Plastic is a part of our everyday lives, we all know what it is, and we all use it. There is virtually no way to avoid this man-made material. Without realizing it, we have become reliant on plastic for our packaging, to store food, to make toys, furniture, and more.
We know that plastic causes problems for the environment. We've all seen the horrifying, heart-wrenching videos of the impacts of plastic waste on marine life. From animals ingesting it to using up our finite natural resources, there's very little doubt that switching to a more environmentally alternatives will be much better for our planet.
However, to understand the scope of the problem, we need to understand the life cycle of plastic. Where does it come from, and where does it go once we've discarded it.
Understanding the Life Cycle of Plastic
The life cycle of plastic begins with the extraction of crude oil or natural gas. The environmental impacts of methods such as fracking have gotten a lot of attention in the news, but all methods of oil and gas extraction have environmental costs. This is just the beginning of the impact of plastics on our environment.
Once extracted, raw materials are sent to be turned into the main building blocks of plastic. They are chemically broken down into propylene and ethylene and then, through catalyzed polymerization, modified to become resins. These resins are the main ingredient in the durable, flexible plastic products we've become dependent on.
The resins are subjected to pressure and high temperature then cooled to turn them into plastic pellets or nurdles. These nurdles are used by manufacturers to produce the products we use, often on the daily.
These products include plastic bags and disposable water bottles, of course, which are made out of polyethylene and Styrofoam cups and containers which are made out of polystyrene. Polystyrene is also used to create CD cases and toy figurines.
The differences in what is made depend on chemical additives that either suppress or enhance qualities to get the desired product. Due to the accumulation and fragmentation of plastic waste in the oceans, non-chemically bound plastic additives are an increasingly eco-toxicological risk to humans and marine species alike.
Roughly 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been made since 1950. That is as heavy as a billion elephants or 25,000 Empire State Buildings. And, 40 percent of that plastic has been turned into single-use plastic products like grocery store shopping bags, cutlery, take-out containers, and water bottles.
Recycling & Reusing Plastic
In many ways, plastic has a never-ending life cycle. Most plastics are considered non-degradable, meaning they don't decompose but instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Most plastics take hundreds of years to breakdown. We can recycle some types of plastics by melting and reforming thermoplastic. In most cases, however, plastic can only be recycled a few times before it becomes less usable.
Finding New Plastic Applications
At this point in the plastic life cycle, most recycled plastic is down-cycled, which results in plastics of a lesser grade. Picnic tables could be made into plastic bins, for example. Or textiles made from recycled plastic water bottles used in sustainable swimwear.
To make recycling easier, the plastic is sorted into different categories. That's what those identification codes that you see, usually on the bottom, of plastic containers. Different plastics are sent to the right recycling facility and are ground into small pieces before being washed, dried, and heated. These pieces or pellets are melted or otherwise transformed into the desired materials.
And the plastic life cycle starts all over again.
We use plastic so much because the alternatives are less convenient or, in some cases, not yet widely available. Although consumer demand is shifting, it has not shifted enough to cause manufacturers and retailers to change. Therefore, despite the detrimental environmental effects, we still use a lot of plastic without even thinking about it.
By consciously looking for and choosing alternatives to single-use plastics, you can help reduce the amount of plastic in the environment. For example, bring your own straw instead of using a plastic one, or use reusable bamboo instead of throw-away plastic cutlery. Invest in a reusable water bottle or travel mug.
Plastic That Isn't Recycled
Estimates suggest that about 9 percent of plastic is recycled. Of the rest, 12 percent is incinerated, and the rest is in landfills or the environment. The last two options are not great for the environment. Burning plastic emits CO2 into the air, impacting climate change. Birds often scavenge landfills and ingest plastic. Loose plastic frequently blows out of landfills and makes its way into waterways.
This results in up to 12 million tons of plastic waste ending up in the ocean each year. The results of this can be devastating. Plastic negatively affects up to 700 species of marine life. In addition, an estimated 1 million people are adversely affected by plastic waste.
Why It's Important to Recycle and Reuse Plastic
Because plastic takes hundreds of years to break down, it will still affect the environment well past our lifetimes. In the end, if we don't recycle plastic and reuse it to create new products, it lasts in the environment for a long time.
Therefore, we have a duty to use less plastic while also recycling plastic as much as we can. By reusing and recycling, we can help reduce the environmental impact of plastics and help prevent or reduce the manufacture of new plastics. We can all start by changing what we buy and choosing plastic-free wherever we can.
We must all do our best to recycle and use as little plastic as possible. This way, the world can be a better place for us to live and for future generations. If we do nothing, plastic in our environments will continue to kill wildlife and choke our oceans. Despite the benefits we get from plastics, it's not worth the toll that mountains of plastic waste take on our environment, and ultimately, on our health.