Updated: Oct 18, 2020
Plastic is a material that is hard to avoid in our current society. The phone or laptop you are using to read this? Yes - there's plastic in it. Your morning teabag or coffee? That probably took plastic to make, store, or ship. A bike, car, or bus used to get to work? They are plastic machines! We are surrounded by plastic in places we may not even realize - so what's the deal?
Part 1 of 4: THE BASICS.
To start, what even is plastic? In a more technical sense, plastic is termed as a polymer, which is defined as “having many parts”. Essentially this means that plastics and polymers are made of thousands of small molecules and can come in various types.
Types of plastic are categorized by a resin code (♺), which can usually be found on the bottom of the item.
These resin codes are used to help categorize plastics as each type has different chemical and physical properties, which prove best for varying applications. Plastics with better flexibility, for example, are best for things like bags or shampoo bottles. Stiff or harder plastics are better for commercial use like vehicles, children's toys, or for situations where the plastic may experience heat. The categories can help manufacturers, producers, and those in industry determine which material they are dealing with and how to dispose of it.
♳ Polyethylene (PETE or PET):
Polyethylene is one of the most commonly used plastics for consumer products, largely for items that are intended to be single-use. This can include soda and water bottles, as well as some packaging.
Tip: Carry around your own water bottle, mason jar, or thermos so you have a reusable option.
♴ High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE):
A harder plastic, HDPE is more resistant to deformation or a change in environment. It is used for applications that require something more integral such as household cleaners and detergent.
Tip: Reuse your cleaner containers and refill them, or make a green DIY version!
♵ Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC):
PVC's flexible nature makes it desirable as it can form to many shapes and designs. It is a soft plastic used in many food-related applications like storage and packaging.
Tip: Try to avoid plastic food packaging. For home and on-the-go, invest in beeswax wraps that can be rinsed and reused.
♶ Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE): LDPE is another plastic that is soft and flexible, and can be found most commonly as plastic bags like those for groceries or bread.
Tip: Bring your own tote or cloth bags when shopping. Leave a few in your car or purse/bag so you always have them!
♷ Polypropylene (PP):
Polypropylene is also amongst the most common in consumer products and recycling facilities. You will see its No. 5 resin code on items like yogurt containers, straws and hygiene products such as shampoo or diapers.
Tip: Make the switch to plastic-free bath products like shampoo bars.
♸ Polystyrene (PS):
Better known as styrofoam, PS is used for to-go containers or when contents need to remain heated. It can be melted and repurposed into new material; however, not all facilities have the proper technology to process it. Be sure to check with your local recycling service if they accept styrofoam, as most programs ask that you take it to a recycling depot.
Tip: Avoid styrofoam when you can, but if you must purchase it, be sure to collect it and return it to a depot for proper disposal.
The final resin code, No. 7, denotes plastics that do not fit into any of the above categories. Usually it means that it is a combination of plastics or mixed materials, and sometimes they are depicted with a blank resin code. They are beneficial when wanting to combine attributes of multiple materials or plastics together, but they are often un-recyclable as it is difficult to separate the original materials used during processing.
Tip: Try to steer clear of mixed plastics as they are landfill items. Repurpose items you already own, purchase second-hand, or source items locally to reduce your plastic impact.
Part 2 of 4: THE BENEFITS.
Plastic has unique material characteristics, making it ideal in some situations. Not to mention, the evolution of plastic and its uses has been momentous for our technology and building sectors. It was invented in 1907, meaning we have been using, improving, and re-designing it for over a century! Some of the beneficial properties of plastic include:
Flexibility: As plastics are composed of many small molecules or parts, they are receptive to moulding and movement. For applications that require a durable yet flexible material, plastics offer the best of both.
Some examples include:
Cars, airplanes, and other vehicles
Sporting gear like helmets and padding
Health + safety equipment
The flexibility of plastic also allows it to be used in applications that consist of complex designs and shapes that would otherwise be more labour and energy-intensive to create using materials like wood, metal, or a composite.
Lightweight: With plastic weighing between 50-80% less than average metals, and approximately 85% less than glass, it makes it a more appealing option for cargo and shipping applications. Did you know?
