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Plastics & Your Environment

Plastics are central to modern living. Their use has permeated every aspect of American production, application and culture. Andy Warhol said it best, “Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.” Plastic resins, made from petroleum and other products, are extruded, injected or molded with heat or pressure into finished products. Their lightweight or durability often makes them the perfect material. The widespread use of polymer products has grown tremendously, including everything from bottles, bags, lids and diapers to appliances, furniture and medical devices. Unfortunately, that which is consumed must eventually be disposed.

Thus, the great demand for plastic products requires great responsibility. The EPA reported that municipal solid waste generation from plastics has increased from less than 1% in 1960 to 11.7% in 2006. Almost 30 million tons, including 14 million tons of containers and packaging, over 6 million tons of non-durable goods and almost 9 million tons of durable goods, flooded municipal waste streams, and these numbers don’t even include plastics in automobiles. According to the November 2008 issue of Scientific American Earth 3.0, 2,000,000 plastic bottles are discarded in the U.S. every five-minute. WOW!

Unrecycled plastic aren’t always buried in landfills or discarded along freeways. Through careless waste and urban runoff, plastic debris frequently gathers in the ocean and waterways, presenting a danger to marine and other aquatic wildlife. The EPA estimates that plastic accounts for 60 to 80% of overall marine debris and up to 90% of floating debris. They calculate that as much as 80% of marine debris originates from land-sources.

In fact, due in large part to plastic bottles and debris from the U.S., the Pacific Ocean has formed a massive, plastic-reef composed of Asia-Pacific garbage. Located in a 10-million-square-mile oval known as the North Pacific subtropical gyre, a slow deep vortex caused by tropical air pressure and marine currents draws debris from throughout the Pacific and beyond. The mass had gone unnoticed in the scarcely traveled area until unintentionally discovered on August 3, 1997. On that day, the world discovered a floating accumulation of pollution, twice the size of Texas and packed full of all things plastic: plastic bags, sea nets and ropes, bottles, motor oil jugs, bath toys, tarps, tires and even traffic cones. The collection is estimated to outweigh plankton by a factor of 47.

Scientists warn that toxins leaching from this “Eastern Garbage Patch,” are causing obesity, infertility and other ills in the marine food chain. Moreover, the California Coastal Commission claims that in the North Pacific alone, more than 1 million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals and countless fish die annually from ingesting or becoming entangled in marine debris. According to the California Ocean Protection Council, Southern California cities have spent hundreds of millions meeting EPA standards for Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) for trash in waterways and coastal clean-up of unnecessary marine debris. Unfortunately, no country has yet claimed responsibility or taken significant action to correct the growing problem in the Pacific. If left unattended, marine life will continue to suffer until the human food supply is dramatically affected or worse.

California lawmakers recently tried to improve our marine environment by expanding the scope of California’s Bottle and Can Recycling Law to include more plastic bottles. If it had passed, Senate Bill 1625 would have significantly reduced the amount of plastic pollution by recycling more than 3 billion bottles, diverting 130,000 tons annually. It was also projected to save local governments $100 million dollars annually in litter removal and waste management. Though the law did not pass, it is clear Californians will continue using plastics, and plastic recycling programs will inevitably increase.

Advancements in plastic technology and production methods are helping to improve the lifecycle and reduce the negative impacts of plastic. For example, 250 million pounds of plastic has been removed from the annual solid waste stream through reengineering 2-liter soft drink bottles to one-quarter of their 1977 weight. Companies, which rely on plastics, must make a concerted effort to minimize their use and utilize best recycling practices.

Recycling programs are critically important to the sustainable use of plastics. American Plastics Council (APC) claims more than 1,800 U.S. businesses handle or reclaim post-consumer plastics. Regrettably as of 2003, the recovery of plastics for recycling totaled a mere 3.9% of the plastics generated, though some efforts have shown dramatic improvements. For instance, 31% of, both, PET (soft drink bottles) and HDPE (milk and water bottles) containers in the United States had been recovered for recycling in 2006.

Greater reuse of plastic materials requires fewer natural resources and produces less pollution. The APC accredits 4 percent of U.S. energy consumption (and energy pollution) to the production of plastics. Moreover, some plastics are believed to take hundreds to thousands of years to decompose. Without recycling plastic waste generation will demand an ever-greater share of landfill space. Finally, the toxicity of plastics, if improperly managed, can poison water resources and harm humans and wildlife.

Curbside plastics recycling in the City of Orange accounted for less than 1% of the City’s waste stream in 2007. The Society of the Plastics Industries established the Resin Identification Codes (to the right). These codes are used to sort plastics for recycling. The image of three chasing arrows stamped on plastic containers does not mean that the material came from recycled plastics. In fact, the symbols and numbers only reveal the type of plastic. Of the seven resin identification codes, #2, #4, and #5 are the safest, found not to transmit harmful chemicals to food and drink. Plastic #1 is also safer; however, studies have found the heavy metal Antimony in bottled water, which has been stored for long periods of time. In contrast, it is best to avoid using plastics labeled #3, #6 and #7. Polystyrene (or #6) for example can transfer toxic chemicals to food and takes decades or even centuries to completely decompose. Switching to natural, dextrose-based alternatives such as those produced from potatoes or corn can save our landfills and environment. Help change the world you live in…buy products that use safer plastics, recycle your plastics, and whenever possible use natural recyclable alternatives. If you have questions, please contact Greg Warren, Senior Administrative Analyst, 714-744-5551 or gwarren@cityoforange.org.

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