Plastic Pollution

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles on the issue of plastics written by Melody Tennant and Bonnie Bernstein. The series is a prelude to the announcement of a campaign called “Choose to Refuse Single-Use Plastics,” spearheaded by the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council with several partnering organizations.

For the past three years, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé have had the dubious distinction of being the world’s biggest polluters based on how often and in how many countries their packaging turns up discarded on beaches, rivers, parks and roadsides.

Plastics: Miracle And Menace It is estimated that every year we use approximately 1.6 million barrels of oil just to produce plastic water bottles. A Euromonitor International report documented the purchase of more than a million plastic beverage bottles each minute and estimated that about 1,500 plastic bottles go into the landfill or litter the ocean each second of every day.

In the first article of the series, we described the three most commonly used plastics polluting our world: Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene (PE) and Polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Let’s add another to the list: Polystyrene (PS). PS is produced as a clear solid or foam (as in Styrofoam) and used to make items such as disposable cutlery, take-out boxes, hot drink cups and CD cases. PS is one of the most popular single-use plastics but it has little, if any, monetary value to recycling facilities, so they don’t accept it.

In fact, much single-use plastic can’t be recycled or simply isn’t. It is left to decompose in landfill. Just how long does that process take? Here are some eye popping estimates (with plastics identified by their resin codes):

• No. 1 PET plastic bottles: 450-1,000 years

• No. 4 PE plastic bags: 10-100 years • No. 5 PE and PP plastic tooth brushes: 500-1000 years

• No. 6 PS cups: 50-500 years • No. 4 sandwich baggies: 500-1,000 years

• No. 4 cigarette butts: 10-15 years

Yes, cigarette butts! The cottony fibers in the filter are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that takes up to 10 years to degrade. They make up 1.69 billion pounds of trash each year and are the most often discarded piece of waste worldwide – carelessly tossed from car windows, or ground underfoot.

Recycle, reuse, reduce. Those three R’s have become a mantra for environmentally-conscious Americans when it comes to dealing with waste, especially plastic waste. But it turns out that the first R is not the magic solution we hoped it would be. In a fluctuating market for recycled plastic, recyclers find that is unprofitable to sort, clean and recycle many plastics and will no longer accept them.

So if recycling is not a perfect solution, is it better to encourage households to reuse their plastics? Maybe, or maybe not: one study found more bacteria on reused No. 1 plastic water bottles than on the average toilet!

That leaves the third R – reduce. In part 4 of our series, we’ll share news about a promising approach that goes beyond recycling and reusing single-use plastics to reducing their use altogether.

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