Did you know that from nearly 30 million tons of plastic yearly thrown to our bins, only 1,8 million can actually be recycled? This stands for 6% of hope that we start caring about our environment. Yet it is not even close to where we should stand as a society when it comes to managing our plastic waste and protecting our planet.
Not many people know that they are actually many different kinds of plastic with some being targeted by the municipal recycling programs more than others. Knowing the difference can help us make more informed decisions about both environment and our health. Let's take a closer look on some of the most common.
1. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET/PETE/polyester)
Together with HDPE these are the plastics most frequently included in the community recycling programs. It is largely used in the textile manufacturing and and in food and drink packaging. It is mostly due to its strong ability to maintain liquid and gas barrier - so that we can enjoy our fizzy drink (since carbon dioxide is trapped inside of the bottle) and fresh food (oxygen cannot get in to spoil it). There has been a research made on the relatively high toxicity of PET due to antimony release that might cause respiratory problem, skin-irritation and possible miscarriage. This has not yet been proven but as they say - better safe than sorry.
2. High density polyethylene (HDPE)
Mostly used in grocery and garbage bags as well as shampoo bottles, this is probably the most widespread type of plastic in the world. HDPE have the most basic chemical structure which makes it very use to process and use, especially in packaging. The polymer chains they are made of align very easily and therefore come out as more resistant, stronger version of polyethylene. Since HDPE packaging is popular for household detergents, it can be reused only as a non-food, non-drink containers. HDPE products are safe and commonly recycled.
3. Polyvinyl chloride (V/Vinyl/PVC)
One of a kind type of plastic which whole life cycle is highly toxic. From manufacturing to disposal, it poses a serious threat to both environment and our health. What is even worse is that this plastic is very rarely recycled. Why? Because it contaminates the recycling stream making it even more dangerous. Fortunately its production has decreased significantly but since it is cost-effective, PVC is still being used in many industries across the world. You can find it in toys, shower curtains, take away food packaging but also blood bags, window frames and credit cards.
4. Polystyrene (PS)
We know this one very well from the disposable coffee cups and take away food containers. It can be very easily formed which together with low production cost make it versatile and popular in many industries. You can also find in disposable cutlery, egg boxes, dvd cases and bike helmets. The recycling rate is again very low because PS is very hard to recycle. What is more, disposable coffee cups are usually made of a combination of plastic and paper which makes it extra hard to recycle. It can however make a way back through recycled packaging and thermal insulation.
It is hard to imagine our life without plastic. And I don't ask you to do it. It is probably impossible to eliminate plastic completely but we can diminish its use and consequently its negative effect on the environment. Nowadays, there are so many alternatives it is really only up to us to choose the right thing. Sometimes the solutions are on the plate, sometimes they might need a little help. Here is the challenge for you: On the next visit in your favorite coffee shop do ask about eco-friendly disposable coffee cup. Even if they don't have it, the more people will ask the more likely it is they will start considering eco alternatives. It is a basic rule of supply and demand. You can also take coffee in a ceramic mug instead! Not only it is a better experience but it saves the plastic tops and cardboard heat shields too. Also, read about fair trade coffee choices in my previous blog post here.
Sometimes we ask: Ok, but what will get out of it? Well, quite a lot really! Starting from a discount in main coffee chains for using reusable cup, to tastier and healthier food (glass food containers; fresh bread) to finally simply being cool when pulling out that sustainable cup in your library or bringing groceries in paper bags home. Doesn't matter if your motivation is saving, image, health factors or genuine concern for our planet. We might have different reasons to become more aware of the environmental issues and the consequences of our actions. What matters is that by the end of the day we can add to this 6% of hope and see the change we are making.