Brian's Blog

…one man's contribution to the Weeeeerly Wild World

Plastic

I really despise the stuff.

But it’s so hard to avoid.

I always thought plastic was made from oil (which is icky stuff in itself) but apparently that’s not the case – most it seems is made from LPG and natural gas.[1] This makes plastic seem less unfriendly, but I think that’s probably a deception. I watched a video a good few years ago about the damage we’re doing to our planet, and one aspect of that video was how plastic is everywhere besides being in usable products and packaging, but how, because of the way it doesn’t degrade like other material (it simply gets broken down into smaller parts), it’s remains (which is partly why plastic is so widely used). A demonstration in that video was to take a sample of regular sea water from out in the ocean, put it under the microscope, and show those plastic particles floating around. So it’s everywhere, fish absorb it, and we consume it. However, it’s probably worse – it doesn’t just pass through our bodies (or the bodies of fish and animals), it effects our bodies on a molecular level and the fear is that these effects will cause DNA mutations over the course of generations – so by polluting our planet with these plastic molecules we’re effecting how we (and all other life on this planet) evolve. When painted like this, plastic seems like a subtle form of asbestos, yet potentially worse in the long-term.

If this were a topic about aircraft’s contrails I might take this opportunity to mention ‘conspiracy theorists’ and how some believe the whole issue is planned to manipulate us in some way. Perhaps that is the case with plastic (too). Whether such effects are intentional on a hidden level, or simply a case that the big manufacturers keep pumping out plastic, whilst turning a blind (but all-knowing) eye to what they’re doing, simply to meet demand, the end result is still the same.

But what can we do on an individual level? We might not all have a blind eye, and we may be knowing, but we still can’t avoid plastic. I feel reasonably conscious of how much plastic is around me and what I buy that is wrapped in the stuff, but avoiding it completely, like not drinking coffee or alcohol, not smoking, not watching TV or logging onto the internet, not putting sugar in my cup of tea, or not driving a car, either already are, or they seem doable with a little will power.

Where I live in the UK we have what I consider to be a pretty good recycling scheme where a lot of the regularly disposed of items are collected once a week or fortnight, items such as paper, card, glass bottles and tin cans. They’ll also collect plastic milk cartons, but that’s it as far as plastic is concerned – the rest ‘has to be’ disposed of with the regular waste. We also have small bins for food waste and a wheely-bin for garden waste.

When I moved into my own place last year I immediately got to grips with the recycling system for myself and I recycled everything I could – I had always been a ‘recycler’ when I lived with my parents, but because I was now fully responsible for everything I threw away I became very aware of what I was discarding, and I saw just how much stuff couldn’t go in the recycling boxes – masses of plastic.

I started setting the plastic aside rather then putting it in the general waste bin, and I started to see how much of the stuff I would accumulate over the course of a week. I set it aside because I was conscious of the fact that stuff thrown into the general waste bin (as we were expected to throw our plastic) would just end up in landfill, and because plastic (as mentioned) doesn’t biodegrade, it seemed illogical to send it that way.

As a further option, we have a recycling centre we can take rubbish too – it’s nicely laid out with different zones for different waste. Plastic isn’t just plastic though – it’s graded based on the various compositions, because similar to how oil and water separate, the different types of plastic will fail to bond too. Each item should have a little symbol on (a RIC code – Resin Identification Code) to show which type, like the different coloured glass bottles, but sadly not so obvious – not all black plastic trays for example are of the same type. This is where our system seems to fall down.

plastics

However, as I further learned whilst creating this post, these plastic codes are probably becoming obsolete due to automatic sorting techniques that can identify the different resins.

Before recycling, most plastics are sorted according to their resin type. In the past, plastic reclaimers used the resin identification code (RIC), a method of categorization of polymer types, which was developed by the Society of the Plastics Industry in 1988. Polyethylene terephthalate, commonly referred to as PET, for instance, has a resin code of 1. Most plastic reclaimers do not rely on the RIC now; they use automatic sort systems to identify the resin, such as near infrared (NIR) technology. Some plastic products are also separated by color before they are recycled. The plastic recyclables are then shredded. These shredded fragments then undergo processes to eliminate impurities like paper labels. This material is melted and often extruded into the form of pellets which are then used to manufacture other products.[2]

Ideally I think we could reduce the number of types of plastic we use on a daily bases – the supermarkets and the companies that package their food need to agree on a type, instead of one using one type, and another using another, yet for the same purpose. For example, the bags of porridge I buy are in a carrier-bag-type of plastic (and can be recycled with plastic bags), whereas the pasta is bagged in a ‘film’-type plastic that is labelled as being “not currently recycled”. It’s also a concern when bulk-buys are bundled together in extra plastic wrap, or the better deal is to buy two smaller bottles of shampoo rather than one larger one.

We should consider each little plastic pot, tub, bottle and bag of something we buy. Maybe buy larger stuff and decant it into a reusable and conveniently-sized container when required. I can see that we have a perception of freshness when our food is individually packaged for each sitting, like yoghurt and drinks, but such a sterile environment does not make for a healthy immune system, and when you take into account the environmental costs (which will hit us greater when the balance tips) due to the materials and energy used (and pollution caused) to manufacture such packaging and recycling it, it’s simply not a healthy way to do things.

Then the concern with disposable food packaging, and any other regularly disposed of item, is that, even if it can be recycled, there is an energy cost to incur, just as there is an energy cost in ‘tackling global warming’ – it takes energy to recycle materials (in addition to the inconvenience for each person in having to throw each item in a separate bin), and sometimes, if not most often, you end up with a lower grade material, due to the impurities at least. Perhaps this means in some cases it ends up costing more to use recycled material instead of fresh new stuff, for which you have a better idea of what you’re dealing with.

Anyway, for the time being I have written to my local council for further information about our system, and I will continue to be conscious of what I’m buying and what and how I’m throwing away.

[1] http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=34&t=6

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic_recycling

Further reading:

http://www.ewp.rpi.edu/hartford/~ernesto/S2014/SHWPCE/Papers/SW-Preprocessing-Separation-Recycling/Morris1996-Recycling-vs-Incineration-Energy.pdf

Advertisements

5 comments on “Plastic

  1. meltdblog
    7 February, 2015

    A little old but this paper takes into account the possible residual energy value of burning the waste and recycling still comes out ahead:
    http://www.ewp.rpi.edu/hartford/~ernesto/S2014/SHWPCE/Papers/SW-Preprocessing-Separation-Recycling/Morris1996-Recycling-vs-Incineration-Energy.pdf

    • Brian
      7 February, 2015

      Thank you.

    • Brian
      10 February, 2015

      Thank you, that’s good to know – I’ve added it as further reading.

  2. Plasgran
    6 July, 2015

    Great post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on 7 February, 2015 by in News, Politics, Science and tagged , , , , , , .
%d bloggers like this: