The ‘How’, ‘What’, ‘Where’, ‘Why’, & ‘Is’ Plastic FAQ Guide

This is a FAQ guide answering some of the most common questions that include:

  • ‘What Plastic … X ‘
  • ‘How Plastic … X ‘
  • ‘How Plastic Affects … X ‘
  • ‘Where Plastic … X ‘
  • ‘Why Plastic … X ‘
  • ‘Is Plastic … X ‘

 

What Plastic (& Plastic Numbers) Can Be Recycled?

Read this guide about the common plastics that are usually recycled.

 

What Is PET Plastic?

PET (or PETE), stands for Polyethylene Terephthalate, and comes under the Plastic #1 classification

It is usually clear, strong and hard plastic, and might be used commonly for soft drink bottles.

 

What Is Single Use Plastic?

As the name suggest, it’s generally plastic that is used one time (usually for a short period of time – might only be for seconds or minutes) and then disposed of.

An example is a plastic shopping bag that is used once and thrown away, or a food wrapper that is unwrapped and thrown out immediately.

 

What Is Biodegradable Plastic?

Plastic labelled as biodegradable plastic is usually a type of bioplastic, made partially with biodegradable material, such as plant based feedstock (as opposed to feedstock that comes from fossil fuels).

You do have to research each plastic labelled as biodegradable or compostable though, because they may still come with synthetic additives or chemicals, and may only biodegrade under certain conditions (which may not be available in a landfill or typically in the environmental for example).

 

What Is Plastic Pollution?

Generally refers to plastic debris that has been littered or escaped on the land, or into the ocean.

It may be categorised into macro plastic pollution (large bits of plastic), and micro and nano plastic pollution (microscopic plastic particles).

Plastic pollution can cause several problems for humans and wild life.

 

What Plastic Ends Up In The Ocean?

Both land based (70-80% of total), and marine based plastic (20-30% of total) ends up in the ocean.

Land based plastic may include plastic packaging waste and other types of plastic, and marine based plastic may include fishing equipment such as lines, nets, and so on.

Read more about potential solutions to ocean plastic pollution in this guide.

 

What Plastic Ends Up On Land?

Plastic on land comes from a range of sources.

One of the most common is micro plastics from the textiles and clothes we wear ending up in waste water and water supplies, but we also litter plastic that ends up on land and on beaches and coast lines.

 

What Is Plastic Made Of?

Fossil fuels such as refined oil and processed natural gas by products.

Different types of plastic may be made of different additives, plasticizers, resin, chemicals etc.

For example, PVC may be made of slightly different chemicals to PET/PETE.

 

How Plastic Is Made

Different plastic types and plastic products are made in different ways and from slightly different chemicals and additives.

It’s worth doing a general search of ‘how plastic is made’, and a more specific search like ‘how pvc plastic is made’, or ‘how pvc plastic pipes are made’ – just as an example.

But, most plastics on the market today are made from a petrochemical feedstock.

There are some alternate types of plastics known as bioplastics made from renewable plant materials.

 

How Plastic Is Recycled

Plastic may be recycled in slightly different ways depending on the recycling facilities available in each city.

One city may have different recycling waste collection systems and recycling facility capabilities than another.

So, it’s worth researching how a particular local recycler is able to recycle plastics and what plastics they can recycle.

But, the general process of recycling might involve either mechanical or chemical recycling as the main recycling method, and the steps of:

  • Sorting of plastic (which may involve picking, and separation of plastic by certain variables)
  • Shredding, and sieving of plastic
  • Eliminating impurities from plastic, usually by melting
  • Extruding plastic into forms like pellets (which can be used for other products)

Read more about the general plastic recycling process at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic_recycling

 

How Plastic Affects The Environment

The impact of plastic on the environment includes the water, air, soil and eco-systems and habitats that make up the environment:

  • Fresh water – plastic gets in rivers, lakes and other fresh water sources. Rivers can carry plastic from inland to coastal areas, and into the ocean from coastal populations. Plastic can leach chemicals into water (BPA, and phthalates amongst them), and carry organic pollutants and toxins from one location to another.
  • Salt water – we are referring to the ocean here. Leaching, carrying of organic toxin and pollutants, and microplastics in particular are issues in the ocean with plastic.
  • Air – plastic is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than first thought. Plastic that is burnt for energy also emits air pollutants that may or may not be processed by incineration technology.
  • Soil – leachate from landfills can leach out and contaminate soil where there is not a proper landfill liner or leachate management system in place.
  • Eco-systems and habitats – plastic has the ability to interact with and damage eco systems and habitats, with one example being dumped fishing gear on coral and seabeds.

