In various shapes and forms, plastic can be found (almost) everywhere: in the clothes you wear, on your mobile phone, on the TV you see at home, the ATM card you use to pay for dinner with friends… in the container garbage and also in and out of it… on the sidewalks of your street, in the gutter of the roads, in the rivers, in the lakes, in the seas, and in the oceans.
As its name implies (from the Greek plastikós, meaning “suitable for molding”), plastic is undoubtedly one of the most versatile materials of our times. It is inexpensive, light, and durable (it can take centuries to decompose), so its use has been steadily increasing for the last 50/60 years.
Approximately 40% of plastics production in Europe is currently destined for the packaging sector. Construction, transport, electrical and electronic appliances, the textile industry, and agriculture are still other important sectors that benefit from the use of various types of plastics.
PLASTICS – WHAT ARE THEY?
Plastics are organic compounds (their carbon atoms can bond to hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, or chlorine atoms) produced from the conversion of natural productsor artificially made from fossil fuels.
They are polymers with long molecular chains formed by monomers, small repeating molecular units.
Caption- PET Polymer
Many plastics also have additives, which are incorporated into polymers to improve certain mechanical, chemical and/or physical properties (such as combustion resistance), and impurities.
TYPES OF PLASTICS
Most plastics (so-called thermoplastics) can be molded numerous times, melting by heat and hardening again when cooling. The following synthetic plastics belong to this category: Polyethylene (PE), Ethylene Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), Polypropylene (PP), Polystyrene (PS) and Expanded Polystyrene (EPS).
However, not all plastics are moldable successively. In fact, thermosetting (or thermosetting) plastics – such as Polyurethane (PU) and Bakelite – undergo irreversible changes when exposed to a certain amount of heat. For this reason, they are not mechanically recyclable, although they can be reused in other applications.
HOW TO IDENTIFY DIFFERENT PLASTICS
Have you noticed that packaging and plastic products are usually identified with a symbol containing a number and letters?
In order to facilitate the separation and recycling of plastic materials after consumption, an identification system (used worldwide) based on the plastic resins that make up the various objects has been created.
- PET – It is used in the creation of high-quality materials and packaging, such as bottles, fishing yarns, textile fibers (polyester), broom yarns, among many others. It is light, strong, and transparent.
It is recyclable, being the most recycled plastic in the world.
2. HDPE – High-Density Polyethylene – You can find this type of plastic in yogurt packages, detergent and toiletries packaging, hoses, among others. It is an opaque and resistant material.
It is recyclable (unless it contains certain products) and can be used to make new vessels, tubes, and computer components.
3. PVC – It is a very versatile plastic. Lightweight, waterproof, insulating (thermal, electrical, and acoustic), fire-resistant, and chemically inert, it can take many flexible or rigid forms. It can be found on toys, windows, sewer pipes, signage, IV bags, and MB cards.
It is recyclable and can be used in the manufacture of beach and garden furniture and various structures such as bridges and walkways.
4. LDPE – Low-Density Polyethylene – This plastic is used in the manufacture of trash bags, cling film, Tetrapak® packaging, etc. It is lightweight, flexible, and waterproof.
It is suitable for recycling.
5. PP – Used in the manufacture of cups, packaging, and various boxes, straws, bumpers, syringes, among many other objects, this plastic is rigid, waterproof, light and resistant to temperature changes (thermostable).
It is recyclable.
6. PS – It is a bright, rigid, light, and waterproof plastic used in the manufacture of ice cream packaging, yogurt, refrigerator doors and drawers, disposable plates and cups, etc. In its expanded form (EPS), it can be found in electronic equipment packaging and as a thermal insulator.
PS plastics are recyclable.
7. Other – This group includes all other types of plastics that do not have a specific numbering, such as polycarbonate (PC), acrylics, polyamide and ABS, as well as combinations of various types of plastics. These plastics can be found on shoe soles, computers, mobile phones, CDs, etc. Unfortunately, not all are recyclable.
CAN YOU IMAGINE YOUR LIFE WITHOUT PLASTIC?
Although many plastics are potentially fit for recycling, only a small percentage of them are recycled worldwide.
We live in delicate times. We face major environmental challenges. The millions of plastic waste that have accumulated on our Planet and our Oceans have had devastating effects on our ecosystems, severely affecting and threatening the lives of many species of living beings (including ours).
Human quality of life is also beginning to take serious risks, even in environmentally-conscious countries.
It is up to us all to make a difference and save the planet.
It may not be possible to live a life without plastic in our modern-day. But it is undoubtedly possible to live:
using only the essentials,
reusing everything to the fullest,
and, in the end, recycling everything as much as possible.
This article was written by Inês Gonçalves, a member of the Movement Without Straws, which aims to create a community and raise awareness with small gestures, tips, and solidarity events that can make a difference on our planet. Don’t know them yet?
Find out all about the #No Straws movement on their website.