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. As yet, < 10% of new plastic is recycled. So one assume that their own plastic discard will be landfilled, not recycled.

Feedstocks are petroleum based. Plastic manufacture involves adding 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. These can be measured in 90% of human bodies, and serve as physiologic estrogen mimics.

Plastic bottles take centuries to degrade on land. But seawater slowly decomposes them into micro- and nano-particles, which attract and bind other toxins. Particles are now present in the ocean food chain, including fish, marine mammals; as well, they are 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.

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

Europeans, alarmed about plastic impact, and are way ahead of the U.S. in the “Three Rs.” The Left Coast is ahead of the East. The only reason plastic waste concern has arisen here is that landfills are at capacity.  

Plastic recycling is not a closed loop; the minority of 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. The vast majority of plastics still wind up in the landfill.

PLASTIC #1 [PETE, Polystyrene Terephthalate] (clear), mostly used in water bottles, and they leach out BPA. Massive collections of PETE litter landscapes, oceans, and landfills.

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. The main final ingredients are ethylene and chlorine gas and it outgases PVCs (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 thick PVC "good grow" drink containers, $3.39

PLASTICS #4 [LDPE] and #5 [LLDPE], Bag and Film type plastic.  There have been great strides in recycling of film plastics, but mostly on the industrial level, with slight increase in post-consumer recycling; however, bags and film still remain a significant disposal problem. Film plastics jam up the solid plastic sorting machines, which is why they are collected separately.

PLASTIC #6 Polystyrene [PS], Styrofoam brand. In seawater, PS separates into particles and forms floating films that adsorb toxins and gather at land interfaces with toxic effects. PS  “outgases” the chemical styrene. It is also used in building insulation, it is infused with the toxic fire retardant HBCD. 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. [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.”

Balloons and attached ribbons can be fatal to wildlife. Please don’t buy. If you do buy, don’t release. Environmentally friendly alternates can be used instead. Discarded fishing line also can bind and immobilize birds and animals, resulting in death. [4]


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

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