- The first step to solving a problem is understanding it. Here, we break down the complex world of plastics so you can navigate your way through it better.
Plastic. It exists all around us – in the form of bags, bottles, packets, toys…the list is endless. It is choking our marine life, contaminating our air, soil and water and taking up ginormous amounts space in the landfills. And while we tend to club its variations under one big umbrella, it is important to know that doing so is unhealthy for the process of segregating, disposing and recycling it. The key to addressing the problem of plastic is to first identify its different variations and the problems unique to each composition.
Facts: Here are a few facts that put the problem in perspective:
Types of plastic
Plastic is broadly categorized into seven different codes based on the polymers used in the manufacturing of plastic products. The codes help to identify plastics that are and aren’t safe to recycle. Since it is difficult to give up all plastic use at once, knowing more about the different types can help you, the consumer, to eliminate the more harmful ones to begin with.
Polyethylene terephthalate AKA PET, PETE or Polyester
Items: Thin and clear containers for water and soft drinks, food jars, microwaveable trays
Recyclable: YES. Easy to recycle but can only be recycled once so its reuse is very limited!
Health impact: Under direct exposure to sunlight, it is known to leach harmful chemicals and endocrine disruptors that could lead to cancer, skin conditions and menstrual and pregnancy issues.
High-density polyethylene AKA HDPE
Items: Thicker, opaque containers for milk, juice, shampoo, detergent
Recyclable: YES. Can be recycled into secondary products
Health impact: Considered safe to use and recycle with minimal chances of leaching.
Polyvinyl chloride AKA PVC, Vinyl or V
Items: Rigid or flexible plastic used mainly in plumbing and cables but also in toys, packaging, oil jars, shower curtains, loose leaf binder, etc.
Recyclable: NO. Considered the most toxic and harmful form of plastic
Health impact: Contains carcinogens and endocrine disruptors that lead to hormonal and reproductive issues. Cannot be used in cooking or storing food item. Releases harmful dioxins when burned.
Low-density polyethylene AKA LDPE
Items: Soft and flexible plastic used mainly in cling films, courier bags (e-commerce packaging), bubble wrap, packaging for frozen foods, flexible container lids, garbage and grocery bags, etc.
Recyclable: YES Can be recycled but not accepted by all recycling facilities
Health impact: Relatively safer but can leach endocrine disruptors when exposed to sunlight.
Polypropylene AKA PP
Items: Hard and flexible plastic used in kitchenware and reusable microwaveable food containers, straws, bottle caps, ice cream containers, ketchup bottles, diapers etc.
Health impact: Relatively safe and stable and used for food containers.
Polystyrene AKA PS, Styrofoam
Items: Rigid and opaque plastic used in egg cartons, disposable cups and plates and disposable take away containers
Recyclable: NO. It contains neurotoxins
Health impact: It contains carcinogens and can release poisonous gases when heated.
Polycarbonate, Acrylic, Bioplastics
Items: All other plastics including acrylic, polycarbonate, copolyester and Bioplastics used in baby bottles, DVDs, sunglasses, prescription glasses, etc.
Health impact: Plastics in this category can contain carcinogens and endocrine disruptors
Why recycling is an important but short-sighted solution
Not all plastic is recyclable and some are easier and safer to recycle than others (as seen in the table above. PET, HDPE, PVC, and LDPE are the most commonly recycled. However PET and most other recyclable plastics can only be recycled once before they become too degraded to be useful again. Please note that the numbers on the recycling code refer to the plastic’s composition and not the number of times it can be recycled! It is a common misconception that most plastics can be recycled over and over again.
If plastic gets recycled into a fabric, it can’t be further recycled. And once that shoe or t-shirt made from plastic eventually breaks down, it cannot be thrown in a recycling bin. It WILL end up in a landfill.
Non-recycled plastic is usually sent to the landfill, incinerated or exported to other countries. Because plastic waste is not segregated by type at source, recycling is neither cheap nor does it prevent the production of virgin plastic.
Multi-layered Plastic– a whole new demon
Coffee cups and the packaging that encloses snacks like health bars, chocolates and biscuit packets have multi-layered plastics (MLP).While most multi-layered plastics have two sheets of plastic enclosing a layer of aluminum, MLP can be any material that has two layers of any material, one of which is plastic. Since there are different layers with different properties and they cannot be separated easily, recycling of MLP is too time-consuming and expensive, making it one of the largest categories of plastic waste.
The current Plastic Waste Management Rules 2018 (amended) are ambiguous on MLP creating loop holes for companies to continue to manufacture and use MLP.
Beware of the ‘Biodegradable’ plastic
Terms like ‘bioplastic’, ‘bio-based plastic’, ‘compostable’, and ‘biodegradable’ plastic are all the rage and are used interchangeably even though they are not synonymous. This can be confusing especially when you realize that not all these are actually biodegradable and some are even fossil fuel-based. Since these terms are used inconsistently, it can be difficult for us to clearly identify what is and isn’t biodegradable.
Simply put, something is biodegradable when living things like bacteria and fungi can break it down into natural end products like water and carbon dioxide. Biodegradable bags can be made from natural materials such as cornstarch and cellulose.
So ensure that you check the composition carefully before buying in to the claims of the product’s packaging details.
It is important to know that although biodegradable, the material needs a suitable environment to breakdown, something that landfills don’t offer. Ensure that you dispose off the biodegradable material responsibly – toss it in the compost or bury it in a mud patch.
Overwhelmed? Don’t be. Here’s how you can eliminate plastic use:
You can start by identifying and making a list of all the things in your daily life that involve buying or using plastic. Once you know how much of it is in your life you can start to look for alternatives. In general avoid single use or “use and throw” plastic most commonly found in packaging, bottled water and grocery bags. Below are tips and suggestions to help you in key areas:
Home and Kitchen
- Buy and store vegetables in reusable cloth bags
- Store food in glass containers
- Buy compostable or biodegradable garbage bags
- Compost food waste to avoid plastic garbage bags
- Avoid frozen convenience foods as they mainly have single-use plastic
- Buy fresh bread wrapped in paper or better still no bags
- Get milk in reusable glass bottles
- Make your own freshly squeezed juices or eat fresh fruit instead of buying in a plastic bottle or carton
- Make your own cleaning products using vinegar, water and baking soda
- Use natural cleaning cloths and scrubbers instead of plastic ones
Clothing and Fashion
- Wear plastic free fibers like cotton, hemp, silk and wool.
- Polyester, acrylic, lycra, spandex, nylon are all plastic fabrics that create microfiber pollution when washed
School and Office
- Use glass or steel water bottles
- Pack glass or steel snack/lunch boxes and eco friendly and reusable cutlery
- Use refillable pens instead of disposable
- Carry your own reusable cloth bags and say no to plastic bags
- Say no to any single use packaging
- Seek out environmentally friendly brands
- Think before you buy online as most things are packaged excessively with single use plastic
- Use a wooden or bamboo tooth brush and hairbrush
- Use a bar of soap instead of shower gel or liquid that comes in a plastic bottle
- Do not buy any cosmetics containing microplastics– avoid anything with ‘polyethylene’ listed as an ingredient
- Use a stainless steel safety razor instead of a disposable one
- Switch to plastic free menstrual products wherever possible
- Switch to cloth diapers for children
Zarir is an independent consultant with a decade of experience in the sustainability space. He also really enjoys tea, Lego, and playing football and basketball.