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If there was room for one more item in my bag and I had to choose between trash made of plastic or something else, I'd opt for the plastic. Every time.

If there was room for just one more item in my bag and I had to choose between trash made of plastic or something else, I’d opt for the plastic. Every time. With estimates for the biodegrade of polyethylene terephthalate (used for most water and soda bottles) thought to be somewhere between 450 to 1,000 years, we’d damn well better pick those up.

If there is a particular target of my pick-it-up-as-I-go campaign, it is plastic.

Plastic in any of its forms are typical high-priority finds for me; bottles, bags, drinking straws, cups, used up tubes of lip balm or makeup, flossing thingies (those draw particular ire), crushed ball point pens, and on and on.

It’s morose to think that petroleum-based plastic manufactured as recently as 50 years ago will still be around and serviceable when me and my generation (and the four to five generations after that) are long gone. It doesn’t go away quietly; it stays in the environment, mobile but inert. That bottled water or soda bottle (made of polyethylene terephthalate – aka PET – in all likelihood) you’re so fond of? A smooth 450 – 1,000 years to degrade. If that. No one has lived long enough to really know. What emanates as PET degrades is beyond my knowledge, but as something that is chemical based, what it gives off as it dissolves can’t be good.

A search for a definitive number of manufactured plastics turned up no such number beyond a count in the thousands. Let’s just call it ‘a lot.’ (There is some hope, however. Now on the market – with growing market share – are biodegradable plastics that dissolve from the scene in a matter of months.)

The invention of plastic goes back to 1839 with the discovery of polystyrene by Eduard Simon. Useable plastics have been around since 1862, beginning with varieties of celluloid. Thermosetting plastics and thermoplastics made the scene in 1908 with the introduction of Cellophane ® and a year later, the first true plastic – Bakelite – a phenol-formaldehyde product, was produced. Vinyl and PVC arrived in 1926. Big jumps (digressions?) in marketable, mass-use plastics came in the 1930s with polystyrene, Teflon, nylon and neoprene. The plastics race was on.

There are seven different types of plastic identified by the American Society of Plastics Industry. There are varying levels of recyclability. Not all plastics can be lumped together when you toss them into the curbside recycle bin; commercial recyclers won’t mix these plastics because they worry about ruining the “melt.” Like plastics must be recycled together. (The citations below are from

Number 1 Plastics
PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate)
Found in: Soft drink, water and beer bottles; mouthwash bottles; peanut butter containers; salad dressing and vegetable oil containers; ovenable food trays.
Recycling: Picked up through most curbside recycling programs.
Recycled into: Polar fleece, fiber, tote bags, furniture, carpet, paneling, straps, (occasionally) new containers

PET plastic is the most common for single-use bottled beverages, because it is inexpensive, lightweight and easy to recycle. It poses low risk of leaching breakdown products. Recycling rates remain relatively low (around 20%), though the material is in high demand by remanufacturers.

Number 2 Plastics 
HDPE (high density polyethylene)
Found in: Milk jugs, juice bottles; bleach, detergent and household cleaner bottles; shampoo bottles; some trash and shopping bags; motor oil bottles; butter and yogurt tubs; cereal box liners
Recycling: Picked up through most curbside recycling programs, although some allow only those containers with necks.
Recycled into: Laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, pens, recycling containers, floor tile, drainage pipe, lumber, benches, doghouses, picnic tables, fencing

HDPE is a versatile plastic with many uses, especially for packaging. It carries low risk of leaching and is readily recyclable into many goods.

Number 3 Plastics
V (Vinyl) or PVC
Found in: Window cleaner and detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, cooking oil bottles, clear food packaging, wire jacketing, medical equipment, siding, windows, piping
Recycling: Rarely recycled; accepted by some plastic lumber makers.
Recycled into: Decks, paneling, mudflaps, roadway gutters, flooring, cables, speed bumps, mats

PVC is tough and weathers well, so it is commonly used for piping, siding and similar applications. PVC contains chlorine, so its manufacture can release highly dangerous dioxins. If you must cook with PVC, don’t let the plastic touch food. Also never burn PVC, because it releases toxins.
Number 4 Plastics 
LDPE (low density polyethylene)
Found in: Squeezable bottles; bread, frozen food, dry cleaning and shopping bags; tote bags; clothing; furniture; carpet
Recycling: LDPE is not often recycled through curbside programs, but some communities will accept it. Plastic shopping bags can be returned to many stores for recycling.
Recycled into: Trash can liners and cans, compost bins, shipping envelopes, paneling, lumber, landscaping ties, floor tile

LDPE is a flexible plastic with many applications. Historically it has not been accepted through most American curbside recycling programs, but more and more communities are starting to accept it.

Number 5 Plastics 
PP (polypropylene)
Found in: Some yogurt containers, syrup bottles, ketchup bottles, caps, straws, medicine bottles
Recycling: Number 5 plastics can be recycled through some curbside programs.
Recycled into: Signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bicycle racks, rakes, bins, pallets, trays

Polypropylene has a high melting point, and so is often chosen for containers that must accept hot liquid. It is gradually becoming more accepted by recyclers.

Number 6 Plastics 
PS (polystyrene)
Found in: Disposable plates and cups, meat trays, egg cartons, carry-out containers, aspirin bottles, compact disc cases
Recycling: Number 6 plastics can be recycled through some curbside programs.
Recycled into: Insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, vents, rulers, foam packing, carry-out containers

Polystyrene can be made into rigid or foam products — in the latter case it is popularly known as the trademark Styrofoam. Evidence suggests polystyrene can leach potential toxins into foods. The material was long on environmentalists’ hit lists for dispersing widely across the landscape, and for being notoriously difficult to recycle. Most places still don’t accept it, though it is gradually gaining traction.

Number 7 Plastics 
Found in: Three- and five-gallon water bottles, ‘bullet-proof’ materials, sunglasses, DVDs, iPod and computer cases, signs and displays, certain food containers, nylon
Recycling: Number 7 plastics have traditionally not been recycled, though some curbside programs now take them.
Recycled into: Plastic lumber, custom-made products

A wide variety of plastic resins that don’t fit into the previous categories are lumped into number 7. A few are even made from plants (polyactide) and are compostable. Polycarbonate is number 7, and is the hard plastic that has parents worried these days, after studies have shown it can leach potential hormone disruptors.

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