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Bad Bad Plastics

Sarah Gale's picture
   Last year on Earth Day, I attended a lecture entitled, “The Truth about Plastics” at my high school. We watched a short documentary about a scientist and his studies of the effects of plastic pollution in marine ecosystems (turtles dying from eating plastic bags, plankton eating plastic and fish eating that plankton and other fish and birds and humans eating that fish). Afterwards, the speaker talked to us about alternatives to plastic and things we as students could do to get involved in the cause. I stopped buying bottled water ad purchased a tin bottle, convinced my mother to buy milk in cartons, and asked for paper shopping bags. Yet plastic is everywhere, and it can’t be denied that some products bring good. Despite plastic’s positive properties and obvious benefits, plastics are harmful to the environment, and their consumption should be reduced.
   To start, plastic is made of chemicals that derive from petroleum and natural gas. This means that plastic is not organic, or that it doesn’t have a trace of life in it (and therefore will not decompose or break down). Before petroleum becomes a bag or a Barbie, it goes through stages of “heating, shaping, and cooling”.1 Specifically, drilled oil is sent to a refinery, where products like ethane, propane, and automobile gasoline are extracted. Then, the ethane and propane are heated (thus becoming ethylene and propylene) and additives are combined to make a powder known as polymer. More additives are blended, and then the whole substance is melted and shaped into small pellets. 2
    So what’s the problem? Firstly, there’s the issue of petroleum, a sticky substance. Oil is a pollutant, and contributes to air pollution via greenhouse gases when burned. And as Gore has taught us, global climate change is a real problem. So dependence on a rapidly depleting and polluting resource might be a bad idea. Another qualm is leaching. Plastics like type 3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and type 7 (known as other) have the tendency to leak out their additives, which are carcinogens, such as di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) and endocrine disruptors like biphenyl-A.
  Then there’s the aftermath- once a consumer is done with their Coke or yogurt, he/she either throws it away, where it sits- not rots. Or there’s the other option, one that I once believed was a sound one: recycling. What you don’t know is that only types 1, 2, and 6 are widely recycled (yes, those numbers refer to the sort of plastic), and 3, 4, 5, and 7 are not.3 What’s more, plastic is not fully recyclable like paper or glass. It down-cycles, meaning that a plastic bottle will never again be a plastic bottle. It will become something of lesser value, like a fleece jacket. And then it will sit in landfill.   
       One site that I visited for this report was one created by The American Plastics Council. It was filled with pro-plastic propaganda, including a “Plastics and the Environment Quiz”, “Plastic Recycling and Beyond”, and lots of information concerning plastic products, like plastic lumber. One section of the site that intrigued me was the tour of a landfill called Frey Farm in Lancaster County. The writer explained that burying waste in plastic containers and building a wildlife park above it was better for the environment than dump sites that rely on biodegradation. After seeing the film and learning about the effects on plastic on the natural environment, it struck me as odd that burying plastic into the ground was a better solution than decomposition.4 also had a plethora of facts about how plastics save energy. One fact was that one truck could carry the same number of plastic bags as seven trucks could carry with paper grocery bags, meaning that using plastic bags saves fuel emissions from six extra trucks, not to mention that plastic bag production consumes less energy and water while also releasing less pollution to the air and solid waste and taking up less space in landfill.5 While this may be true, it’s also true that after being used, plastic bags rarely make it to landfill. Instead, they end up in gutters, ultimately making their way to the ocean.6 made other points about the exchange in energy when making plastic bags, like how paperboard container production requires 30% more energy than that of foam polystyrene containers, but what isn’t said is how chemicals leach out of the foam containers and taint their contents, and that foam will never break down, and that paperboard is fully recyclable and will biodegrade.7
  Another interesting site from the American Plastics Council made me chuckle. It said, “Plastic carries our hopes letting us all look forward to a safe, brilliant tomorrow. Plastics make it possible.”8 It should have read, “Plastic temporarily carries our hopes letting us all look forward to a toxic, lackluster tomorrow. Plastics make it possible...for now”. What the Council doesn’t talk about are the high environmental costs of their product. It may be cheap to make and buy, but the disposal is not: one article said that the “unsolicited financial burden on society manifests itself” into more taxes as a result of an influx of local recycling programs, areas for landfill, and waste incineration, which results in air and water pollution.9
  So when you have the opportunity, please don’t pick plastic. It’s damaging to the earth and marine systems, damaging to you directly, and damaging to future generations. While plastic is everywhere now, it won’t be around forever. And it might be smart to look around for alternatives, like glass and metal and other biodegradable options.


Daniel 's picture

Keep Fighting the Good Fight!

Ditching bottled water, as you've already done, is a huge step in decreasing plastic usage and waste. Only 20% of the nation's billions of water bottles are even recycled. Not only that, but 40% of bottled water is nothing more than tap water in the first place. People would do well to filter their own tap water and then transport it in reusable containers, as you are doing.