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by Kelly Secrest July 22, 2020 7 min read

How Plastic Is Made

The first step to understanding how harmful plastics are to our bodies and the environment is by learning how they are created. Plastics are composed of materials such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine and sulfur. However, most plastics are composed of carbon atoms. When large pieces of plastic erode over time, they break down into smaller pieces. This may be due to weather, sunlight, or physical stress and can take between 450 to 1,000 years. There are tiny pieces of plastic covering the ocean called microplastics, and they can be found on the seafloor, in the sand and carried by the wind. These pieces are about five millimeters (the size of a sesame seed) and smaller. Microplastics are made of various materials and come in multiple forms, including fragments, pellets, beads, fibers and film. Some may contain harmful chemicals, and others have bacteria and parasites.

Photography Credits: Fun Kids

How Much Plastic Do We Eat?

National Geographic is concerned about research showing microplastics in alcohol, salt, seafood and even honey. A person meeting the recommended water intake is expected to ingest 4,000 additional plastic particles annually. If you only drink bottled water, the amount increases to an average of 90,000 particles. These statistics are probably already shocking, and these numbers are supposedly underestimated. Of course, you should not stop drinking water to avoid consuming these particles as it would be impossible and harmful to your health. However, there are ways to reduce the number of microparticles you consume. You can buy a water filtration system and make a conscious effort to stop drinking water from plastic bottles. To make this change, you can buy a reusable water bottle. If you are in a situation where you have to drink from a disposable plastic bottle, make sure that you keep it out of the heat to minimize the number of microparticles released.

 

Photography Credits: International Fiber Journal

So, why does it matter if we consume microplastics? The culmination of a lot of these particles in a person’s system can cause damage and affect the immune system. A person’s gut balance can also be thrown off by ingesting these particles. However, there is still lots of uncertainty as to how these microparticles will affect us over time.  

Photography Credits: Research Gate

Why Plastic Is Bad/ Plastic Pollution

It is essential to work toward moving into a plastic-free environment. Even with steps to recycle and reuse, plastic is non-degradable and causes pollution. Plastic pollution can harm humans, animals, land, water and plants. When there is plastic pollution in the environment, it can take hundreds to thousands of years for the plastic to break down. It can release toxins that will seep into the soil and groundwater impacts all ecosystems and humans through their diet. One of the most significant contributors to litter is the plastic and styrofoam fast-food wrappers and cups. Plastic bottles, straws and grocery bags also have a considerable negative impact. A total of $67 million dollars was spent on litter removal in just one year in California. This number is enormous for a task that can be quickly decreased if everyone joined to make the Earth a cleaner place. Over a million marine animals like fish, sharks, turtles, seals, and birds are killed each year due to plastic pollution. It is estimated that there are 100 million tons of plastic in the ocean around the world, and fishing equipment makes up more than 85% of the ocean’s plastic pollution.

Photography Credit: Coastal Care

Marine mammals can suffocate, starve or drown when they become entangled in plastic or ingest debris. Over a million marine animals, such as fish, sharks, turtles, seals and birds are killed each year due to plastic pollution.  The United Nations claims that at least 800 species worldwide are threatened by marine debris, and as much as 80 percent of the litter is plastic. For example, it is estimated that 52% of the world’s turtles have swallowed plastic products because plastic bags appear to be jellyfish, algae or other parts of their diet. 

Photography Credit: Sustainability Times

Is Plastic Recyclable?

Everyone can do their part to recycle the plastic they use and make sure they know what each recycling code means.  If you look at the label of any piece of plastic you use, it will have a triangle with three arrows, and there will be a number ranging from 1 to 7.  This “chasing arrows” symbol does not mean that the plastic container is automatically recyclable.  It is easy to overlook and ignore these recycle codes, but the tiny digit, or ID, is veryimportant. The number represents a resin identificationcodeused by recycling plants to sort the materials.  It helps people that recycle determine what items to place in recycling bins and which need to go in the trash.


