Types of Plastics: Why we use them and the associated problems
Types of Plastics.
— Why we use them and the associated problems.
✎ Kat Guerrero
We need to talk about plastic.
Look around the space you’re sitting. We’re more than willing to bet that you can spot something made from plastic. From water bottles and plastic bags, to car parts and building materials, plastic is everywhere.
Frankly, it’s unavoidable.
More often than not, products and other goods are being made of plastic instead of metal, cotton, and glass. Why? Plastic has a long life (it doesn’t experience environmental degradation over time), it’s relatively cheap and it can be used in many forms.
Others are actively aware of the problematic nature of plastic - particularly the negative effects plastics have on the environment and our health.
Plastics are the consumer go-to for just about any product and packaging because the material is incredibly versatile.
What makes plastic such an adaptable material?
Its chemical makeup. Plastic is composed of more than one material, which means that different types of plastics can be created for a variety of uses.
It’s obvious that the plastic of our water bottles are made differently from the plastic that make car bumpers, but it’s hard to imagine the many different types of plastics that could exist even between one plastic bag and another. Let’s explore the most common types of plastic, their uses, and consequences.
Two Classes of Plastics
Before we overwhelm you with information, let’s start with the basics. Plastics can be broken down into two very broad categories. Within these two categories, there are thousands of different plastic variations.
Thermoplastics are plastics that can be melted after an initial use and turned into something else. They are melted, placed in a mould to create an object, and can be recycled or melted again into another object later on. Examples include acrylics, nylon and teflon.
Thermosets are plastics that cannot be melted again to make another object. Once the plastic is heated up, it is set and cannot be changed from its final state. Similar to baking cookies, once you bake cookie dough, you can’t change the cookies to dough.
5 Plastic Types, Uses, and Problems
Under these two classes, there are thousands of different types of plastics created by today’s manufacturers. In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry introduced identification numbers for each type of plastic, marked on the plastic object, to help people determine which plastics are recyclable and how to properly take care of those that are not.
Let’s explore the 5 most common types of plastic used today and their consequences to society, health, and our planet.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE ) #1
This type of thermoplastic is usually clear and what we find used in disposable food and beverage containers. It’s also found in products such as bean bags, ropes, cleaning product container and polar fleece. It is a convertible material, which means it can be made to be rigid or flexible. It works well as a chemical, water, and gas barrier and can be recycled. However, these plastics are known to seep chemicals and harmful carcinogens over time, especially if it’s heated over 140° F.
High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) #2
Unlike #1 plastics, #2 plastics do not seep out chemicals and are considered to be safe. Usually opaque, HDPE plastics are durable enough to survive high temperatures, strong chemicals, and the dishwasher. It is a favoured thermoplastic because it can also be recycled. #2 is the go to for durable objects such as soap containers, food and drink storage, shopping bags, bottle caps, helmets, fake wood, and even vehicle fuel tanks. However, reusing these containers can be hazardous because of the risk of contamination with whatever the container previously held.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) #3
#3 plastic is a thermoset, meaning the material is incredibly durable and can tolerate harsh chemicals and weathering. A very malleable and practical material, PVC can be used to make anythings from furniture, clothing, tubing and piping, flooring, vinyl records, water bottles, and even faux-leather materials. Because it is a thermoset and can’t be moulded into new material once it is set, it is not recyclable and, eventually ends up in our landfills to slowly degrade. Under heat, it releases harmful chemicals, called phthalates, that can interfere with hormonal development.
Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) #4
LDPE is another thermoplastic, similar to HDPE. Although it is not as strong as HDPA, it is more resilient. These attributes are what make it one of the most widely spread plastics used today, used to make grocery bags, squeezable bottles, bread bags, soda ring holders, playground slides, and even computer hardware. LDPE, however, causes significant harm to the environment because it is not recyclable.
Polypropylene (PP) #5
Flexible and durable, PP is a strong plastic that is commonly used for moulding objects when melted. Most microwavable food packaging is made of PP because it can tolerate the intense heat of the microwave However, polypropylene, in some forms, is highly flammable, and many people believe that it is toxic to consume food out of these microwavable containers. It is also used to make clothing, surgery tools, microwavable food containers, straws, packing tape, rakes, and even ice scrapers. As a thermoplastic, it is recyclable and can be reused.
Polystyrene (PS) #6
Styrofoam is actually a plastic. Thermoplastic polystyrene to be exact. It’s commonly used to make disposable coffee cups, packing peanuts, and disposable plates because it provides insulation and cushion. Unfortunately, Styrofoam is not a sustainable or planet friendly plastic in any sort of form. It is not recyclable and breaks apart into small pieces easily, which harms the environment. Especially under heat, it also can leach harmful chemicals.
You can learn even more about plastics on our resource page, Packaging Types and Their Impacts.
Let’s discuss the impact
Although plastic is versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture-resistant, strong, and cheap to produce, it has a negative impact on the environment when it is not recycled or disposed of properly.
Not all plastics are made the same. Those plastics that aren’t recyclable will end up in landfill or add to environmental pollution.
Some cold hard numbers:
Plastic bottles take anywhere from 450 - 1,000 years to break down
Plastic bags take 10 - 1000 years to decompose
The sole from a rubber boot takes 50 - 80 years to break down
Styrofoam takes 500 years to eternity to decompose
Plastic that sinks damages the sea life of the ocean floor. Floating pieces end up adding to large islands of trash (Great Pacific Garbage Patch anyone?). The rest ends up on our beaches, polluting the water and sand we love to swim and play in. Animals often mistake plastic for food and eat it, which results in sickness or death, or are entangled in nets, soda rings, and plastic bags.
It’s fair to state that plastic is causing a hazard to our health and planet. Judging from these consequences, it’s obvious that we shouldn’t be using plastic, right?
But how can we avoid plastic if it is in almost anything we use?
Some companies are making their products with recycled plastic or even plastic-free. Many people are reducing their plastic usage by buying these products and cutting down their plastic use. While we may not be able to simply eliminate it from our lives completely (at least not yet), but we can make a difference by limiting our use of plastic overall.
We recommend starting with 5 simple tips for reducing your plastic consumption:
Bring your own shopping bag to the grocery store
Use a reusable water bottle or thermos to fill with water and other drinks at coffee shops
Say no to straws and plastic utensils
Use reusable glass containers for food storage instead of plastic bags
Shop in bulk to reduce packaging
It’s a start. We think these are great ways to develop the mindset of reducing plastic consumption. Potential outcomes may include: promoting a healthier way of living for ourselves, being an advocate for the planet we love and being that person with their dozen of reusable cups. Flaunt those cups loud and proud.
Co-Design Your Activated Essentials —
Here at Noéma, we’re busy researching the best ingredients - so that we can make the best activated essentials for you, with you. We’re taking a radically new direction in skincare; we use you as the key ingredient.
By collaborating with industry experts such as naturopaths, biochemists, product specialists and formulators, our aim is to create an Activated Essentials product range with the best ingredients, formula and design.
We’re taking applications from our diverse community to contribute to co-designing an essential micro-range of products right for them. Get involved in upcoming events and workshops covering wellness, self-care and design.