Updated: Sep 19, 2020
We use #plastic all the time, and everybody knows that it's not sustainable, it's not green, it causes ocean pollution and it ends up in landfill and taking up land spaces. And... What else? Why are we still using it? Why it is so difficult to phase out plastics? What are the sustainable alternatives to plastics?
Plastic is lightweight, durable, prevent contamination, protect the elements, and it is resource efficient. Only 4% of world's oil production is used for plastic (it is considered as low compare with others), so it's widely used in many purposes. The majority of the plastics are non-biodegradable, so we encourage the users to reuse or recycle it instead of disposing it. However, do pay attention to many types of the plastics will leach unhealthy chemicals and made it harder to reuse especially for food related products.
According to the Science Advanced paper, of the 8.3 bn tonnes of virgin plastic produced worldwide, only 9% has been recycled, 12% was incinerated and 79% was accumulated in the landfills or the natural environment. It was estimated 100 million marine animals die from plastic disposal. The study showed that if we fail to act now, we will see ocean plastic stocks triple by 2040.
To reduce plastic waste, the most effective way for an end user (consumer) is to reduce the single use plastic products and packagings. Purchase refillable products, return and reuse the packagings are methods to consider. For a business owner, the key is to reduce the unnecessary plastic packaging, and replace virgin plastic packagings to biodegradable or Eco friendly packagings like 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials.
The circular economy solution to plastic polution also encourages designers with innovative thinking to design packaging that promotes multiple usage of products, i.e. CIF launched ecorefill, cut 75% of plastic use and it's cheaper than the others in spray bottles.
To understand more about the impact of plastic to your daily life, turn your plastic product bottom up and you may see a number in a triangle sign:
In short, you may consider the number 1, 2 and number 5 plastic products and avoid the rest strictly for food related products. You should also reuse the plastic products, and say no to the single use plastic products.
1 – Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE or Polyester)
PET is good to preserve the food/drink so it's commonly used for food and drink packaging. However, the carcinogen content released when it's over heated or after a long period of product life is known to cause cancer.
PET is recyclable and to make new bottles, containers and packagings.
2 – High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
HDPE is more dense, stable and stronger. So it's more widely seen from a bottle, to furniture, and to construction materials.
HDPE is non-biodegradable, but it can be reused for at least 10 times as long as it is not exposed to ultraviolet light (study shown that it leach oestrogen mimicking additive chemicals, potentially disrupt the human hormonal system.
3 – Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Warning: this is considered as the most hazardous plastic, it may leach chemicals we are commonly known like bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, lead, dioxins, mercury, and cadmium.
We usually see the PVC material used for toys, packaging, non food bottles, construction materials.
It's hardly recyclable due to the toxicity of the material.
4 – Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
As it's cheap and easy to produce the LDPE plastic product, it's commonly used in plastic bags, packaging, and many things. It's difficult to recycle, and may also cause hormonal effects to human bodies.
5 – Polypropylene (PP)
We usually see water bottles, baby milk bottles made of this material, but the bad news is, it's not easily recyclable. It's more heat resistant and relatively stronger.
6 – Polystyrene (PS)
We are commonly known it as styrofoam, used to take away food containers, or disposable single use plastic containers. There were already many publications warning about how toxic this product is to your body, and it's hardly recyclable.
7 – Other
Sometimes we see number 7 under our plastic bottle, and we should start to wonder what it's made of. Some polycarbonate (PC) products are classified under number 7 but it's known to associate with BPA. In short, it should be avoided in your life.
We do need plastics because of its advantage in material and function, what we need to avoid is the plastic waste. The biggest attention and impact is put on the single used plastic at this moment, as this will create a significant impact to reduce ocean plastic pollution and landfills. Designers should pay attention to design multi usage products and packagings to increase the life of the plastic products. More importantly, don't use more than what you need.