Here is what each number represents:
Plastic #1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE)

  • Examples: soft drink bottles, mineral water, food containers, cooking oil
Plastic #2: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
  • Examples: milk jugs, cleaning agents, detergent bottles, bleaching agents, shampoo bottles, washing and shower soaps
Plastic #3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
  • Examples: trays for sweets, fruit, plastic packing, food foils, shampoo and window cleaner bottles
Plastic #4: Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
  • Examples: crushed bottles, shopping bags, squeeze bottles
Plastic #5: PP (Polypropylene)
  • Examples: furniture, luggage, toys, bumpers, car parts, yogurt containers, ketchup bottles
Plastic #6: Polystyrene (PS)
  • Examples: Toys, hard packing, refrigerator trays, cosmetic bags, costume jewelry, CD cases, vending cups
Plastic #7: Other
  • Examples: Acrylic, polycarbonate, nylon, fiberglass

This chart explains what each of these plastics can transform into when recycled.

Photography Credit: The Old Farmer's Almanac
Some of these plastics are recycled a lot more than others.  Plastics #1, 2 and 5 are commonly recycled.  Plastics #3, 6 and 7 are rarely recycled, and plastic #4 is sometimes recycled.  There is a chart below to summarize the frequency that each plastic is recycled.  It can often be confusing as to why we should not recycle every piece of plastic with a number and arrow sign.  Most cities will collect the #1 and #2 plastics as they have a stable end market, and there is lots of demand.  On the contrary, plastics #3 through #7 require a different process to recycle the materials and have a different end market.  This market has lower demand, and it is often easier and cheaper to begin reconstructing a new plastic than gather the parts needed from recycling.  Each city has different recycling rules, and it is vital to pay attention to which numbers your city collects.

Photography Credit: BBC News

Are Plastic Bags Recyclable? Can Plastic Straws Be Recycled?

Plastic bags are not recyclable through most curbside recycling services because they require different systems to process the materials.  This includes the shopping bags you use every time you go to the store.  However, many national grocery retailers such as Safeway, Krogers, Target and Walmart, will offer a bag recycling collection inside their store.  These bins are typically located near the front entrance.  In addition to the shopping soft plastic bags, you can recycle food packaging, bread bags, plastic liners from cereal boxes, produce bags, dry cleaning bags and the plastic wrapping from newspapers in these storage bins.


Here is a useful website: Earth 911 where you can click on materials, and based on your zip code, it will provide a guide on how you can recycle an item and present addresses of locations where you can drop the item off. 
You can also dial 1-800-CLEANUP to find out about your local recycling options.

Photography Credit: Grady Newsource

Which Plastic is Safe?

It is best to avoid plastic entirely, but if you must use plastic products, it is helpful to understand which are the safest. It is recommended that plastics #2, 4 and 5 are the safest. It is suggested that people avoid using plastics #1, 3, 6 and 7. There are specific reasons for the approval of each plastic, and it is best to do your research when using these materials. Plastic #1, commonly used for soft drink bottles, water, and fruit juice containers, is supposed to be used only once. For example, bottles deteriorate quickly and collect toxins and germs. These materials can not be left in hot places like your garage or car, as heat is the catalyst that releases the chemicals. You might think that it is only dangerous to consume products from the heated plastic, but even breathing near these plastics can cause damage to your health. Plastic #3, such as wrapping of packaged items, toys, blister packaging, is not safe as it contains a carcinogen called styrene. It is best always to avoid these products as they can disrupt normal hormone functions, cause cancer and create a reproductive or developmental disorder. Plastic #6 makes up most styrofoam products and can cause neural and genetic damage. Getting exposed to styrene can cause reproductive failure and lymphoma. Although some are safer than others, all plastic materials can secrete toxic chemicals when they are damaged or heated. Of course, nobody can altogether avoid the use of plastics because they have so many purposes in our daily lives. However, we need to reduce our reliance and exposure. This effort to dispose appropriately and recycle will produce a safer environment and provide benefits to your health.

Photography Credit: Center for Ecotechnology

How To Do Your Part:

  • Check to see which plastic numbers your city recycles

  • Use reusable containers, shopping bags, or coffee cups

  • Choose products with less packing

  • Keep yourself and the environment healthy by avoiding plastic use to the best of your ability

  • Buy in bulk

  • Support a plastic bag tax or ban

  • Support a plastic straw ban

  • Flatten plastic bottles to prevent litter and to save space in the recycling truck

  • Purchase products with post-consumer recycled materials

  • Show support to organizations and coalitions with environmental initiatives

    • Buy merchandise from our website to help us support fighting ocean plastic

    • Donate to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, The Ocean Cleanup, etc.

    • Participate in cleanups

    • Volunteer with your spare time

 


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