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PLASTIC: AN ENVIRONMENTAL BURDEN

We are all familiar with the chasing arrows stamped on disposable plastic containers. These intend to encourage consumers to “Reduce, Re-use, and Recycle.”  However, they also serve to assure one to not “feel guilty,” and to “give permission” for single-use plastic. The SPI codes, numbered #1- 7 inside the arrows, designate the type of feedstock (resin, polymer) each is manufactured from. Although there have been recent strides in plastic recycling, new capacity is dwarfed by the sheer mass of new and legacy plastic waste. Overall in the US, <10% of new plastic is recycle. However, here in the Richmond area, plastic of all types from the recycle bin is recycled regionally.

Feedstocks are petroleum based. Plastic manufacture involves addition of specific organic reagents to a specific base. These chemicals are highly toxic, and include known carcinogens. Most plastics “outgas” volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Trace chemicals leach out when plastics, including can linings, are in contact with liquids and foods. The chemical BPA, leached from #1 PETE bottles, can be measured in 90% of human blood samples, and it behaves as a physiologic estrogen mimic.

Plastic takes about 450 years to degrade on land. But seawater slowly decomposes it into micro- and nano-particles, which bind toxins. Particles are present in the ocean food chain, including fish, marine mammals. They are found in sand and sea salt. Tragically, trash items are found in the stomachs of many sea animals, such as beer cans in shark’s stomachs, massive seabird deaths from plastic bottle caps, and sea turtle deaths from eating film plastics. [1] It is estimated that there are 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans, which have become a plastic soup.






Use of heavier, thicker plastic packaging is accelerating. It begs various questions, such as: How difficult should it be to open packages?  How many security seals are needed? Why the increased use of oversize hard clam-shells? How durable does carry-out packaging need to be. And many others.

Europeans, alarmed about plastic impact, and are well ahead of the U.S. in the “Three Rs.” The Left Coast is ahead of the East. The only reason plastic waste concern began to arise here is because landfills are at capacity. 

RECYCLING
Plastic recycling is not a closed loop: plastics that are recycled are shredded, melted into pellets, and “down-cycled” into new products. The costs to municipalities for recycling collection are extremely high, and resource intensive; manufacturer’s costs to produce recycled plastic products can exceed those of using virgin petrochemicals. Overall, the vast majority of plastics still get landfilled.

PLASTIC BY SPI CODE
PLASTIC #1 [PETE, Polystyrene Terephthalate] (clear), mostly used in water bottles, it leaches out BPA. Colossal amounts of PETE litter landfills, landscapes, and oceans.

PLASTIC #2 [HDPE, High density polyethylene] (opaque) in bottles with necks.

PLASTIC #3, POLY-VINYL CHLORIDE (PVC) is valued for its hardness, flexibility, and durability. Some of the final ingredients are ethylene and chlorine gas, and PVC outgases VOCs (new car smell) and hydrochloric acid. It is ubiquitous in construction materials, examples are pipes, flooring, siding, cable; also used in autos, plastic toys, and formerly, cling wrap. It is recycled in a limited manner. It should be avoided around food. [2]





Single use heavy #3 PVC "Good Grow" drink containers, $3.39

PLASTICS #4 [LDPE] and #5 [LLDPE], Bag and Film type plastic.  Film plastics jam up the solid plastic sorting machines, the reason why they are collected separately. There have been great strides in recycling of film plastics, on both the industrial level, and in increased post-consumer processing. However, plastic film still remains a significant disposal problem.


PLASTIC #6 Polystyrene [PS], Styrofoam brand. PS  “outgases” the chemical styrene. In seawater, it disperses into particles to form floating films that gather at land interfaces. These adsorb toxins, and are found in coastal feeding and breeding areas. PS is infused with the toxic fire retardant HBCD to create building insulation. Recycling of PS peanuts and grocery trays is in its infancy. PS can be down-cycled to pellets only regionally, with capacity limited due to prohibitive transportation costs for light materials. [3]

PLASTIC #7, or “Everything else,” is a broad catch-all for polycarbonate (PC) and “other” plastics. These are difficult to recycle. However, #7 also includes a small number of biodegradable, compostable plastics made from bio-based polymers such as corn starch. These are identifiable by the initials “PLA” beneath the #7 code. Some read “Compostable.”

HELIUM PARTY BALLOONS
Balloons and attached ribbons cause innumerable wildlife fatalities, and there has been exponential growth in their use. Please don’t buy. If you do buy, don’t release. Environmentally friendly alternates can be used instead. Discarded fishing line is another wildlife hazard, and causes death by binding and immobilizing birds and animals. [4]

LOCAL RESOURCE

Central Virginia CVWMA has a handy interactive website that tells how to recycle specific items. If it can’t take an item, call, and they will direct to a place that does take them. Example, electronics, metals. [5]

For more information:

1)    https://www.google.com/search?q=cnn+plastic+island&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8
2)    http://www.keeptruckeegreen.org/guide/3-plastic-pvc/
3)    http://www.homeforfoam.com/city-governments/recycling-process
4)    https://www.fws.gov/news/blog/index.cfm/2015/8/5/balloons-and-wildlife-please- 
dont-release-your-balloons; http://www.wideopenspaces.com/usfws-dont-release-balloons-please/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=sendible&utm_term=rare&utm_campaign=rare

5)    http://cvwma.com/programs/