Plastics & The Environment

Every year in Canada, consumers throw hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic away. There is over 200 million metric tons  (more than 420 billion pounds) of municipal waste produced annually in North  America, over 9 percent are plastics.

As municipal landfills reach capacity and additional landfill space diminishes, alternative methods for reducing and disposing of wastes are being explored. Some of these options include reducing consumption of plastics, using biodegradable plastics, and incinerating or recycling plastic waste.

All plastics can be recycled. Thermoplastics can be re-melted and made into new products. Thermosetting plastics can be ground, mixed, and then used as filler in mouldable  thermoplastic materials. Highly filled and reinforced thermosetting plastics can be pulverized and used in new composite formulations.

Chemical recycling is a depolymerization process that uses heat and chemicals to break plastic molecules down into more basic components to be reused. Another process, called pyrolysis, vaporizes and condenses both thermoplastics and thermosetting plastics into hydrocarbon liquids.

Collecting and sorting used plastics is an expensive and time-consuming process. Once plastic products are thrown away, they must be collected and then separated by plastic type. Most modern automated plastic sorting systems are not capable of differentiating between many different types of plastics. However, some advances are being made in these sorting systems to separate plastics by colour , density, and chemical composition. For example, x-ray sensors can distinguish PET from PVC by sensing the presence of chlorine atoms in the polyvinyl chloride material.

For health reasons, recycled plastics are rarely made into food containers. Instead, most recycled plastics are typically made into items such as carpet fibres , motor oil bottles, trash carts, soap packages, and textile fibres.

Today, a growing number of communities have collection centers for recyclable materials. Some  larger municipalities have implemented curbside pickup for recyclable materials, including plastics, paper, metal, and glass.
For more information on how plastic use is evolving to preserve the environment, check out the information below.

Source reduction
Using less material to produce a product or making the manufacturing process more efficient  cut down waste at the source. Source reduction can prevent or minimize the toxicity and/or quantity of waste. In order to accomplish this reduction, options include reused products (without changing the original form), increased product life, reduced material and energy use in product design and manufacture, and revised purchasing, consumption , and waste producing habits.

Toxicity reduction
Involves changes in products or package designs, such as switching to non-toxic inks on printed plastic or encouraging individuals to buy reusable rather than disposable plastic containers.

Quantity reduction
Includes choosing products with longer life-spans, discouraging the use of single-use disposable items, buying concentrates to cut down on wasteful packaging , and choosing products designed for recyclability. The plastic industry is constantly working to create new products to reduce waste.

This is the least viable option for disposing of plastics. Plastic waste is placed in a large oven and burned, emitting hazardous air emission and pollutants. The ash created is simply displaced into the air. Many countries are beginning to put legislation in place to limit what and how much waste can be incinerated. This is not a viable long-term option for the disposal of plastics.

Biodegradable Plastics
Although most plastics are not considered biodegradable, there is a new wave of biodegradable  plastics on  the horizon . An  article published by EPIC states that “Today’s  biodegradable plastics products offer the functionality of conventional plastics, with the added advantage that they will degrade quickly and completely, leaving no harmful residues.”

Plastic Clothes?