All the plastic that has been made in the world so far still exists, unless it has been incinerated. It’s crucial reduce, reuse and recycle plastics. The dilemma at hand isn’t plastics per se, but rather how we use them. And we can make a significant impact by giving up all unnecessary disposable plastics like straws, eating utensil and plastic bags.
Likewise, we should make a genuine effort to reduce our reliance on disposable packaging, no matter what material it is made from.
Plastic production began when the technology emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, with mass production taking off around 1950. Production requires fossil fuels, i.e., oil and gas, which are limited resources. Crude oil is pumped up from underground and processed in oil refinery facilities. During the refining process reactive monomers are created. These monomers are collected and bonded through the introduction of a catalyst. This process creates long-chain molecules called polymers. These polymers accumulate to form a malleable mass that can easily be shaped. Various combinations of polymers (i.e., how the polymers are ordered) yield different types of plastics. During production certain additives (e.g., chloroethane or BPA) are used to modify the characteristics of the plastic like to strengthen it.
Different production methods transform crude oil into various types of plastic.
Plastic is typically classified into seven types. Plastic packaging often bears the recycling triangle symbol around a number, which corresponds to the plastic type.
Seven Types of Plastic
♳ PETE (#1) is PET plastic and is a valuable plastic that lends itself to recycling. Used to make soda bottles.
♴ HDPE (#2) is high-density polyethylene, which is one of the most common plastics. Used in containers for personal hygiene products. Also lends itself to recycling.
♵ PVC (#3) is PVC plastic, or polyvinyl chloride, is used in rainproof clothing, rain boots, shower curtains, toys, oilcloth, electrical wiring, plumbing pipes, etc. PVC plastic can release harmful substances, like phthalates, heavy metals (lead, mercury, cadmium) and dioxin, which can leach out into the environment.
♶ PE-LD (#4) is low-density polyethylene and is used to make items like plastic bags. Also well suited for recycling.
♷ PP (#5) or polypropylene is used as a packaging for food items (ketchup bottles, yogurt cups, etc.) and is well suited for recycling.
♸ PS (#6) is polystyrene or styrofoam and is often used for food containers like styrofoam clamshell containers.
♹ Other (#7) is the catchall category for other types of plastic. This includes ABS plastics like those found in LEGO blocks and bioplastics marked PLA.
Controversial Substances in Plastic
BPA or bisphenol A is an organic compound used in the production of various plastics. It is found as a preservative in fabric softeners and a structural component in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, the latter of which is used as a liner in canned food and drinks. BPA is also found in water bottles, baby bottles and snack boxes.
It has been shown that BPA can leach out of plastic and into liquids, the risk increasing with prolonged use and when the plastic is heated the effect is multiplied. The same applies when hot liquids are poured into the plastic container.
In the human body BPA mimics the hormone estrogen, which can interfere with normal endocrine functions. BPA has been shown to impede normal development of the brain and nervous system and also cause infertility and developmental abnormalities.
Phtalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more pliable and flexible. Several types of phtalates can interrupt normal hormone activity in the human body and have a detrimental effect on fertility. Fetuses and newborns are especially susceptible to these chemicals, which is troublesome as phtalates have been found in breastmilk. The EU has put into place regulations that ban the use of certain phtalates in toys. To safeguard against phtalate toxicity, PVC plastics should always be taken to recycling centers for disposal.
Microplastics are defined as plastic particles that measure 5mm or less in diameter and are often invisible to the naked eye. Microplastics have spread all over the globe, from the upper atmosphere to the deepest sea trenches. Microplastics constitute a portion of airborne particulate matter (e.g., nanoparticles) and are generated primarily from vehicle tires and road markings. Once microplastics have degraded into nanoparticles, they can easily enter the human body, typically though inhalation. Norway has issued recommendations on how effectively reduce the amount of microplastics that are released into the streets and the sea. These recommendations include: minimize the use of personal vehicles, improve street cleaning procedures, minimize use of studded tires, eco-driving, self-driving vehicles and improve snow-clearing procedures.
Insects and worms can also carry microplastics to subterranean levels as they pick up the particles in one place and release them as excrement elsewhere.
So-called microbeads are a popular additive in a number of cosmetics. Microbeads are added to products to give them a certain texture or efficacy. They manufactured particles that are less than 1 mm in diameter, and when they are released into the environment they become microplastics. Particles this small act as a kind of sponge for toxic substances, i.e., they attract other pollutants from the environment meaning that microbeads/microplastics become an even more harmful agent.
The science community in the UK has demanded a stop to the production of glitter, which is made from plastic, pointing out that glitter particles have the same harmful impact on the environment that microplastics do.
In 2018 the Environmental Agency of Iceland carried out two studies to access the state of plastics pollution in the ocean off the coast of Iceland, one in concert with Suðurnes Research Center of the University of Iceland, which investigated microplastics in mussels in several areas around Iceland. The other study, contracted with the Northeast Iceland Nature Research Center, invested plastic found in the stomachs of fulmar seabirds. The results proved that microplastics are present in coastal mussels in all areas tested, primarily plastic threads (with an average length of 1.1 mm) and plastic was found in about 70% of fulmars, considerably more in the stomachs of females. Microplastics and plastic pollution are taking a serious toll on animal life in Iceland.
It’s also important to realize that many home cleaning products should not be placed in the toilet, like wet wipes, which are made from plastic. Remember that the only things that belong in the toilet are human waste and toilet paper.