Read more on the above issues in these guides:

 

How Plastic Affects Animals

Plastic can impact land, air, and aquatic (fresh and salt water) life.

The three main ways plastic impacts animals is via:

  • Ingestion- inhaling or swallowing of large plastic items (like straws), or small plastics like microplastics.
  • Entanglement – plastic based items restricting movement of, or tangling up animals. Fishing nets and fishing lines are a common example of this for seals, whales, dolphins, turtles and so on.
  • &, Interaction Or Abrasion – collision with or interaction with plastic that leads to harm.

Read more in this guide:

 

How Plastic Affects Marine Life (Turtles, Seals, Whales, Fish, Birds Etc.)

Plastic affects marine life in the ways we described above.

Specifically, marine life is affected by land based plastic waste like fishing gear and fishing equipment such as fishing lines, fishing nets, hooks, and other discarded and dumped gear.

 

Marine Animals In General

  • Entanglement – The entrapping, encircling or constricting of marine animals by plastic debris. Entanglement cases have been reported for at least 344 species to date, including all marine turtle species, more than two-thirds of seal species, one-third of whale species, and one-quarter of seabirds. Entanglement by 89 species of fish and 92 species of invertebrates has also been recorded
  • Ingestion – Ingestion of plastic can occur unintentionally, intentionally, or indirectly through the ingestion of prey species containing plastic and it has now been documented for at least 233 marine species, including all marine turtle species, more than one-third of seal species, 59% of whale species, and 59% of seabirds. Ingestion by 92 species of fish and 6 species of invertebrates has also been recorded

– ourworldindata.org

 

  • 100,000 marine creatures a year die from plastic entanglement and these are the ones found.
  • Approximately 1 million sea birds also die from plastic.
  • At least two thirds of the world’s fish stocks are suffering from plastic ingestion.

– oceancrusaders.org

 

  • Globally, 100,000 marine mammals die every year as a result of plastic pollution. This includes whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions.
  • There are two principle ways that encountering marine debris can be fatal for these creatures: ingestion (eating) or entanglement in plastic-based fishing gear.

– wwf.org.au

 

  • … plastic pollution affects at least 700 marine species, while some estimates suggest that at least 100 million marine mammals are killed each year from plastic pollution
  • [turtles, seals and sea lions, seabirds, fish, and whales and dolphins are some of the marine animals most affected]

– onegreenplanet.org

 

  • According to the United Nations, at least 800 species worldwide are affected by marine debris, and as much as 80 percent of that litter is plastic.

– pewtrusts.org

 

Turtles

  • Once a turtle had 14 plastic items in its gut, there was a 50% likelihood that it would die.
  • Globally it’s estimated that approximately 52% of all sea turtles have eaten plastic.

– wwf.org.au

 

How Plastic Affects The Ocean

We’ve listed the different ways above – large plastics and micro plastics affect the ocean, marine life, and marine eco systems.

Read more in these guides:

 

How Plastic Affects Humans & Human Health

There’s several key ways that plastics may have the potential to cause harm to human health (different sources and studies indicate differing levels of risk):

  • Via BPA leaching
  • Via Phthalates leaching
  • Via leaching of other chemicals 
  • Via the ingestion of micro plastics

Other issues may include the economic impact of plastic waste, and the issues to do with the disposal and waste management of plastic

Read more in this guide:

 

How Plastic Affects The Economy

Positive Impact

There’s a few different ways plastic positively affects the economy:

  • The value added by the plastic industry itself (production of plastic, employees at plastic production companies etc.)
  • Value added by plastic to other industries with the important tasks it allows us to perform. For example, packaging for the food and agricultural industries

Triplepundit.com outlines the value of the plastic packaging industry in the hundreds of billions in America, whilst Ptonline.com identifies that the estimated value of total plastic shipments in the US is over $500 billion, and plastics employ millions of people in America. 

 

Negative Impact

The main ways plastic negatively affects the economy are:

  • The cost to physically clean up plastic waste and pollution in the environment (such as in the ocean and in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch)
  • The cost of plastic to in terms of lost income to other industries (such as the tourism industry), and the cost of plastic in terms of lost economic value overall to various parts of society

The cost to clean up the ocean is roughly about $5 to gather a kilo of plastic (and it’s usually not profitable to re-use or dispose of this plastic afterwards), and some estimates put the cost of plastic pollution in just the ocean alone at around 2.5 trillion a year.

