Choosing Less Harmful Plastics

As useful as plastics are, the strikes against them are many. They're made with petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. Most won’t biodegrade—when they do break down, they do so into tiny particles that contaminate soil, oceans and waterways. Certain plastics pollute the surrounding air with harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which we then inhale, while others can leach unwanted chemicals into our foods and liquids. Yet in spite of plastics' pitfalls, they remain a functional material for a wide variety of everyday products. When plastic really is the only choice, here’s how to make choices that result in less damage to the environment.

Recycled plastic
Choosing products made with recycled plastic helps curb landfill waste and encourages further plastics recycling. In 2007, the U.S recycled less than 7 percent of discarded plastic. This amounted to 2.1 million tons of plastic. Because recycled plastic can be used to produce such diverse products as carpeting and toothbrushes, purchasing them can also reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing consumer products made with other virgin materials, such as cotton and polyester.

Unfortunately, with more than 90 percent of plastics generated still ending up in landfills, the current supply of recycled plastic doesn’t meet the demand for the material or the capacity to produce products made from it, making plastic recycling more imperative than ever.

Biodegradable plastic
Conventional plastic, made with petroleum, is one of the only materials on earth that never fully goes away. And yet we use it to make trash bags—products whose primary utility is to carry our garbage to the local landfill. Supermarkets have recently been stocking an alternative to the steadfast receptacle: biodegradable trash bags. Manufacturers of biodegradable plastics aim to create products that break down into harmless substances like water, carbon dioxide and biomass, rather than toxic contaminants. But the products have one fundamental flaw: they’re frequently destined for landfills, and nothing biodegrades 100 percent in an air-tight landfill. Archaeologists have found perfectly legible 40-year-old newspapers alongside equally old, but practically fresh, heads of lettuce in landfills across the country.

That said, if you live in one of the few U.S. cities that compost garbage, bio-based bags are better. For the rest of us who send trash to landfills, biodegradable plastics are a better alternative to regular bags, but not as good for the environment as bags made from recycled plastic.

By the numbers: Look for #1 and #2 and avoid #3, #6 and #7

When non-biodegradable virgin resin is the only option for your plastic products, it’s essential to know your numbers, since some are safer and better for the environment than others. The bottom of each plastic container is imprinted with a number in the center of the recycling arrows triangle. The number three indicates Vinyl or PVC. Because PVC has been found to leach hormone-disrupting phthalates, lead and bisphenol-A into foods, and to off-gas harmful volatile organic compounds from non-food products, such as toys and shower curtains, into the surrounding air, avoid all plastics labeled number three. PVC is also not typically recycled. Number seven indicates a miscellaneous category, which can include safer plastics like PLA, which is made from plant resources, but can also indicate a number of other plastics including polycarbonate, which contains BPA, and so is worth avoiding. Number six, polystyrene, is sometimes recyclable, but can leach styrene, a possible human carcinogen.

Number one, polyethylene terephthalate, and number two, high-density polyethylene, are both comparatively safe and frequently recyclable plastics that are often used to make food, beverage, cosmetic and household cleaner packaging. Number five, polypropylene, is also a relatively safe plastic used to make durable products like food-storage containers, but isn’t always accepted by recycling facilities. Check with your local curbside-recycling program for proper disposal.

Plastic’s popularity keeps growing, with the plastic percentage of the municipal solid waste stream increasing from less than 1 percent in 1960 to over 12 percent in 2007. So before picking up your next plastic product, check to see if it comes made from another material.

Photo credit: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


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