Plastic by the numbers

I send the kids to eat outside with it. Then they jump in the pool with it or swing on it. We play with it, eat with it, carry water in it–our lives, our homes, and our bodies contain plastic. The ocean has a huge floating plastic pile. Firefighters must now wear respirators to keep safe from the toxic-by products of burning plastic.

This post is about plastic. I’m going to review the common types of plastic, compare it to paper, and focus in on plastic bags.

Both paper and plastic are polymers, or chains of chemicals. Paper is made from chains of sugars. Plastics are made from chains of various other chemicals–some natural and some not. Polymers are big flexible molecules. Your proteins and hair are polymers so just being a polymer isn’t in any way associated with being synthetic.

In the US, about 33 million tons of plastic is discarded each year, about 13% of the waste stream. By comparison, paper and cardboard make up 35% of our solid waste. However, over half of all paper and cardboard are recycled. In Europe over 70% of paper products are recycled. Making paper is a dirty process. Recycling paper is an easy process and if not heavily inked, paper can be composted. As for plastics, we have a ways to go before they are commonly recycled–less than 10% are recycled and about 8% are burned for energy. When recycled, plastic can be remade into everything from furniture to clothing but it is a dirty process often done in low income neighborhoods. However, it does save energy compared to making new plastic.

Here’s a by-the number run down of the most commonly used plastics:

#1 PETE (polyester, polyethelene terephthalate) is what water and other drink bottles and containers for take-out food items are usually made from. It can cause hormone disruption and bacteria like to grow on it. These bottles are not meant for re-use. They are the most recycled plastic item. About 31% of plastic bottles are recycled. 

#2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene). The most commonly used plastic, it is not particularly toxic but it is flammable. Seen in the photo below of a bag that comes from the local farmer’s market (along with my book that I’m trying to promote.) #2 is found in jugs and consumer product bottles and the light weight plastic bags that are a focus of this blog post.

This bag is an example of HDPE. And look for Book 2 in this series to contain plenty of information about plastic.

#3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is found in pipes, plastic wrap, shower curtains, blood bags and medical tubing, siding, window frames, toys and a host of other things. Vinyl is made from a carginogenic material and releases toxic fumes when burned. In fact, every stage of the life of a vinyl product is toxic. 

#4 LDPE (Low-density polyethylene) is the sturdier version of #1. It contains more branched areas and fewer long polyethylene chains so it is sturdier. A few studies have hinted that it might leach a chemical that is toxic.

Thicker bags from specialty stores are often #4. This one is from the Lego store. (Legos are made from a form of styrene known as ABS.) My book is in the photo for promotional purposes. Looking for a fast and fun summer read? “Haustein Mixed In” at your favorite store.

#5 Polypropylene is used for containers for things such as carpets, Playdough, yogurt, butter, margarine, and cottage cheese. It’s used to make sandwich bags and sand bags. It can leach chemicals but not to a large extent.

#6 Polystyrene such as found in foam cups, meat trays, and some plastic forks, knives, and spoons is one of the worst plastics. It leaches styrene and other harmful compounds such as benzene.  I can taste these things when I drink of out styrene. ABS styrene plastic as found in Legos, phone cases, and highchairs is considered safe.

#7 Polycarbonate makes up water bottles and baby bottles and some food storage containers. This plastic is controversial because of the bisphenol-A content. This plastic can release endocrine disruptors when headed and after many washings. Plastic additives such as BPA and DEHP can be toxic and cause behavior and prostate problems. Fast food containers–often made from #7–are a rich source of this unhealthy compound. Most plastic bags are free of these dangerous additives.

The rule for storage of chemicals is “glass for organics, plastics for inorganic.” Thus, things such as minerals are stored in plastic because minerals are attracted to glass. Things that are organic, as in our food, blood, etc, are stored in glass because tiny plastic molecules are found in substances stored in plastic. As a scientist, I won’t use a plastic pipet to dispense anything organic. I always use a syringe. I’m considered old school in this but I get better and more consistent results sticking with the no plastic for organics rule. Thus, at home, I store in glass as much as I can and don’t cook with carbon-baed plastics. I even have a stainless steel kettle to heat water and pour over my coffee into a glass carafe.

On to plastic bags:

We don’t curbside recycle plastic bags here in Pella. They must be brought back to retail stores for recycling. I called Midwest Sanitation and asked them why this is. The answer is simple: they get caught up in the machinery.

Most plastic bags are made from polyethylene. These plastics are chains made from a natural compound released by ripneding fruit–ethylene. As far as dangerous chemicals are concerned, plastic shopping bags are not as harmful as  vinyl and polystyrene and don’t contain the dangerous additives found in polycarbonate. However, they are  dangerous in other ways.

  1. They suffocate aquatic life and raise nitrate levels The bags smother the sediments of a water ecosystem and keep away  oxygen. Ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite levels double in a bag-infested river or lake bottom due to microbial imbalance. The bags change the microbiome. Some microbes now have developed the ability to eat the plastic but no one is sure that the by-prducts produced are healthy.
  2. Plastics can harbor bacteria. Bacteria sticks to plastic in what is called a biofilm. Plastics can harbor more bacteria than a cotton bag, although you should wash your cotton bag frequently as it will harbor bacteria and is more prone to mold.
  3. They create clutter!  One study said that the average household in Great  Britain had 40 plastic bags! Not to be outdone, the average American family will take home 1,500 bags per year.
  4. They create garbage–100 billion are thrown out every year in the United States. Ten percent of solid waste is plastic bags. The main problem with plastic bags is their sheer number. Most are used once, or perhaps twice when they are used to line a wastebasket.  Only 3-10% of these bags are recycled, making them one of the planet’s most prevalent and wasteful items. Within the next 30-40 years, plastic will outweigh fish in the ocean.
  5. They are a money drain. Some sources say that the world spends a trillion dollars a year on these bags, then we pay to have them cleaned up. In California, twenty-five million dollars a year is spent cleaning up plastic bags–LA spends 4 million alone. Plastic is the most common type of waste in our Great Lakes. Although the bags themselves cost pennies, each can cost up to 19 cents per bag to recycle, dispose of, and clean up. Most often, the taxpayer foots this bill.
  6. They kill wildlife. “Tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals and turtles are killed every year from plastic bag litter in the marine environment as they often mistake plastic bags for food.” Some estimates go as high as a million wildlife deaths per year. And since a plastic bag can last for up to 1000 years, one bag can kill, be released, and kill again.
  7. They use oil. The plastic bags used in the US require 12 million barrels of oil each year.
  8. They break down into tiny particles known as microplastics. These can be found on every shoreline and are so small that water filters don’t remove them!

In summary, plastic bags won’t poison you but that doesn’t mean they aren’t trouble. Plastic bags are cheaper to make and produce less energy than paper bags, making paper bags a difficult alternative. What’s the solution? Reusable bags. Each reusable bag can replace hundreds to 1,0000 of disposable plastic bags.  That’s more money in your pocket and less plastic in your drinking water. One source says that the “break-even” point for a reusable bag is 27 uses.

Meanwhile, I’ll not reuse PETE water bottles or containers, let the kids use plastic cups etc on occasion, and we’ll enjoy the vinyl pool–followed by a nice shower. And when fall comes, there will be a reason to drain the pool, put away the spandex swimsuits, and move on to other things. As for those old vinyl toys I had stored in the basement and attic: I threw most of them in the recycle bin after writing this. That’s less mess and less to catch on fire or leach hormone-like chemicals. If this post doesn’t inspire you to use cloth bags, perhaps it will prompt decluttering. As I am thinking about it, the best solution is simply consuming less.



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