting valuable resources and climate change still apply, and plastics in landfill can leach toxic chemicals into the soil and waterways, and then into the plants and animals that consume that water. Toxic chemicals related to the breakdown of plastics include PCBs, DDT, phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA), a controversial chemical used to make plastic hard and clear, which can disrupt hormones in animals and humans, and has been banned from use in baby bottles. Right now, around 80% of the plastic water bottles we buy end up in landfill.
Can we dump it into the sea?
According to the Ocean Conservatory, every square mile of the ocean has over 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it. In 2012 it was estimated that there was approximately 165 million tons of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Marine debris includes netting, plastic bags and food containers, which can ensnare and kill wildlife. Smallish chunks of plastic like bottle tops are frequently consumed by marine animals including sea turtles, fish and birds, and can kill them by blocking their digestive systems. One albatross found dead on a Hawaiian island had 119 bottle caps in its stomach, and the confused birds often bring pieces of plastic to the nest to feed their chicks.
The unseen plastic debris is even more frightening. Plastics gradually break down in the ocean, releasing toxic chemicals and producing tiny, even microscopic, plastic pieces small enough for fish and the smallest marine organisms to consume. It’s at this point that plastics enter the food chain. Of course, that’s another good reason to feel good about not eating animals, but as vegans, if we use and discard plastics, we are just as guilty as everybody else when it comes to global marine pollution and the death and injury it causes to animals.
What are we wasting?
17 million barrels of oil per year are used to make plastic bottles. If you take an empty water bottle, and fill it a quarter full, that’s a fair indicator of the amount of oil that was used to make it. Interestingly, it is also said that it takes three times more water to make a plastic bottle than it does to fill it.
Can we re-use it?
It’s pointless to recycle when you can re-use things as they are, but at present it is still more cost-effective for manufacturers to buy new plastic bottles than it is for them to wash and refill used bottles. You can re-use bottles at home, but it doesn’t go much further than that. There are some shops that will allow you to bring in your own bottles for filling, or offer incentives for you to reuse their packaging. It’s always worth asking.
Upcycling isn’t a way to justify buying as much plastic packaging as you please, but it can be fun and might even be lucrative! There are lots of ideas out there…
Clever upcycling ideas
- Trashion – Marina DeBris (washedup.us) is an Australian artist now living in LA who uses marine pollution to create outfits that are somewhere between high fashion and art.
- Find Sherron Heidlage’s inspiring site, Plastic Bottle Crafts, on Pinterest.
- Read Stephanie Lynn’s blog post, 25 things to do with empty plastic bottles, for photos of bird feeders, herb planters and an amazing hanging garden.
- Check out boredpanda.com to find 23 Creative Ways to Reuse Old Plastic Bottles, with ideas for making a chandelier, a broom, a mosaic and more.
- Visit designrulz.com for gorgeous screens and curtains and an amazing carport!
Recycling makes sense
Recycling plastic bottles means conserving oil and water, reducing the amount of plastics in landfill which can harm wildlife and leave behind dangerous chemicals, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling 1 ton of plastic bottles saves 3.8 barrels of oil and saves 5.5 cubic metres of landfill space.
There are many types of plastics, but the ones most commonly accepted for recycling are polyethelene terephthalate (PET) and HDPE. PET bottles are thin and often used for fizzy drinks and water. HDPE bottles are generally thicker and more rigid. Both are easy to recycle. Yet for every six plastic bottles we buy, only one is recycled.
Recycling bottles involves either melting them down directly and re-using them right away, or making pellets for later re-melting, to form new things. Plastic pellets can be melted and extruded into fibres which are stretched and baled, and can be used for all sorts of textile applications. It only takes twenty-five two-litre plastic bottles to make an adult-sized fleece!
What they can make out of plastic bottles?
- More plastic bottles – the ultimate aim is to close the loop so that every plastic bottle is entirely made from recycled plastic bottles.
- Other stuff: Doormats, textiles, bin-liners, carrier bags, CD and DVD cases, garden furniture, flooring, window frames, building insulation board, office accessories, carpet and upholstery fabric, synthetic decking, synthetic felt, playground equipment, filling for sleeping bags and duvets and padded coats, water butts, compost bins, fleeces, hats, yoga pants and even business suits!
Friends of the Earth says recycling plastics:
- Saves raw materials – extracting raw materials is a key cause of global habitat loss.
- Is energy-wise – recycling plastic saves five times the energy created by burning it.
- Costs less than landfill or incineration – and generates cash for local authorities (or independent organisations, schools and charities) that collect materials and sell them to recycling centres.
- Creates jobs, from kerbside collection and sorting to work in recycling plants.
- Helps us towards a ‘cyclic’ and sustainable way of living.
What can you do?
- Don’t buy bottled water. Invest in a reusable BPA-free container and fill it from taps and public drinking fountains.
- Don’t buy plastic if you can avoid it.
- Avoid over-packaged goods, and complain to the manufacturer if you think the amount of packaging is excessive.
- Avoid plastic cups – get yourself a mug!
- Re-use plastic bags (or avoid them altogether and make your own unique recycled fabric shopper).
- Re-use pots with lids for storage.
- Use plastic containers for growing seeds, and use cut-down clear plastic bottles to protect them from slugs when you plant them out.
- Ask suppliers if they will take back plastic items for re-use. Some garden centres will accept used plant pots, and some shops will re-fill their own containers.
- Give re-usable plastic goods to charity shops, or use Freecycle or similar online networks to find new homes for things you don’t want.
- Recycle whatever you can. Contact your council if they’re not providing adequate facilities.
- If you’re buying plastic, look for products made of recycled plastic wherever possible.
- Encourage recycling in your workplace or school.