Plastic is a part of our everyday lives. Our water comes in plastic bottles, our tools, our houses, and our clothes are made out of plastic; even toothpaste contains microplastics. In today’s society, it can be a real challenge to go even a day without using any plastic. Nevertheless, we still don’t have a clear idea of what it is and just how much of an impact it is having on our planet.
What is plastic?
Plastics are substances with similar molecular structures and physicochemical characteristics. Their main properties include elasticity and flexibility over a range of temperatures, allowing them to mould to different shapes. Most of them are synthetic materials and petroleum by-products, obtained through polymerization processes, in other words, the synthesis of long chains of carbon atoms, which gives rise to an organic substance that is malleable when hot and resistant to cold. It is an extremely versatile material, highly resistant to biological and environmental degradation, as well as the main source of material pollution on the planet.
What about single-use plastics?
Single-use plastics are products intended to be disposed of immediately after use, often in just a few minutes. They are most often used for shipping and food services, such as bottles, wrappers, straws, and bags. According to a 2017 study, more than half of non-fibre plastic waste, which excludes synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon, comes from plastic packaging alone, much of which is for single-use items.
Most of single-use plastics are replaceable. Considering that 80% of marine litter is plastic, the European Union has restricted its use since July 2021. On the other hand, single-use plastics have biomedical applications due to their desirable properties, such as low cost, simple processing, and the ability to sterilise them easily.
Which plastics are recyclable?
There is a system for identifying and separating plastics. The RIC (Resin Identification Code) classifies these materials, so they must all be marked with the corresponding symbol and number. They are identified on containers from 1 to 7 and all are recyclable except 7.
1. PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is used in food containers and is one of the most recyclable.
2. HDPE (high-density polyethylene) is more resistant and is found in cosmetic products, cleaning products and tetra bricks.
3. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is a polluting plastic found in construction items.
4. LDPE (low-density polyethylene) is an elastic plastic found in bags and paper film.
5. PP (polypropylene) is used in container lids and automotive manufacturing because of its resistance to high pressure.
6. PS (polystyrene) is used in packaging due to its insulating capacity.
7. Others: mixtures of several resins that cannot be recycled or are very difficult to recycle. Among others: polycarbonate and Acrylonitrile Butadiene Butadiene Styrene or ABS.
There are also other recyclable plastics such as polyamide, used in the textile industry, or vinyl, which has building and construction applications. But there is much more than that: China has a classification of 140 types of plastics.
Surprisingly, although PET is 100% recyclable, only around 30% is actually recycled in Europe and the US. With HDPE, it is even less, only 10-15%. Meanwhile, PVC is used mainly in construction and building. According to Recovinyl, 47% of this plastic is recycled. In the case of LDPE, around 31% is recycled, primarily from commercial and retailer waste.
According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, more than 600,000 tons of fishing equipment and nets are dumped every year. Recycling nylon is a complex process and many companies use PET or polyester instead. Reliable numbers on the global recycled polyamide production volume are not publicly available yet, but we are committed to playing our part in a more sustainable future.
The reality is that only 9% of all manufactured plastics are currently recycled worldwide. Isn’t it about time we start changing that?