90% of the products used in your daily routine have been transported by ship or freight at some point in their lifecycle.
Lighter loads make for a more efficient journey in terms of speed and fuel consumed, which can have a huge impact for international voyages. Lessening a load's weight helps to reduce the environmental impact of shipping as well as the cost.
Chemical Resistance: Even with special coatings and chemical treatments used as prevention, it is in metal's nature to eventually rust. Plastic on the other hand, has extremely beneficial features in this regard as it does not corrode and is less likely to change when exposed to new environments.
Advancements in Innovation and Technology: Plastics have allowed our technology and innovation to grow and develop further. For example, they have become key components within the medical sector, in all areas of the field. They have allowed eyeglass frames and lenses to be lighter and more durable, they are pertinent components of modern prosthetics, and single-use plastics like gloves reduce cross contamination and the spread of illness at health and treatment facilities.
Plastics have also made a significant difference in improving design in sectors such as electronics, robotics and technology, infrastructure, and automotive applications. Its flexibility, lightweight, and chemical resistance proves useful in improving efficiencies and range of use.
Take your car for example - did you know?
" Plastics account for approximately 50% of the volume of a typical vehicle, but only 10% of its weight. "
Without plastic, your vehicle would be unable to withstand harsh and changing weather conditions, it would experience rust quicker, it would have a less efficient fuel economy and you would not have seat-belts nor carseats.
Plastics have allowed us to improve existing technologies, achieve greater scientific success, and create new and emerging inventions. They have allowed us to create protective gear, safety equipment, and improve medical treatments. Plastics have the potential to continue advancing our societies in ways other materials cannot, and their continued development could lead to exciting new innovations.
Part 3 of 4: THE BAD.
Though plastic can serve many purposes in our daily life, its disposal and waste has been a worsening issue. With the increase of single-use items and new plastics on the rise, there are some negative aspects of plastic we should all be aware of:
Disposal: Plastic is not the easiest to dispose of. As plastic does not occur naturally in our environment, it means we have to dispose of the material using a process as it will not decompose properly all on its own. Plastics can be disposed of through the following methods:
Reuse - Once rinsed or cleaned, plastic items can be used repeatedly in your daily routine. Cream cheese or peanut butter jars, for example, make great tupperware!
Recycle - Some plastics can be processed and turned into new materials using various forms of technology. Recycling lessens the amount of raw material needed to create new items, but it does require the use of energy.
Incineration - Material is burned, and the energy released during the combustion process is captured for use. (Typically it is cycled back into a plant to power portions of the incineration process, but it can also be used for other applications like providing heating/electricity to houses.)
Landfill - Plastics that are not reused, recycled nor incinerated will be sent to a landfill amongst other garbage to break down.
In a landfill, plastic can take upwards of 450 years to degrade, meaning every piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists today in some form.
Biodegradable Plastics: To start, it is important to explain the difference between the terms biodegradable and compostable. If something is compostable, it means that it will eventually degrade into naturally occurring elements. Plants, food waste, bamboo - these are examples of compostable materials. If a product is biodegradable, it means that it can degrade more readily than manmade materials, but does not breakdown fully. Instead, biodegradable materials and biodegradable plastics only degrade into smaller pieces.
The term "biodegradable" is a tricky thing to avoid as it is often used in an effort to greenwash consumers to make a product seem more sustainable than it really is. Other times, "biodegradable" may be used to describe something that is actually fully compostable, but those creating the advertising are unaware of the significant difference the two meanings actually have.
Tip: Look for items that are certified compostable - they will have a designated Composting Symbol. Also be sure to check with your local waste provider to learn what items they accept.
Biodegradable and compostable plastics are an exciting technology being developed, but there is definitely improvements to be done for their disposal. There is potential for these materials to replace daily plastic like packaging, but more research is required to improve these products.
Microplastics: You may have heard the term "microplastics" in the news or media recently and thought, okay, small plastics. But just how small are they really? Microplastics are defined as any piece of plastic that is less than 5 millimetres in diameter, and have been found to be as small as nano particles.
Experts believe that the naked eye — unaided by tools — can see objects as small as 0.1 millimetres. This means there are microplastics up to 100,000x smaller than we can see with the human eye!
