Between manufacturer emissions and improper plastics disposal, plastic is overrunning the planet, wreaking havoc on wildlife and natural ecosystems while also tainting precious human resources. In this guide, we will be covering everything you need to know about how plastic impacts the environment, human health, and the planet, so you can go forth and confidently make environmentally-friendly choices.
Advantages of Plastic
Plastic was first produced in 1869 as an answer to rapidly diminishing supplies of ivory. Ivory, bone, wood, and similar materials had previously been used in the creation of items like billiards balls and eyeglasses, but these materials were often costly to acquire and difficult to manipulate. The first plastic was celluloid made from cotton derived cellulose treated with camphor, and could easily be shaped or used to mimic natural materials like horn, ivory, tortoiseshell, and so on. The discovery of plastic heralded in a new era, one in which manufacturers were no longer limited by the natural world and its naturally occurring materials.
1907 would see the production of the first fully synthetic plastic, made completely without natural molecules. Over the next decades, plastic production continued to advance, and the use of plastics rather than natural materials became increasingly popular. Strong, flexible, moldable, heat resistant, and usable in a huge number of applications, plastic quickly became a staple material for manufacturers in every industry.
As mentioned, plastic was originally created as an alternative to scarce natural materials. An excellent substitute for wood, bone, metal, and even natural fibers, the popularity of plastic grew quickly, with manufacturers in every industry quickly adopting this new material. Now, plastic remains popular due to its versatility and durability. Plastic can be molded and shaped to form a wide variety of products and possesses the kind of versatility not found in natural products like wood and metal. Plastic can even mimic soft materials like wool, silk, and similar fibers to create beautiful fabrics, tarps, tents, and more.
Types of Plastic
Now, more than 100 years since the first discovery of plastic, there is a virtually endless variety of plastics to choose from. With more than a thousand recognized plastic types, manufacturers have their pick, but a few plastics still reign supreme, remaining the most popular options for both consumer and commercial goods. Here are just a few examples of common consumer plastics:
Plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) have extreme tensile strength, but can be used for everything from plumbing and pipes to shower curtains and imitation leather. Highly resistant to heat but lighter in weight than comparable metals and far less expensive, PVC is now a mainstay of consumer goods.
Nylon, another popular plastic, possesses similar qualities but is most ideal for items requiring flexibility. The most obvious example of nylon’s immense strength is, of course, nylon tights. The ability to be extruded and made into fibers has made nylon an extremely popular alternative to natural fibers, often used in applications requiring high-tensile fabric, for instance in the manufacturing of parachutes, yarn, and bristles. Nylon can now commonly be found in most households, typically in the form of toothbrush bristles, dental floss, and hosiery.
Around 35% of plastics manufactured in developed countries are used for plastic packaging. Most commonly, low-density polyethylene is the plastic of choice, possessing all the ideal qualities for packaging materials while remaining relatively inexpensive to create. LDPE is a partially degradable plastic, meaning it is embued with additional natural polymers to make it partially biodegradable. Do not let this fool you, however.
Proper disposal of LDPE is incredibly difficult, and though it may partially degrade under the correct circumstances, partial degradation will not eliminate the plastic or its impact on the environment altogether. LDPE is commonly used in the manufacturing of grocery bags, cling wrap, flexible containers, and clear plastic packaging.
Polyethelene Terephthalate is a versatile plastic possessing both extreme strength and flexibility. Because of this, PET is frequently used in both the manufacturing of plastic bottles and the creation of synthetic fibers for non-woven products like disposable medical garments. Like other thermoplastics, PET can be shaped and molded virtually endlessly to create a wide variety of products, though due to its extreme moldability is not ideal for containing hot beverages.
What’s the Problem with Plastic?
So, if plastic can have so many incredible properties, is relatively inexpensive to manufacture, and can be used in place of limited natural resources, what’s the problem? Though the manufacturing and purchasing of plastic items have continued to advance, methods for properly disposing of plastic have not, and means of plastic disposal remain much the same as they were decades ago. Alongside the millions of tons of plastic produced every year, millions of tons of plastic are also being disposed of, not to mention the massive amount of waste being generated during the manufacturing process. With plastic waste piling up around the world, the time is ripe for the discovery of a solution and viable plastic alternatives.
Though many plastics are recyclable, the majority of plastic products never see the inside of a recycling facility. A whopping 91% of all plastic produced goes unrecycled, and is instead sent en masse to landfills, or left to pollute natural ecosystems. Because it is a non-natural material, plastic does not biodegrade, and will instead sit for hundreds, or even thousands of years before beginning to break down. With billions of tons of plastic being dumped every decade, our landfills and natural ecosystems are quickly becoming overrun with mountains of plastic.
As newly disposed of plastic is added to landfills, it simply piles on to the billions of tons already present and slowly decomposing. A single plastic water bottle takes up to 450 years to break down, but with more than 60 million plastic water bottles thrown away each day in the U.S. alone, it is not hard to imagine the cause of overcrowding.