This is an interesting estimate given that ‘Of the 260 million tons of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the Ocean, according to a Greenpeace report … Seventy percent of the mass eventually sinks, damaging life on the seabed’ (plastic-pollution.org).

So, we’d have to ask what the cost of plastic might be that ends up on land and both in and out of landfills, recycling or incineration/waste to energy facilities.

 

Where Was Plastic Invented

There should be a distinction between the first synthetic polymer that was invented, and the first fully synthetic plastic that was invented:

  • The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory
  • In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite … [in part] to meet the needs of the rapidly electrifying United States

– sciencehistory.org

 

Where Does Plastic Come From, & Where Is It Made

Most plastic comes from fossil fuels.

In the US, plastic starts out with crude oil refining or natural gas processing

The compounds from these processes are used by ‘Chemists [who] combine various types of monomers in many different arrangements to make an almost infinite variety of plastics with different chemical properties’ (science.howstuffworks.com)

 

Where Is Plastic Used

Plastic is used across different industries, for different uses and applications, and different countries lead in terms of overall production and plastic waste …

 

This guide outlines the industries that use the most plastic in society:

This guide outlines the various uses and benefits we have for plastic in society:

In terms of plastic waste produced by country, Ourworldindata.org has plastic waste figures:

  • With the largest population, China produced the largest quantity of plastic, at nearly 60 million tonnes. This was followed by the United States at 38 million, Germany at 14.5 million and Brazil at 12 million tonnes.

 

Where Does Plastic End Up

Consider these three disposal methods for plastic, and where the plastic ends up:

Plastic adequately disposed of via waste management, but ending up in landfill – most of the plastic we dispose of isn’t recycled (most figures put that amount of plastic not recycled over the 90% mark). But, different countries and cities can have different shares of plastic going to landfill, incineration and recycling

Plastic littered, and ending up on land (in rivers, in the soil, on beaches etc) or in the ocean – the rate of littering is about 2% of a country’s plastic waste generation

Plastic Inadequately disposed of and ending up on land (in rivers, in the soil, on beaches etc), or in the ocean – low to middle income countries have much higher rates of plastic being inadequately disposed of i.e. leaking from rubbish dumping sites because landfills aren’t secure or closed off

 

Where Is Plastic Recycled

Mainly recycling facilities, but the complete plastic recycling process can extend out to several third parties who are responsible for sorting, discarding, purifying, forming or pelletizing, re-selling and reusing plastic recycled waste.

TheAtlantic.com outlines a piece of plastic we send to be recycled can enter ‘an elaborate global system within which its plastic is sold, shipped, melted, resold, and shipped again—sometimes zigzagging the globe’

Read more about the potential journey of a plastic bottle sent for recycling in the US at theatlantic.com

 

Where To Recycle Plastic Bags

Plastic bags aren’t able to be recycled in most places.

But, some cities do offer plastic bag and ‘soft plastic’ recycling services. Do an online search for ‘soft plastics recycling in [insert city name’]

 

Where Is Plastic Pollution

It can happen on land, and in the oceans, mainly.

Plastic on land comes from a range of sources, and happens in a range of ways.

Ocean plastic pollution has it’s own unique causes to consider.

Also note, a more indirect form of plastic pollution might occur from the burning of plastic waste – where air pollution could occur (from dioxins and other air or atmosphere contaminants), and incinerator ash could cause pollution if not treated or recycled or disposed of properly.

 

Where Does Plastic In The Ocean Come From

Roughly 70-80% of plastic in the ocean in total comes from land based sources, and 20-30% comes from marine sources (fishing discards and fishing equipment/gear).

Plastic in the ocean mainly comes from coastal populations within 50kms of the coast line, and rivers are a major way that plastic gets carried from inland to these coastal locations.

 

Where Is Plastic In The Ocean

There’s four points to consider here (plastic could end up in all four of these locations):

  • Plastic congregates on the surface of the water at ocean basins and gyres
  • Plastic breaks up into micro plastics and nano plastics and sinks to the deep sea and deep sea sediments
  • Plastic breaks down and ends up in organisms and living things
  • Plastic breaks down and is washed up or buried in our shorelines

– ourworldindata.org

 

Where Is The Plastic Island

The plastic island people refer to is the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’.

You can view the parts of the ocean with the greatest masses of plastics in surface ocean waters by ocean basin at https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution

Go to the section ‘Which Oceans Have The Most Plastic Waste’

 

Where To Shop Plastic Free

It depends on the country and city you are in.