Microplastics can be categorized further:
Primary - Primary microplastics are those created for a specific purpose, meaning they were manufactured intentionally. Plastic pellets and the abrasives found in cosmetic products are a few examples.
Secondary - Secondary microplastics are those that form due to the degradation and fragmentation of larger plastic items.
The difference between primary and secondary microplastics is an important distinction as it can be used for reduction targets, and to determine sources of pollution.
Pollution: Disposal, misconceptions about plastic, as well as microplastics can all be major contributing factors to pollution.
Misconception - Lack of awareness or confusion around plastic can lead to contamination within the various waste streams, meaning plastics are not meeting their diversion potential.
Microplastics - Their extremely small size causes them to slip through drains into our water systems, enter bodies of water, and allow them to be ingested by animals as well as humans.
Lightweight - Plastic's lightweight can also lead to land and water pollution as these items are picked up by wind readily, spreading as litter across our ecosystems.
Single- Use Items - Convenience tends to be a selling feature, which is why single-use items are so successful. These products are used once and then disposed of, which is incredibly wasteful.
PART 4 of 4: THE SOLUTION.
After reading this, you may be feeling like you have a complicated relationship with plastic. That's okay - so do we! It can be fantastic for applications in the medical and technology sectors, but it's associated waste and pollution can have a huge impact on the environment. So what's the solution?
Plastic waste and pollution does not have merely one solution. It requires collaboration between manufacturers and producers, governments, as well as action from an individual and local level.
Manufacturers + Producers:
Further research into the latter end of plastic lifecycles has the potential to increase the success of their disposal. With manufacturing industries mainly focusing on the application of the product, recovery can be overlooked, resulting in issues during the disposal process. Determining ways to improve how a polymer is created would assist in recognizing how that material will behave after it’s lifecycle, how it will degrade, and how it will decompose.
Shifting a focus towards products that have a longer life in general would also benefit consumers. Though potentially higher in price, items that last longer are an investment for consumers, and improve the reliability of producers.
There is a need for an increase in regulation from governing bodies on a municipal, provincial and national level. The lack of consistent regulation amongst locations makes it increasingly difficult for community members to learn a waste program and achieve success. Regulations and standardization could assist in decreasing the amount of inconsistency amongst practices. Other regulations could prove useful if they required manufacturers to be responsible for the items they create.
Government involvement can also assist with negating issues that arise with plastic recycling. Increasing regulations with stricter standards for manufacturing could create consistency amongst the industry, amongst practices, and amongst varying locations nationally. Regulations in this aspect could serve to hold manufacturers accountable for the products and materials they produce; thus, these companies would then be responsible for the disposal of what they are creating.
At all levels, the government needs to provide it's citizens with waste services that are reliable, accessible, and convenient for people to use. It is also key that governments and regulatory bodies provide sufficient education for it's residents. Public outreach and education can assist in reducing the impact on the environment, improve contamination at the source, and reduce the necessity for plastic-based materials in day-to-day life.
As consumers, we have the power to dictate what kinds of products are being designed, created, and manufactured. If an item doesn’t sell, it won’t be made. It is our duty to be mindful when purchasing goods, considering where the product came from, the energy that went into creating it, and how it will be disposed. Here are a few small changes you can try that will have a large impact:
Avoid single-use items and invest in reusables
Use what you already own, source second-hand, or buy local
Pick up litter
Most importantly, support local initiatives that are addressing the issues and advocating for change. Collaboration is they key for progress, and supporting grassroots movements happening in your community can go a long way!
We hope you now feel as though you have a better understanding of plastic as a whole, or that you at least learned something new! Be sure to share with your friends, family, and network to spread the word!
Read our other blogs and online resources to learn more ways you can adapt to reduce plastic in your daily life and be mindful of your consumption. We encourage you to connect with us if you have any questions. At Green Okanagan we are always happy to chat with and educate our community.
Information for this blog was sourced from the lecture notes and readings of Dr. Mohammad Arjmand, a Polymer Engineer and Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. Additional information was sourced from Plastics Make it Possible, Freightened, and GESAMP (Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine environmental Protection).