Plastic, Plastic Everywhere….

Join the Human Impacts Institute‘s Community Conversation: How can you reduce your plastic consumption?


Plastic. It’s everywhere! In our homes, our offices, our gyms, our purses, holding our food, our beverages. Its the annoying, impossible to open, electronic holding containers that you need a saw to pry open. Even our toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner are made of plastic. When you stop and look around, you see that plastic is literally everywhere. I’ve been wondering lately, what is plastic made of? Why is it so bad? How can we all make a difference to decrease our usage of it? (You knew I wasn’t going to say lets go wrap ourselves in it!)

Plastic is defined as “any of a group of synthetic or natural organic materials that may be shaped when soft and then hardened, including many types of resins, resinoids, polymers, cellulose derivatives, casein materials, and proteins: used in place of other materials, as glass, wood, and metals, in construction and decoration, for making many articles, as coatings, and, drawn into filaments, for weaving. They are often known by trademark names, as Bakelite, Vinylite, or Lucite.”Merriam-Webster defines plastic as “a plastic substance; specifically: any of numerous organic synthetic or processed materials that are mostly thermoplastic or thermosetting polymers of high molecular weight and that can be made into objects, films or filaments.” While these are great technical definitions, it doesn’t really explain what plastic is. Basically, plastic is human-made, made from oil and natural gas, via a process called cracking, which becomes types of plastic. Cracking is defined as “a process in which relatively heave hydrocarbons (oil) are broken up by heat into lighter products”. Thus, it’s the process by which oil and gas are broken down and transformed into other materials, i.e. plastic types, such as styrene and vinyl chloride. Basically, oil is broken down into many parts – the big crude is taken off the top, and then it’s broken down even further. These broken down parts are then mixed further with other chemicals to produce a finished product. Chemicals such as phalates are added, which produces plastic. One type of plastic is PVC. PVC is used to make toys, pipes, lunch bags and shower curtains to name a few products.

The next question is why is it bad? First, plastic is made from oil (petroleum).As we try to break our national fossil fuel addition, oil is top of the list of things we need to reduce our consumption of, and its one of the major components of plastic composition. (Starts making you think twice before buying something made out of plastic!) Secondly, plastic does not break down. Meaning, billions of pounds of plastic are sitting in landfills underneath the ground, in our water, and even in our food and bodies. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is an enormous area called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch–up to “twice the size of the continental United States”–filled mostly with reminents of plastic consumer goods.

Thirdly… You say, we recycle, right? Well not everywhere recycles…but that’s another post. The truth is we recycle SOME types of plastic but not ALL types of plastic. How do you know what is recyclable? On the bottom of everything plastic (particularly food items) there is a triangle with a number in it, from 1-7. Typically, 1s are plastic water bottles. 5s are the yogurt containers. Here in NYC, 1s are recycled, but 5s are not. To learn more about what’s recyclable in NYC check out the Department of Sanitation’s website. Some places do recycle 5s though, as my local Whole Foods will collect the 5s to recycle. Some places also recycle plastic bags now due to the Plastic Bag Mandatory Take-Back Recycling Program in NYC.

The point is, yes, we do recycle, but we don’t recycle everything and much of the plastic that is collected for recycling is not actually recycled. Unfortunately, plastic is only recycled if people are buying products made from recycled products. Otherwise, all that recycling ends up joining the rest of our garbage in land fills, incinerators, and–in some cases–being dumped illegally. So as much as we need to recycle, we also need to reduce our usage of plastic. The old adage – “reduce, reuse and recycle” has never been more true and necessary.

Lastly, here are some tips on how to reduce, reuse and recycle – and start to rid yourself of plastic!

1. Bring your own reusable bags to the store. Don’t take a plastic bag and insist you don’t need a bag. And if you forget your bag, ask for paper instead of plastic.

2. When buying a drink, don’t buy one made of plastic. Rather, find a drink made of glass. And if you break down to buy the plastic one, hang onto the bottle until you can find a recycling bin. Often grocery stores will take the recyclables.

3. When buying a cup of coffee, bring your own reusable cup. Or better yet, find a place that serves coffee in real mugs, and sit and enjoy your hot java. (For instance, Joe Coffee, serves in mugs)

4. When buying an iced coffee, bring your own reusable cup. (Starbucks gives a discount when you bring in your own cup)

5. Water bottles – there’s a lot of discussion about water bottles. (And a discussion on BPA is a future post.) Some new bottles are BPA free. But there’s concern that the BPA free is just as bad as the BPA. Jury still out on this one. Go for a metal container instead. But if a plastic, reusable container is all that’s available? Go for it, still better than a throwaway water bottle. The best thing is to do is to stop buying water – water is free! – and use your own reusable water bottle.

6. Store your food in glass containers.

7. (And if you have plastic containers for leftovers, never ever heat plastic in microwave)

8. Bring glass containers to restaurants instead of taking the plastic or Styrofoam container.

9. Use wood for cutting boards instead of plastic.

10. Reuse those bags. The Ziploc bags are easy to clean out, dry and reuse. No need to buy new ones.

11. For disposable plates and silverware – choose paper over plastic, or stores are now carrying compostable plates and silverware. Not on do these items actually biodegrade, but they are compostable should you compost.

12. Shop around for alternatives to plastic (they are there) and support your local green businesses.

The bottom line.

The bottom line is that you won’t completely be able to rid yourself entirely of plastic but these actions will make a sizable difference, especially if everyone is doing it. (Hey, it’s cool! Everyone is doing it) There’s an old green saying, “Think Locally, Act Globally”. Remember that your small, local action helps the whole global world!

By Lauren Lavitt, NYC Climate Coalition Outreach Specialist

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