The most effective thing we can do in the battle against microplastics is to minimize our use of personal vehicles, which significantly reduces particulate matter in our air.
There is no straightforward answer. The production of aluminum takes a serious toll on the environment as it is sourced from bauxite, an ore that contains a high concentration of aluminum. Harvesting the aluminum component generates two materials: one is aluminum oxide, which is a fine white powder, and the other is a thick, red sludge containing caustic soda. This sludge has no practical application. Likewise, the destruction of land caused by aluminum production, i.e., the land that is displaced (often permanently) during the course of bauxite mining, is detrimental to the environmental. Manufacturing a disposable plastic bottle from new materials, transporting it and disposing of it in a landfill has a smaller environmental impact than a disposable aluminum can made from new material. The key word here is, however, disposable. Recycling aluminum takes only 5% of the energy required to create a new aluminum can for the first time. So there are a number of factors to consider before we can answer the question.
Metal is a good packaging choice in that it retains its value and is generally suitable for recycling.There are a number of advantages to recycling metal. For example, some types of metal can be recycled over and over again. The State Alcohol & Tobacco Company of Iceland recently released a comprehensive report on the lifetime impact of various forms of packaging for alcohol, and the conclusion was that it is best to buy beer in cans and wine in cartons and boxes.
The initial production of glass is worse for the environment than the production of plastic. But when we take into account what becomes of the packaging after disposal, glass has less of an impact if it ends up in the environment since glass degrades into mineral. It is not possible, however, to create new glass packaging from used glass packaging. Plastic can be recycled and used in new applications, like the creation of synthetic fleece. But synthetic fleece and other plastic-based textiles shed microplastics when laundered, which often are washed out to sea. Microplastics generated in washing machines have a direct path to our oceans. Another consideration is that because glass is a relatively heavy packaging, it often incurs a much larger carbon footprint to transport compared to lighter packaging options like plastic.
Glass is not recycled in Iceland, but rather crushed and used as construction aggregate. As such, glass does not make for a good disposable material; it is much better suited to reusable applications. Recycling plastic packaging can be better than disposable glass packaging. But how we dispose of the packaging makes all the difference, i.e., if we make sure the material ends up in a recycling channel.
The production of plastic has increased twenty fold since 1964 and continues to grow. According to data from 2018, Lithuania tops the European rankings when it comes to recycling plastic with about 74% while Iceland ranks #16 on that list recycling 42% of plastic. The UN has launched a global campaign to combat plastic pollution in the ocean and once of its principal efforts is ending the use of disposable plastic packaging. The EU has approved a ban on disposable plastic table items (plates, cups, utensils and chopsticks), plastic straws, plastic cotton swabs, plastic balloon sticks and oxo-degradable plastic food containers (plastic takeaway boxes). The ban will enter force in 2021. France has been remarkably diligent in the initiative by banning plastic bags at retailers and disposable plastic table items. In comparison, Icelanders throw away around 70 million plastic bags per year, which accounts for 1,120 tons of plastic. Since about 2 kg of oil are needed to manufacture 1 kg of plastic, this corresponds to 2,240 kg of oil to make the plastic bags Icelanders throw away every year.
Icelanders typically throw away their disposable plastic bags immediately after use. It’s estimated that each plastic bag is used for an average of 25 minutes. And on average each and every Icelander generates about 40 kg of waste plastic packaging per year.
On September 1, 2019, a ban went into effect prohibiting retailers from providing free shopping bags, no matter what material the bag is made from. Iceland’s parliament has also approved a ban on the sale of all disposable plastic shopping bags effective January 2021.
Plastic use has become commonplace in our daily lives and is an important component in a number of essential items like safety equipment, carseats, helmets, safety goggles and many items connected to healthcare like IV equipment, syringes, etc. Plastics have been revolutionary in many arenas of modern life. Food safety has increased greatly because of plastics ability to prolong storage life. And all sorts of items that make life easier use plastic, like cell phones, computers, shopping bags, etc. Plastics are used in the fabrication of aircraft and vehicles to make equipment lighter, which means they require less fuel to operate. Plastic can be made quite durable, which is an advantage in that it does not need to be replaced as often. With this understanding, plastic use is not all bad, but it should not be a material used to manufacture disposable items.
Icelanders are good at recycling plastic bottles and agricultural plastic wrap for hay, but bottles offer deposits that consumers can claim when the bottles are returned for recycling. Other plastics, like plastic packaging, do not make it into recycling channels as well with only 10-11% being recycled. In total, about 30% of plastic is recycled, meaning about 70% of plastic ends up in landfills. We Icelanders need to do a better job of of recycling our plastics. For example, about 8% of manufactured plastic bags end up in the ocean, which corresponds to about 5 million bags every year in Iceland.
The answer depends on your setup. The most important thing to remember is that as soon as you begin sorting your household waste properly — including plastic, paper and cardboard, glass, metal and compost — the amount of trash you’re left with drops drastically. Also remember that mindful buying habits that emphasize reduced consumption will naturally generate less waste.
Here are a few solutions:
Use other bags you already have around the house, like the plastic packaging around toilet paper.
Line the bottom of your trash can with newspaper and empty your can directly into the bin. The city of Reykjavík has issued a statement that residents need not package their garbage in bags before placing it in the collection bins (although residents are responsible for keeping their bins reasonably clean). You can also use biodegradable bags (like cornstarch bags or sugarcane bags) instead of plastic liners, although in that case you’re still replacing one disposable material for another.