Once plastic products begin to degrade in landfills, they can begin to leach toxins and chemicals into the surrounding soil and groundwater, polluting surrounding areas and negatively impacting native animal and plant-life. Similarly, plastic products merely tossed over the sides of boats, out car windows, or blown from residential areas find their way to lakes, rivers, and oceans, where they can float for hundreds of years amongst the fish and other marine creatures.
But, if most plastic is recyclable, why doesn’t it get recycled? Well, there are a few key reasons.
- Lack of education
- Stringent recycling policies
Let’s first address the lack of education. For some, recycling is a practice that doesn’t really matter, as they have never been taught what kind of an impact recycling can really have. For others, they are too intimidated by the rules to even approach beginning to recycle, fearing ridicule should they do so improperly. Those that do recycle often do so incorrectly, tossing every metal, plastic, and paper item in their recycling bins indiscriminately. A single non-recyclable item in a batch of recycling can taint the whole batch, so if you toss a dirty pizza box in with your recyclables, those items may never make it to the plant and go to the landfill despite being recyclable.
Despite the intimidation factor, recycling is actually quite easy, and as long as you follow the rules, you shouldn’t run into any snags. The rules, however, create their own set of problems. Mixed material items, mixed plastic items, lightweight items, and many more are not accepted by most recycling companies, forcing these items to be thrown away or littered. Good examples of items that should be recyclable but are not to both the physical and monetary limitations of recycling companies include plastic straws, hard plastic products like phone cases, coffee cups, and much more.
Single-Use and Short-Life Plastic Items
Although some plastic products are designed to last for years, the vast majority of the plastic being produced is intended to fulfill the demand for single-use and short-life plastic items. Cups, straws, packaging, water bottles, soda bottles, grocery bags, produce bags, plastic utensils, and plastic wrap are all examples of single-use plastic items being used each and every day and are also those items that are most frequently thrown away.
Single-use products like plastic grocery bags are used for less than 15 minutes each before being thrown away, requiring the consumer to acquire another bag the next time they shop. Designed for immediate disposal, the very nature of single-use plastic items encourages wastefulness and helps keep the demand for plastic high. Though simple reusable alternatives to single-use plastics are widely available, the majority of consumers have yet to take the necessary steps to rid their lives of single-use plastics.
Like single-use plastic items, short-life plastics pose a similar threat to the environment. Cosmetics containers, toys, toothbrushes, razors, and phone cases are all examples of short-lived plastic products, ones that may last for several weeks or months, but will ultimately suffer the same fate as single-use products. Some of these products are thrown away once they have been ‘used up,’ while others last until they lose popularity, become damaged, or get traded in for the latest model.
More than 1 billion plastic phone cases are sold every year, with new versions constantly being produced to keep up with updates to cell phone design. Often made from hard, rigid plastic, these phone cases do a good job of protecting your valuable electronics until they don’t. Many cheaper varieties of the plastic phone case shatter, snap, or break easily, requiring you to invest in a new case for the safety of your phone. Changes in trends and style result in the mass throwaway of phone cases in favor of new designs, and updates to phone models and types can make an entire collection of phone cases entirely irrelevant, leaving manufacturers and retailers with no choice but to throw away their old inventory.
Wastefulness has an impact on every aspect of life from financial to moral, but setting aside the economic and social implications of waste, the most pressing issue to address in all this is the impact waste has on the environment. As billions of plastic items are thrown away every year, they need somewhere to go, and since the vast majority never see the inside of a recycling plant, you can probably guess where it all ends up.
More than 60 million plastic bottles are brought to landfills in the U.S. every day, and that’s just the water bottles. Millions of tons of plastic waste are shoved into landfills, burned, or simply left to litter natural ecosystems every year, and with little effort being taken to slow the production of plastic, these numbers could continue to rise. As the mountains of plastic grow, so too does the toll on the environment.
One of the most glaring examples of the effects of plastic pollution can be found in our oceans. Floating for miles, a virtual island of plastic has begun to accumulate with more than 8 million tons of plastic being unlawfully dumped into the ocean every year. Floating amongst fish, turtles, birds, and other marine life, plastic pollution is set to overrun native wildlife in the next decade.
Beyond crowding and polluting aquatic environments, the presence of plastic in oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams is posing a direct threat to aquatic life. Fish, sea birds, turtles, and marine mammals regularly mistake plastic pieces and items for food, consuming trash which then becomes lodged in their stomachs, in their throats, in their mouths or otherwise harms their internal health. Similarly, plastic items like soda-can rings, straws, netting, and so forth can become lodged in noses, gills, mouths, and eyes, or may be found wound tightly around marine animals, restricting their movement, choking them, or preventing them from consuming food.
