A Product of Industrial Innovation
Plastics are polymers made of carbon and other elements. In the 1800s, scientists and inventors began to chemically modify naturally occurring polymers, and in 1907, the first fully synthetic plastic was produced: Bakelite. Bakelite gained popularity quickly, and was used for everything from jewelry to telephones and washing machine parts.
It wasn’t until WWII that the plastics industry really took off, though. As access to natural materials was cut off, the need for replacements drove the creation of more and more synthetic plastics.
Now, the plastics industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States and is an important part of the US economy. Plastic is a key material in a huge number of products ranging from beauty and medical supplies, to toys, electronics, food and beverage containers, and more. With how much plastic is used today, correct disposal of plastics is crucial.
Characteristics of Plastic
Plastics are heated and formed before cooling and hardening into shape. There are two major categories of plastics: Thermoplastics and thermosets.
Once hardened, a thermoplastic can be heated and reformed again: a key to recycling. Polyethylene (PE, #1, #2, and #4 plastic), polyvinyl chloride (PVC, #3 plastic), and polypropylene (PP, #5 plastic) are examples of thermoplastics — think peanut butter containers, milk jugs and laundry detergent containers, flooring, plastic bags, straws, and yogurt containers (those are just a few!).
Thermosets, on the other hand, cannot be re-melted. These products are good for their durability, and often used as parts in things like automobiles and electronics.
Plastic Waste and Recycling
EPA estimates that in 2014, plastic accounted for 12.9 percent of all municipal solid waste in the US, at roughly 33 million tons. It is estimated that 1 billion tons of plastic have been discarded since the 1950s.
When put out for recycling, plastics are collected and taken to a MRF. There, they are separated from other materials, and then further separated by type — for example, by the plastic number — before being baled and sent to a reclaiming facility.
At a reclaiming facility, the plastics are ground into small flakes, separated from potential contaminants once again, and then dried, melted, and formed into pellets. The pellets are used at manufacturing plants to make new plastic products, usually by melting and reforming. Different plastics create different recycled products, ranging from bottles to ropes, carpets, lumber, pipes, and more.
Recycling plastics helps reduce the need for virgin resources. In the case of plastics, this is especially valuable, because plastics are typically made of oil.
In a landfill, plastics may deteriorate, but they will never decompose completely. During this time, some plastics may leach BPA and phthalates, additives that are known to cause health and environmental damage, into the soil and water, or even enter the food chain as tiny particles.
How Consumers Can Help
In many communities, individuals can recycle plastics easily along with other recyclable materials like glass and metal, via curbside pickup. Discarding viable plastics in regular trash is even illegal in some areas.
Examples of Industrial Plastics in Everyday Items
#1: PETE / #01: PET (polyethylene terephthalate): bottles (ie, for soft drinks, peanut butter), plastic film, microwavable packaging
#2: HDPE / #02: PE-HD (high density polyethylene ): electrical insulation, bottles (ie, for detergents, milk jugs), toys
#3: V / #03: PVC (polyvinyl chloride): pipes, siding, flooring, clam shell containers
#4: LDPE / #04: PE-LD (low density polyethylene): film wrap, plastic bags; outdoor furniture, siding
#5: PP / #05: PP (polypropylene): bottle caps, drinking straws, yogurt containers
#6: PS / #06: PS (polystyrene): Foam: polystyrene foam (Styrofoam™), packing peanuts, food containers, plastic tableware; Rigid: toys, CD/cassette boxes, clam shell containers
#7: OTHER / #07: O (other resins): Teflon (non-stick surfaces), Lucite/Plexiglass (skylights), rubber, fibers/textiles