In 2018, in the United States of America, we produced 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste each year. This equates to about 4.9 pounds per person per day. Of that amount 32.1% was recycled and composted, and about 50% is added to the the landfill . 1
These are the facts, while I am elated that we are reusing one third of our waste, I also want to increase the amount we re-utilize first, then ultimately eliminate our need to use the landfill. While this movement has been an ongoing process, we still have a lot of work to do. There maybe some things we cannot yet change, such as the packaging of some items; not every company/industry has made a change yet, but there are small changes that we each can do to decrease our waste. If everyone made 2-3 simple changes, the demand for plastics would decrease. If we unite together, our voice will be heard. If everyone no longer bought certain items packaged in plastics, companies and industries would be forced to make a change to appeal to the consumers.
This idea of controlling where we place our money and time works with with most problems that plague our society. Let’s outline and discuss some common issues, and what solutions we can use to resolve them.
- In short, there are 7 types of plastics. Each with variable degrees of use and recyclability.
- Some are not to come in contact with food/drink substances due to the chemical transference that can occur. Some are also easier and more commonly recycled than others.
- Take into account that plastic was not made to be recycled. In fact, approximately 50% of plastic used is for single use application.
The type of plastic ( 1-7) are usually etched or formed into the plastic itself. In general, plastic s 1, 2, and 3 are commonly used to store food and drinks and generally deemed safe. Plastics 1, 2, and 3 are the more commonly recycled plastic polymers. Plastic 5, has great potential to be but is not common. Plastic 4, 6, 7 could be recycled in theory but, it would take an immense amount of effort in sorting some of the material from co-mingled plastics. In conjunction, would require increased amount of energy, water, and could release a considerable amount of emissions.
- Type 1: water/soda (carbonated) bottles (not the lid!), pre-packed food trays
- Type 2: Toys, plant pots, compost containers, milk/drink bottles, bleach bottle
- Type 3: PVC pipes, synthetic leather, credit cards, shoes
- Type 4: Bubble wrap, thick shopping bags, fertilizer bag, some bottle caps
- Type 5: Most bottle caps, straws, condiment container, chip bags, yogurt container
- Type 6: Cutlery, egg carton, toys, hangers, yogurt cups, styrofoam
- Type 7: Cds, pill bottles, nylon, baby bottles
The ability to recycle certain plastic is limited by your state/location, and the availability of resources to recycle them affectively.
What other options do we have? 5, 6, 7
- Cardboard, hemp products, bamboo products, other plant based products (coconut)
- Stainless steel, ceramics/stone, glass, fabrics
- Repurpose plastics (i.e. kitchen cabinets)
- Thrift shopping, second hand stores, garage sales
Our options are endless. Whether it is coconut shells or calabash bowls, bamboo toothbrushes and combs, glass cups, or stainless steel straws, there is almost always an alternative for common items made from plastic. Great places to find these items, are in common department stores, local shops, and online stores; they may cost a little more up from but with great care they will last a very long time! Common items that most people do not consider include: stainless steel food containers, neem brushes and combs, bamboo cutlery, kitchen cabinets made from recycled plastic, and plant leather– yes, there are really leather like material made from plants. While wood based products are widely use, it is not the most sustainable product due to the amount of energy needed to transport the lumber, chemical and physical process during the manufacturing process, and water consumption.
It is important to understand that everyone will produce waste, use plastic and that is okay. What we should focus on is how much waste we produce/plastic we use, and then actively work towards reducing that amount. If we all take responsibility for our own waste we collectively move closer to a more sustainable world. The more we reuse, the less we produce.
Try these new tips!
- Instead of buying new items, try second hand items, shopping at thrift stores, antique shops and pawn shops.
- If you pack your lunch for school or work, try wrapping your sandwich in parchment paper instead of storing it in a plastic bag.
- If you order take out food, request no to-go silverware; instead wrap your own silverware in cloth or put in a clean pencil bag and store in your car, office, bag for use when needed.
- National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling. EPA. 10 Nov.2020. web
- Mertes, Alyssa. Types of plastic and their recycle codes. Quality logo products.2017. pp 1-10.
- Hunt, E. J., Zhang, C., Anzalone, N., & Pearce, J. M. (2015). Polymer recycling codes for distributed manufacturing with 3-D printers. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 97, 24-30.
- Hopewell, J., Dvorak, R., & Kosior, E. (2009). Plastics recycling: challenges and opportunities. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1526), 2115-2126.
- Bajpai P. (2015) Basic Overview of Pulp and Paper Manufacturing Process. In: Green Chemistry and Sustainability in Pulp and Paper Industry. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-18744-0_2
- Gautam, A. M., & Caetano, N. (2017). Study, design and analysis of sustainable alternatives to plastic takeaway cutlery and crockery. Energy Procedia, 136, 507-512.
- Ljungberg, L. Y. (2007). Materials selection and design for development of sustainable products. Materials & Design, 28(2), 466-479.