Breaking Down Plastics
Updated: Mar 29
Your Comprehensive Guide to Plastic Pollution and Microplastics
Surely you’ve heard people discussing the harm of plastics, but where do they come from, and why exactly are they so bad? The history of plastic is surprisingly brief for its huge impacts on industries, cultures, and lives across the world. Consumers are becoming more and more wary of plastic as its evolution continues, and for good reason. If you harbor curiosity for what’s choking our harbors, read on!
Where Does Plastic Come From?
So, what is plastic made of, anyway?
The plastic-making process starts with a base material, which is usually natural oil, gas, or cellulose from plants. These raw basics are refined into chemicals like ethane and propane, which are then treated with heat until they turn into monomers— chemicals that can be bonded together to form polymers (what plastics are made of)— such as ethylene or propylene. These monomers are then bonded with a catalyst, another chemical that jumpstarts a reaction, which then forms a grainy powder. This powder is melted down and formed into pellets, which are shipped off to factories to be molded into whatever product is being made with them.
The History of Plastic
In 1862, the first semblance of man-made plastic was introduced to the public by Alexander Parkes at the London International Exhibition. He had developed it in an attempt to create an alternative to shellac for waterproofing purposes. It was made of cellulose, and didn’t end up making any big breaks in popularity.
Then, in 1907, scientist Leo Baekeland created “Bakelite,” a new type of plastic made from formaldehyde, now a known carcinogen, and phenol, a byproduct of coal production. He patented it in 1909 and launched his own company, which was the beginning of the rise of the plastics industry.
During the time period of World War II, many innovations in plastic production were made, and new types of plastics emerged for multitudes of uses. England developed a type of plastic called polyethylene in an effort to improve their planes and other war devices, using it as a lightweight insulation for radar cabling. Nylon was also created during this time and was originally marketed for hosiery, but the US army rationed it to make supplies like rope and parachutes. This was when plastics really began to be used regularly.
Oil embargoes in the 1970s prevented oil from being used nearly as much in plastic production, which urged the industry to experiment with other raw materials. They eventually developed plastics made from plant cellulose, which became more and more mainstream in use over time.
Today, the use of plastic is implemented into almost every area of life, meaning that you’re likely wearing and sitting on, in some form, fossil fuels.
Types of Plastics
You may have noticed those number labels on your plastic items, but what do they mean? Each of these numbers, 1-7, is coded to a different type of plastic, which indicates to you, the consumer, what it is used for and whether it can be recycled. Let’s get into specifics:
Type 1— PET/PETE. This stands for Polyethylene Terephthalate (don’t worry, there’s no quiz), which is used to make many different things, including but not limited to drink bottles, condiment jars, the stuffing in winter jackets, the pellets in bean bags, and hair combs. This type of plastic is commonly recyclable, but make sure that your curbside recycling will take the specific item before you toss it in there (i.e., don’t go putting your bean bags out on the curb— they’ll end up in landfill! Bottles and jars are fine, though.)
Type 2— HDPE. This stands for High Density Polyethylene, another type of polyethylene (you’ll be seeing this one a lot!). It’s used to make milk jugs, grocery and trash bags, shampoo/conditioner/soap bottles, and detergent and bleach jugs, among other things. Many plastic toys are also made of this type. HDPE bottles and jugs can be recycled curbside, and you may be able to drop off grocery bags for recycling somewhere near you, but again, some of these things like toys will not be accepted through curbside recycling programs.
Type 3— PVC. Pipes, gutters, window frames, and plastic films are made of this type, which is also known as Polyvinyl Chloride. Some grocery bags are also made with this. You can also thank PVC for some of your tiles, ducts, and shoes, to name a few others. This type of plastic can be recycled, but check with your recycler before doing so.
Type 4— LDPE. Low Density Polyethylene (you guessed it!) is used to make sandwich bags, cling wrap, squeeze bottles for condiments like ketchup, some grocery bags, and flexible plastic container lids, plus more. This can also be recycled, but as with PVC, contact your recycler to know for sure if they’ll take it.
Type 5— PP. This stands for Polypropylene, which is what makes up things like plastic diapers, prescription bottles, tupperware, and yogurt tubs. PP has a history of being difficult to recycle, so check with your recycler on this one as well. You can also look for send-in programs where you can ship your PP to them for recycling!
