The confusing plastic mess

Consumers are confused by plastic. It’s bad, good, wonderful, harmful, and indispensable. Consumers know that plastic waste is a problem but love the plastic products they use every day.

The problem is complex. Plastic is not just one material; it is hundreds. To make matters worse, it can now be made from corn and biomass materials. And if that isn’t enough, scientists, green advocates, and pragmatics can’t agree on which of the problems we should solve.

Hundreds of materials

Plastic is divided into seven different plastic packaging types or “resin codes” from 1 to 7. They are indicated on most plastic products with a triangle formed from three arrows. Several kinds of products can be made from each type of resin code.  PVC, for instance, is used for hard, rigid pipe and also flexible sheeting material in water beds, blow-up toys, and other mailable products.  This is code “3” Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC, Vinyl).

All seven codes are outlined here.

Plastic designated in the “7” category is used for “other” with very different plastics that are suitable on one hand and contain toxic PBA material. To be safe families avoid number 7, but not all of these contain toxic chemicals. So which ones?

The industry has done an ineffective job breaking plastic into groups based on safety or environmental impact, so choosing plastic is a nightmare, with different slants on which is best as a carbon neutral selection versus biodegradable, bio-compostable, or simply must be recycled.

Recycling is difficult to discern for most consumers. While recycling of PET in California is at 75 % overall, nationwide it’s only 25%. Styrofoam is recycled in only a few places across the country, but it is thrown into the recycling bin anyway. Even highly recyclable plastic such as PET (your water bottles) must be absolutely pure to use in recycling, or it will ruin the whole batch of new resin.

Made from fossil and new biomass.

While many attempt to present petroleum as a bad, dirty material, it is really just fossilized plant material that is very old and pressurized from rocks above it. Both plants and petroleum (and coal) have lots of CO2. It is a major component of the polymers that make up plastic. Environmentalists say that CO2 warms the atmosphere, so releasing CO2 is a problem. This happens when we burn gasoline or coal for electricity that drives our electric cars, but plastic stores CO2 nearly forever.

Ironically, oil and coal deposits store CO2, just as plants and plastic store it. Coal and oil have stored it for millions of years, until it is mined. Plants begin to release CO2 soon after dying, so collectively all the time, unless we harvest it and use it for another purpose. Wood would decay in the forest, but it stores CO2 for hundreds of years in houses.

While plastic does store CO2, it also litters our land and oceans if not recycled. It is undesirable because it lasts nearly forever, and it can leach or “off gas” chemicals. This undesirable characteristic drives chemical engineers toward developing plastics that do break down into natural elements and have fewer toxic chemicals. But CO2 is about as natural as they come.

Because plants have CO2 and other materials to make polymers, new breakthroughs have made it possible to make plastic out of plants, such as corn. These new bioplastics can degrade under certain circumstances which may possibly make them more acceptable for many environmentalists.

The problem is that consumers are having trouble recognizing bioplastic and understanding under what circumstances these new plastics will benefit the environment. A recent European study indicated that certain packaging could be identified, while plastic cups could not. So far marketing seems to not be explaining the differences.  Missteps in early European roll-outs caused confusion as biodegradability was not realized as they expected. The industry has been clumsy to transparently explain the real differences and benefits of bio-plant-based plastics.

Which problem should we solve?

Littering, chemical leaching, recycling, sustainability, and degradability are the primary issues that detract from the otherwise magical product. If there was agreement on which problem to solve, it would make it easier for consumers. But even similarly minded folks may disagree.

If we eliminate plastic packaging, foodies say spoilage will increase in food stores, causing more sickness. If we switch to bioplastics, thousands of new landfills constructed just right for bio-compostable plastic will be needed, or they will still last for hundreds of years in a landfill. But they would be safer for the environment.

It is a game of trade-offs right now. No perfect solution exists . . . yet.  In the meantime the consumer is still confused!

Perhaps it is up to the plastic marketers to fix the problem.

Just as most industries, the plastics industry as a whole has not been forthcoming about its products. Despite very little benefit plastic microbeads were produced as someone’s pet project. These little monsters improve human life very little but are harmful to wildlife and nature. Why did toothpaste makers and cosmetic firms make the change to plastic for cosmetic reasons only?

Consumers need to know the real benefits and the downside of each type of plastic, and companies need to be clear when they are BPA-free, or use bio-compostable plant-based resins. Why do we call this entire range of polymers plastic? Couldn’t we use another material name for plant-based polymers? This would alert consumers to the differences in material instead of lumping all under the moniker of “plastic.”

Consumers love plastic and hate it at the same time. But opportunities to make products from plant polymers are now very realistic. Yet the public will only embrace them if the path is clear and they are easily marked for what the recycling/compostable profile is. The seven-category plastic packaging codes are not sufficient.

Learn More

The seven plastic resin codes

Recycling profile for common plastic categories Properties, applications, and products made with recycled content from the American Chemistry Council


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