Plastic 101: What You Need to Know

As the war on plastic pollution fights on, we've answered some of the most commonly asked plastic questions on Google.
March 29, 2022

Plastic has changed the world. If you look around, you'll likely see not one but multiple items made using some type of plastic. However, our demand for this versatile material has become dangerous for our planet, wildlife, and possibly our health.

As the war on plastic pollution fights on, we've answered some of the most commonly asked plastic questions on Google.

What is plastic?

Plastic is a man-made product that does not naturally decompose. It’s a term used to describe ‘any synthetic polymer whose primary backbone is carbon.’ Most people are surprised to learn that plastic is derived from natural materials such as crude oil, natural gas, coal and cellulose, which go through a process called polycondensation or polymerization

They are used so much due to their ability to be moulded into various forms. Structurally solid and cheap to produce, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most commonly used materials worldwide. 

What is plastic used for?

Plastic is one of the most widely used materials in the world, and it’s used in various products from packaging, toys, clothes, textiles, transportation and electronics. You’ll find some form of plastic in most things you use daily, and many of these items might surprise you. 

For example, teabags contain a plastic called Polypropylene, which is used to seal the bag together during manufacturing. A standard teabag can contain up to 25% plastic, and research found that steeping a single teabag releases about 11.6 billion tiny particles of plastic, known as microplastics.

Canned drinks may look to be made from aluminium, but they are lined with a plastic resin called Epoxy. The plastic lining stops the fizzy drink from eroding the metal. Without it, a can of Coke would erode in three days. 

Why is plastic bad for the environment?

Plastic is a man-made material that does not decompose but breaks down into smaller pieces. It’s not yet clear how long it takes for plastic to degrade, but we do know that while plastic is left in our ecosystems, it has a damaging impact. It’s harming wildlife and quite possibly our health too. 

But the problem starts even before we discard it. Plastic is made from planet-warming fossil fuels, and our demand for plastic means we’re constantly relying on fuels that are contributing to climate change. 

What is ocean-bound plastic (OBP)?

By definition, ocean-bound plastic is ‘plastic waste at risk of ending up in the ocean’. This doesn’t just include bottles floating on the surface water or microbeads from personal care products, but any ‘abandoned plastic waste’ that falls within 50km of shores where there is no (or inefficient) waste management. 

The ‘OBP Certifications Program’ has defined four categories of ocean-bound plastic waste:

  1. Potential Ocean-bound Plastic

Inadequately collected plastic waste located within a 50 km distance of the coastline

  1. Waterways Ocean-bound Plastic

Inadequately collected plastic waste located 200m from rivers & in rivers

  1. Shoreline Ocean-bound Plastic

Inadequately collected plastic waste located 200m from shores

  1. Fishing Material

Used fishing gears and plastic bycatch

The Plastic Bank

How does plastic harm wildlife?

An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans each year. To put that number into perspective, that’s the equivalent weight of 150 Titanics. Over a million seabirds die every year from ingesting plastic debris, and more than 100,000 marine mammals suffer a similar fate. 

Microplastics have been found in the stomachs of turtles, fish and whales. In the Philippines, the body of a deceased whale was found to have 40kg of plastic in its stomach

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are minuscule plastic particles less than five millimetres in length (roughly the size of a sesame seed). These tiny bits of plastic are caused when larger pieces, such as bottles and bags, break down. A study on ocean pollution by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that up to 30% of plastic in the world’s oceans could be microplastics.

Nobody is fully aware of the damage they’re causing to our planet yet, but it’s clear that they’re finding their way into our water sources, marine life, food, and bodies! 

A recent study found that 80% of water is contaminated with microplastics. Even bottled water isn’t safe from plastic, with 11 big-name brands found to have plastic fibres in their water. Ten thousand plastic particles were found in every litre of Nestle Pure Life bottled water.  

Can microplastics harm you?

While we’re aware that microplastics are making their way up the food chain and into our bodies, we’re not quite sure of their full impact on our health yet. However, while the effect is still being researched, scientists believe there is cause for concern. This year, researchers from the Netherlands and the UK discovered tiny plastic particles deep inside surgical patients’ lungs and donors’ blood.

For scientists, the worry stems from the chemicals used to make plastic, most of which are toxic to humans and wildlife. A recent study found at least 10,000 unique chemicals in plastic, and 2,400 of them are harmful to human health. 

It’s believed that it will take many more years before we fully understand how microplastics harm our health. 

How long does it take for plastic bottles to decompose?

You’ll find that many sources state that plastic bottles will decompose after roughly 450 years, but while this is a helpful figure to illustrate the lenght of time discarded plastic could be around for, it’s not a verifiable fact. The truth is, nobody can answer this question with absolute certainty. Since plastic use became widespread in the 1950s, it’s hard to know precisely when it will fully disintegrate.

Though it’s important to remember, plastic doesn’t ever truly vanish. Instead, it breaks down into micro and nanoplastics, flooding our oceans, marine wildlife, drinking water and food, thus making it harder for us to understand the lifespan of a single piece of plastic.

Can you recycle plastic?

Recycling plastic isn’t as easy as cardboard, glass and paper. For example, crisp packets cannot be recycled as they are lined with other materials, such as aluminium. Flexible plastics cannot be recycled, and plastics contaminated with food won’t be recycled either. Only the cleanest plastics make it through. 

Since the 1950s, only 9% of all the plastic produced has been recycled, and there are several reasons for that. Some people don’t realize that plastic can be recycled and don’t split their waste, and large nations are shipping their plastic waste to developing countries, where it’s not managed or recycled correctly. 

In 2018, the equivalent of 68,000 shopping containers of plastic recycling was exported from the US to developing countries. However, a considerable proportion of the plastic exported was not recyclable and ended up in landfill. 

A survey by the World Economic Forum found that 64% of people globally don’t have access to suitable recycling facilities, and 15% of people around the world don’t trust their local recycling programmes. So when it comes down to it, the best way to know whether an item can be recycled or not is to look at the symbols on the back. Many people believe that the recycling symbol means it’s easily recyclable, but that’s not the case. The emblem and numbers refer to the type of plastic it’s made from and how it can recycled.  

How to make a difference

Everyone has the power to help reduce our plastic crisis by looking at how much plastic you use and how you dispose of it and decide whether it’s essential or not.

If you’re an individual, consider reducing your plastic consumption in any way possible. This could be as simple as relying on reusable water bottles and shopping bags, going plastic free in the bathroom and kitchen, and shopping zero-waste wherever possible.

If you run a business, take some time to audit the plastic you use in your manufacturing, shipping and packaging, and adapt your usage where possible. 

We’ve developed a short E-book on how to make your Ecommerce business more sustainable with a section dedicated to plastic. You can download it for free here. For areas where you can’t change, you can offset your plastic with Greenspark. We partner with The Plastic Bank, who are transforming plastic waste into empowering income and building ethical recycling ecosystems in coastal communities. 

Contact one of our friendly staff today for more details on minimising your plastic waste with Greenspark.

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