Type 6— PS. PS stands for Polystyrene, the plastic that makes up fast food to-go containers. Styrofoam, the material used for takeout, disposable cups, packing peanuts and bike helmets, among other things, is a type of polystyrene. Polystyrene is also used to make plastic cutlery and some other things. It’s generally unrecyclable.
Type 7— Miscellaneous. These plastics are less widely used than the other six types and are therefore given their own category. Things like baby bottles and CDs fall into this category, and are usually unrecyclable, but you can check with your recycler to know for sure on specific items.
Day-to-Day in a Plastic World
Take a moment to think about all the plastic you use on a daily basis, from dawn to dusk and beyond.
The device you’re reading this on is probably framed in plastic or in a plastic case, your pens and mechanical pencils are made of it, your toothbrush likely is. You eat food that comes wrapped in it, and you likely wrap yourself in it, too— many clothes, blankets and towels are made of plastic fibers. You might drink out of it, take your medicine out of it, wear it on your feet in the form of sneakers. Your credit card and ID are made of it.
Look around you right now— how much of your surroundings are made up of plastic? Probably more of them than you think. And nowadays, the alternatives can be hard to find. Why is this such an issue? Read on to find out.
Where Does It All Go?
Somewhere between 75-90% of all plastics disposed of end up in landfills or as litter, meaning a large amount of them will find their way into the ocean. It is estimated that there are 70 kilograms of plastic per every square kilometer of sea floor, where most ocean plastics end up, but much of this plastic also sits at the surface, forming things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating collection of marine debris that spans from the west coast of the US all the way to Japan. This plastic pollution ends up killing a lot of wildlife, mainly by choking and asphyxiation, but through other ways, too.
No matter where the plastic ends up, it’ll be seeping dangerous chemicals into the environment. Each of the types of plastic we discussed before leach toxins and carcinogens into surrounding areas when they’re exposed to heat and/or moisture in too high levels or for too long.
Plastics don’t fully break down for centuries, meaning that every piece of plastic ever created is still around. But they do break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time, into what’s called microplastics. These specks of plastic are so small that wildlife often mistake them for food or just inhale them somehow, which leads to a serious plastic infiltration of the food chain. Species lower on the food chain consume these specks of plastic, and then these species are eaten by predators, which then carry the microplastics inside of them, all the way up until they reach our own plates. The average human consumes about a credit card’s worth of plastic weekly in microplastics. Crazy, huh?
What Sets Alternatives Apart?
Why is silicone touted as the perfect alternative to plastics?
The answer lies in how it breaks down— or rather in how it doesn’t. Silicone is much more durable than plastic in a variety of ways. It generally doesn’t break down as fast as plastic and is much more heat and water resistant. When it gets too hot— which isn’t usually a problem, considering it’s widely used in the oven— it reverts to its virtually harmless building blocks (silica, carbon dioxide, water vapor) unlike plastic, which, as aforementioned, releases multitudes of toxins and carcinogens. If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of silicone use, you can find that info here.
But like all materials, silicone comes with its cons, as well. Since it’s so durable, it cannot biodegrade, so while it is a better alternative to plastic, it ultimately acts the same when it reaches a certain point. Another issue with silicone is the extraction process of the sand it takes to make it. That being said, it’s still a much better alternative to plastics, and is perfectly safe if you buy it food- or medical-grade.
Biodegradable and Compostable Options
There are some alternatives to plastics being made known as bioplastics, which are commonly made of corn, hemp, and other plants, and formed in a different way than traditional plastics in order to break down much more quickly and wholly. And they don’t leach toxic chemicals, either!
Demand for these is growing rapidly but there are a few challenges this new forefront faces, including land usage. These alternatives are also relatively more expensive than traditional plastics to create. To learn more about the trials and tribulations of these, take a look here.
At the end of the day, plastic pollution is killing animals, warping the environment, and leaving unknown impacts on humans that we have yet to fully explore. We are entirely too dependent on plastic, and it’s suffocating this planet. A cultural shift will be crucial in saving wildlife, the earth, and the human race from its detriment. But there is hope— stay tuned for info on how you can help out, and for the inspiring stories of others across the globe combatting plastic pollution.