November 2008

Let’s Talk about Plastics

Author: Dave Kerns

I just can’t figure this out. There’s so much plastic all around me. It seems like nice stuff. Lightweight, flexible, fairly durable. It has a nice clean look. I like it. I carry my water to the gym in it; it kept my Chinese takeout from spilling all over the car on the way home last night; I’m on my cell phone all the time, and I’m guessing my arm would get pretty tired if it weren’t made from this nice lightweight plastic. So what’s with all the fuss?

They say it’s floating all over the ocean. They say it’s filling our landfills. They say it’s dangerous stuff. I think “they” might be right. I’m not a plastics expert, but it doesn’t take much research to realize just how bad this stuff can be. We use so much more plastic than was used years ago. It’s convenient and it’s not going away, but we really have to be aware of what we do with it and how much we use. We live in a disposable society. Quick, easy, throw it away. I was not alive in the ’50s, but I do enjoy an occasional episode of Leave it to Beaver, and I’m sure June Cleaver would not be proud. Her picnic basket was not full of plastic utensils, cups and Styrofoam plates. “The Beave” had to use some muscle carrying the family picnic basket loaded with real cups and plates. In 2008, it would be nearly impossible for plastic not to be a part of your life. There’s no problem with using plastic, but we really should think about the amounts and types we use, how we dispose of it, and how we might sometimes do without it.

How about a few facts? Over 20 billion pounds of plastic ends up in the ocean each year, according to Green Peace. In 2006, Americans drank about 167 bottles of water each, but only recycled about 23 percent of them. That leaves 38 billion water bottles in landfills. Plastic bottles take about 700 years to begin decomposing. In 2007, we spent $16 billion on bottled water. Yes, $16 billion dollars on stuff that’s basically free from our kitchen tap. Ninety percent of the cost is in the bottle, lid and label. Maybe we all should get a filter for our tap and buy a reusable bottle. I have, and here’s another good reason why. It takes over 1.5 million barrels of oil to manufacture a year’s supply of bottled water. That’s enough oil to fuel 100,000 cars.

Plastic bottles don’t, of course, start out as plastic bottles. They have to be made from something. Plastic is almost always a product of petroleum, a non renewable resource. The same thing that fuels our cars. I recently paid $4.39 for a gallon of gas. I’m not going to make the leap that our overindulgence in plastic products is causing these ridiculous gas prices. We all understand the concept of supply and demand, though, and how it affects the costs of things. In 2007 about 70 percent of petroleum was used to produce gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. We might have expected that. Surprisingly though, almost 25 percent of petroleum was used by industry, mostly for the production of plastics. We need to start using other technologies to become less dependent on petroleum.

USA Today news reported in 2004 that there were 40 years of petroleum left in the ground. About 80 percent of the world’s readily accessible reserves of petroleum are located in the Middle East. Hmmm, I don’t know about you, but it certainly doesn’t make sense to me to rely on the Middle East for our future transportation and energy needs. Last time I checked a lot of these countries don’t like us, which makes relying on that part of the world a risky proposition.

I’m not going to take space drawing additional conclusions about the facts above. I’ll leave that for you. Will the billions of pounds of plastics ending up in the ocean every year be ingested by fish, turtles, dolphins and whales? Will our reliance on the Middle East for petroleum affect our future way of life?

How you can help
Now we get to the part that really matters. How can you help? First, be aware of your everyday choices. Reduce when you can. We use and throw away so much “stuff” that we really don’t need. I’ll say it again; we have become such a disposable society. Quick, easy, throw it away. It’s ridiculous how much packaging and how many unnecessary items float around in our everyday life. Try to cut down on the amount of plastics you use in the first place. Alternatives, such as reusable shopping bags, water bottles, and refillable containers can go a long way toward reducing the amount of plastics that enter the waste stream. Also, give preference to products labeled “made with recycled content.” If what you are buying has not been made with recycled content, than try to pick plastics that are labeled with a #1 or #2, which are locally recyclable. On a recent trip to the grocery store, I decided to be more aware. First I stopped in the salad dressing aisle. It was hard to go wrong there. Almost all salad dressing was marked with a #1, which means the container is recyclable. I didn’t need mustard, but just for fun I decided to turn over a few containers. Hmmmm, French’s yellow mustard containers were recyclable, Southern Home’s were not. Next I needed ketchup. Interesting, Hunts, yes, Heinz, yes. Wait, just next to it, Hunts, no, Heinz, no. Same price. I don’t have the answer to this, but I bought the recyclable one. BBQ sauce, all yes. Apple juice, mostly yes but not all. Syrup? Mrs. Butterworth and Log Cabin, yes, but Aunt Jemima, no. Almost all laundry detergent and fabric softener bottles were recyclable. Yogurt, sour cream, butter and cream cheese containers were not. They were all marked #5 which is not recyclable here on Hilton Head Island or most of the country. Did I buy yogurt? Sure I did. I like the stuff. I’m not telling you that you have to make drastic changes to your lifestyle to make a difference. If you like yogurt, then you should buy it. But if you’re buying mustard why not choose mustard in the recyclable container over the non-recyclable one?

The second way for you to help is to RECYCLE! Recycle only the things that the town asks for. Currently, because of the expense of sorting, collecting, cleaning and reprocessing, it is only economically viable to recycle #1 and #2 plastics in most areas of the country, including here on Hilton Head Island. Simply look within the universal recycling symbol (yep, that’s what it’s called) to see if there’s a #1 or #2 stamped in the plastic. If there is, then you can recycle it. If not, you cannot. Do not mix numbers 3-7 or unmarked plastics with your #1s and #2s. Different plastics melt at different temperatures, and attempting to recycle numbers other than #1 and #2 causes more work and takes more time for the employees at the recycle center who actually separate your recyclables by hand. They’ll just be throwing it away for you, which is not helpful to the whole process.

If you currently recycle, hopefully you will continue and maybe you’ve learned a little something here. Not long ago, I included all kinds of plastics in my recycling bin, thinking it was better than throwing them away. Now I know better. If you are not a recycler, I hope I have at least made you think. The Beaver wasn’t a big fan of some of the vegetables put on his plate, but wise Ward Cleaver knew it was best for him to eat them. You may not have enjoyed your vegetables as a kid, but you learned to like them and realized that they not only taste good but are good for you. Recycling is good for you, too. You can and should do your part to save our earth for generations to come. As always, you can e-mail me at with any questions or suggestions.

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