Meet PETE, a plastic water bottle.
Pete has a very large family, over 9 billion plastic bottles like him are manufactured in the United States every year! Some of them end up recycled, but many of them never get to transform into something new. Over two thirds of plastic bottles end up in the landfill or as litter!
PETE (which is short for polyethylene terephthalate) is one of many types of plastic, and is designated with recycling (Society of the Plastics Industry, SPI) code 1. His type of plastic is used mostly to make synthetic fibers (such as polyester) and beverage bottles. Are you wearing PETE right now?
Where does Pete come from? If you asked him, he might have fun saying that he used to be a dinosaur! The raw material for producing plastics comes mostly from “fossil fuels”, which were formed in the time of the dinosaurs. But it isn’t just the the giant T-Rex that ends up in our fuel tanks; all sorts of organic (once-living) material was broken down into oil. When an organism died, it sunk to the bottom of the ocean, where it was covered by layers of sediment and broken down by bacteria. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the pressure of the sand and water above and the heat from below “cooked” the broken-down organic matter into crude oil. Humans drill deep down into the earth to pump up these oils, and through many chemical reactions process them into resins. These resins often take form as “nurdles”, which are transported to manufacturers where they can be melted and molded, died and stretched into all sorts of plastic products. The production of a water bottle requires at least twice as much water than what the bottle holds!
Where does plastic go? Not all plastics are created equally. Luckily for PETE, he’s #1! SPI 1 plastics are recyclable, in fact, out of all plastics, Pete is most effectively recycled because it is made from higher grade resins. Pete can actually be recycled to become another bottle, or into some sort of synthetic fiber. Other types of plastics degrade more in the recycling process, in what some call “down-cycling” to a lower quality plastic. There are even other types of plastic that are not recyclable at all. Check out the table below to see how PETE and his cousins (other types of plastic) stack up:
Unfortunately, most plastic doesn’t make it to the recycling center. Some ends up in landfills, and some ends up on the ground! The next time you go for a drive, take a look along the road. If your family takes a long trip, rather than counting out of state licence plates, try to count the water bottles you see! Trash on the ground eventually becomes trash in the water. Storm drains are not filtered and run straight to the ocean or bay. Plastic makes up 60-80% of marine debris, and it never breaks down! As a steward, you can do your part to make plastic pollution extinct.
My Plastic Life Challenge: For one whole day, write down every plastic product that you use (including clothes, oh, and don’t forget the pen that you’re writing with!). At the end of the day, sort your plastic into categories: Essential, Replaceable, Unnecessary, or categories of your own. See what parts of your daily plastic routine can be replaced by a different material. Share your suggestions for reducing your plastic! Would getting rid of plastic make a positive or negative impact on your daily lives? How do you think it would affect you in the long-run?
The good side of plastic. Take a look at your “essential” column, or just think about some of the plastic things that make your life better. Many medical applications have been improved by plastic. In fact, I am able to see while I type thanks to my plastic contact lenses (or glasses with a resin frame). And I’m glad that my glasses have a plastic frame, because the old alternative for tortoiseshell glasses, combs or bracelets was actual turtle shells! Materials such as tortoiseshell and ivory that come from endangered (and in some cases, now extinct) animals have largely been replaced thanks to plastics! For more on the expansion of plastic as a popular material, take a look at this Scientific American article.
Teachers! Check out this awesome activity from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to teach about plastics in the water column. This activity demonstrates the impact of plastic on the food chain, and emphasizes concepts in the scientific method.