Some cities now have dedicated plastic free and zero waste stores, as well as bulk food stores that minimise plastic packaging (by using packaging such as compostable or reusable bags and containers, and tin ties, just as examples).

You can also cut down on plastic in your own shopping by re-using bags, and looking for products that includes less or no plastic packaging.

 

Why Was Plastic Invented?

There should be a distinction between the first synthetic polymer that was invented, and the first fully synthetic plastic that was invented:

  • The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory
  • In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite … [in part] to meet the needs of the rapidly electrifying United States

– sciencehistory.org

 

Why Is Plastic Bad/Why Is It Harmful/Why Say No To Plastic

Read about some of the potentially harmful effects of plastic in this guide:

 

Why Plastic Pollution Is A Problem

Plastic pollution causes several potential issues on land in the ocean. Read more in these guides:

Also note, a more indirect form of plastic pollution might occur from the burning of plastic waste – where air pollution could occur (from dioxins and other air or atmosphere contaminants), and incinerator ash could cause pollution if not treated or recycled or disposed of properly.

 

Why Is Plastic In The Ocean

Because there are both land based, and ocean based plastic sources responsible for putting plastic into the ocean.

Plastic from the ocean mainly ends up there from coastal populations within 50kms of the coast line, and rivers are a significant way that plastic from inland gets carried out to coastal populations (ourworldindata.org)

Marine based plastic sources mainly come from fishing vessels (fishing gear, fishing equipment, dumped gear and and equipment like pots).

 

Why Plastic Bags Should Or Should Not Be Banned

Read more in this guide:

 

Why Plastic Straws Should Or Should Not Be Banned

Read more in this guide:

 

Why Plastic Bottles Should Or Should Not Be Banned

Unlike plastic straws and plastic bags, plastic bottles tend to be hard plastic, and can generally be recycled, so there tends to be a weaker push to have plastic bottles banned (amongst other reasons such as plastic bottles being a more necessary plastic item).

 

Is Plastic Biodegradable?

Most plastics aren’t biodegradable – they don’t break down via bacteria – they break down via photodegradation (exposure to UV radiation and light).

There are some plastics types of plastics out there (such as plant based bioplastics) that are labelled as biodegradable or compostable. You need to research each of these individual plastics though, because often what you find is that these plastics still contain non natural additives and chemicals, and only break down under certain conditions (which usually aren’t available in industrial landfills or in the natural environment).

Read more about the breaking down and degradation of plastic in this guide.

 

Is Plastic Recyclable?

It depends on the plastic type, the plastic product or item, and the recycling facilities and services available in a city.

In many developed countries and cities, some of the most commonly recycled plastics and plastic products are:

  • Hard plastics
  • Plastic #1 (PET)
  • Plastic #2 (HDPE) 

Read more in these guides about plastic recycling:

 

Is Plastic Renewable?

Most plastics include fossil fuels like oil or natural gas as a feedstock, so they can’t be considered as renewable.

But, there may be some types of bioplastics (if they contain 100% sustainable and natural ingredients) that are considered renewable. It depends on the specific plastic though.

 

Is Plastic Sustainable?

In general, no, as they mostly contain fossil fuels as a feedstock.

 

Is Plastic Made From Oil?

Most plastics are. And, in the US, many plastics are made from natural gas processing, and crude oil refining.

 

Is Plastic Bad For You?

This is highly controversial.

Some sources list the potential impacts BPAs, phthalates and other plastic additives and chemicals can have on humans. Regulatory authorities mainly say though that plastics and their additives and chemicals are safe at the levels humans are exposed to in society right now.

Read more about the potentially harmful effects of plastic in this guide.

 

Sources

1. Various BMR resources

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic_recycling

3. https://science.howstuffworks.com/plastic.htm

4. https://www.plasticseurope.org/en/about-plastics/what-are-plastics/how-plastics-are-made

5. https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics

6. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]

7. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/12/what-actually-happens-to-a-recycled-plastic-bottle/418326/

8. https://www.ptonline.com/articles/lets-talk-about-the-economy

9. https://www.triplepundit.com/story/2016/new-plastics-economy-thriving-plastic-world/56486

10. http://plastic-pollution.org/

11. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2018/09/24/plastic-pollution-affects-sea-life-throughout-the-ocean

12. https://www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/plastic-pollution-is-killing-sea-turtles-heres-how#gs.1cb4lv

13. http://oceancrusaders.org/plastic-crusades/plastic-statistics/

14. https://www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/plastic-in-our-oceans-is-killing-marine-mammals#gs.1cbbig

15. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/marine-animals-are-dying-because-of-our-plastic-trash/

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