"Just one word: Plastics." The advice that Benjamin Braddock received at his graduation party might have seemed prescient at the time The Graduate was released in 1967, but now plastics are a ubiquitous and essential part of our lives. It is nearly impossible to buy groceries, children's toys, pet food, household goods, or anything else without having the products be made from, or packaged in, plastic.
There's no denying that the invention and eventual widespread use of plastic was a major advance for society. Plastic's versatile composition has been instrumental in developing more durable household appliances and electronics, packaging that's more protective of what's inside, and major advancements in car, air, and space travel, to name a few.
While a huge benefit of plastic is its durability, this very property is also sometimes a downside — some plastic takes centuries to break down, taking up more room in landfills for a longer time.
The Better Approach
As dependent as we have become on plastic and its benefits, we can try to reduce our use of it, and recycle or repurpose what we do use. Here are some ideas on how to lessen plastic's impact on the Earth:
- Repurpose plastic bags and other plastic items. Bags, water bottles, and other products made from plastic can take on a new life (and stay out of the landfill) if you find creative ways to use them. Reuse plastic shopping bags at the supermarket or use them for craft projects, and find new uses for old plastic bottles, too.
- Recycle what you don't use. Find out what types of plastic your local recycling program accepts (see our guide to the plastic numbering system, below), and recycle as much plastic as you possibly can.
- Shop for recycled plastic products. Another more earth-friendly option is recycled plastic. Recycled PET [Polyethylene Terephthalate] has the same properties as PET that is made from new materials, and can be recycled many times until it breaks down. Look for everything from toys to lawn furniture, and even packaging made from recycled plastic.
- Seek out products and packaging made of biodegradeable and/or compostable plastic. This type of plastic is made from corn, hemp, soy, and other plant-based materials (and even chicken feathers!), and breaks down faster than real plastics. You can find this type of plastic in disposable straws, drink cups, and cutlery. Since most of these products are designed for the foodservice industry, you can try to seek out restaurants that use biodegradeable plastics in their to-go containers and other disposable wares, or ask your favorite restaurants to switch to these products.
Those Numbers: What You Need to Know
Many people think that the triangle of chasing arrows indicates an item is recyclable. It's actually relatively meaningless alone — what's important is the number inside. If you're confused by the resin numbering system, which was instituted by the Society of the Plastics Industry in 1998, here's what you need to know about each numbered plastics category (and remember, you can check Earth911 to find out which plastics can be recycled in your area any time!):
1. Polyethylene Terephthalate [PET] is a clear, brittle plastic used for water bottles and food bottles and jars, among other applications. Recycled PET [rPET] has the same chemical make-up as new PET, and is often turned back into food bottles or containers, or even carpets and fibers. Both PET and rPET are accepted by most curbside recycling programs.
2. High Density Polyethylene [HDPE] is stiff, often opaque plastic used for bottles and jugs for milk, toiletries, laundry detergents, and other vessels; it is also used to make plastic bags. In addition to being used to make bottles, recycled HDPE can also be made into sturdy outdoor-use items like planters, benches, plastic lumber, and fencing. It's accepted by most curbside recycling programs.
3. Vinyl [PVC] is typically used for packaging, medical tubing, and construction products like wire insulation, siding, or floor tiles. The recycled version can be made into a range of items, from loose-leaf binders to traffic cones. Most recyclers don't accept #3 plastics.
4. Low Density Polyethylene [LDPE] is what makes the soft, flexible bags that dry cleaning, bread, and frozen foods come in, as well as squeeze bottles and grocery bags. Recycled LDPE can be made into shipping envelopes, trash-cans, or plastic lumber. Some recycling programs accept #4, and many supermarkets have recycling stations for plastic grocery bags.
5. Polypropylene is used for yogurt containers and other food tubs and bottles, as well as medicine bottles. It's recycled into brushes, rakes, pallets, and battery cases or cables. It's accepted by some recycling programs.
6. Polystyrene is the brittle, clear plastic used to make compact disc cases, egg cartons, and disposable plates and cutlery. It gets recycled into foam packaging, foam disposable plates, or license plate frames, among other things. It's accepted by some recycling programs.
7. Other plastics, which might be unidentifiable or a combination of the aforementioned resins, might be recycled into plastic bottles or plastic lumber. Number 7 plastics have not been widely accepted by curbside recycling programs in the past, but some recycling programs now accept them.
In what ways do you take a better approach to plastic? Share your tips and comments below.