Those animals that do not purposefully consume plastic themselves are likely to consume it indirectly, either by consuming other animals that have eaten plastic or via the consumption of microplastics. Microplastics are the direct result of either the breaking down of larger plastic items or the manufacturing/destruction of textiles and plastic consumer goods. Microplastics consist of minuscule particles or fibers of plastic, too small to be seen but very much present. Microplastics are everywhere in everyone and everything and are virtually impossible to avoid without proper filtration.
The problem of plastic in our oceans has grown from a pesky aesthetics issue to a potentially world-altering disaster. The amount of plastic in our oceans is set to out-pace the number of fish in the next few years, and 1 in 3 species have been found entangled in marine litter. Seabirds are particularly vulnerable, often swiping up pieces of plastic from beaches and sidewalks as well as from the ocean, and now, an estimated 90% of all seabirds have plastic pieces in their stomachs.
Soil and Water-Supply Pollution
Littering and illegal dumping have resulted in oceans overrun with plastic, but what about on land? When not littered, the vast majority of plastic items not lucky enough to be recycled find their way into landfills. Landfills are massive collections of waste theoretically separated from the environment by thin layers of protection and regular coverings of dirt. As landfills steadily grow in size, they are regularly covered with earth until full, then left covered to slowly decompose. Landfills contain trash and refuse from both commercial and residential areas, and are one of the oldest methods of waste management.
Though advertised as being isolated from the surrounding environment, new studies on how landfills impact soil and water quality may prove otherwise. German researchers have determined that landfills could be leaching microplastics and toxic chemicals into surrounding soil and groundwater supplies, leaving them tainted and potentially harmful to human and animal health. New evidence now suggests that terrestrial microplastic pollution is far higher than once thought, estimated to be 4-23x more extensive than microplastic pollution in our oceans.
The presence of microplastics in soil and drinking water supplies could have a negative impact on agriculture, human health, the health of livestock, and the health of native wildlife reliant on local sources of food and water. Since plastic typically takes hundreds or even thousands of years to begin to break down, the impact of the plastic that we throw away today could have lasting impacts on soil and water quality for generations.
While the disposal of plastics is responsible for much of our world’s plastic pollution, plastic manufacturing processes are also to blame. Though not as noticeable to the naked eye, plastic has had a massive impact on air quality, the atmosphere, and global climate change. Plastic manufacturing produces greenhouse gases like CO2, and with global demand for plastic still on the rise, emissions are set to follow. In the next 30 years, plastic manufacturing is set to account for more than 56 billion tons of carbon released into the atmosphere, and could significantly impact the advancement of climate change.
Health Concerns Related to Plastic
Plastic poses many risks to the health and safety of our planet, but plastic has also been linked to problems relating to human health. From reports of cancer-rate increases near plastic manufacturing facilities to the direct impact of using certain plastics in food packaging and products, the potential risks of plastic exposure are many and varied.
Phthalates are used in plastic production to improve durability and flexibility, though are also used in many other products including cosmetics, haircare, and skincare. Though present only as an ingredient in plastic products, phthalates are not chemically bonded to their plastic and can easily be leached into food items, cosmetics and topical treatments, and drinks, thereby coming in direct contact with humans. Whether consumed or absorbed topically, phthalates can be flushed from the body fairly quickly when present in small quantities.
Now, with phthalates present in a huge number of consumer goods, exposure to these chemicals has increased for consumers everywhere. Phthalates are antiandrogens or testosterone blockers and have been linked to a number of health problems relating to hormone imbalance. Phthalates have most commonly been linked to infertility, inhibited male reproductive development, asthma, preterm birth, and other birth defects.
Bisphenol A. or BPA is another chemical ingredient used in the manufacturing of a number of plastics. Commonly used for food and beverage packaging, reusable plastic plates and cups, reusable water bottles, and other hard plastic items, BPA has been a staple ingredient in plastic manufacturing since the ‘60s. Like phthalates, BPA is capable of leaching from packaging into food and beverage items, or directly to the consumer during use. Over time, scratching, wear, and exposure to heat will increase how much BPA is released, posing a risk to consumer health and safety,
Like phthalates, BPA is a hormone disruptor that has been linked to a number of conditions relating to fertility, hormone balance, birth defects, and so on. A disruptor of estrogen rather than testosterone, BPA may increase risks of hormone-dependent cancers and has been linked to premature menstrual development, female infertility, and type II diabetes.
With the knowledge that plastic poses a serious threat to human, animal, and planetary health, it should not come as much of a surprise to learn that plastic can be harmful even before it has been made. The plastic manufacturing process is one that produces fumes, hazardous airborne toxins, and mass amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Besides the obvious impact made by plastics manufacturing on the planet, people working in plastic manufacturing plants and those living nearby are also at risk.
For personnel working in plastic manufacturing, regular exposure to toxic fumes has been linked to respiratory illnesses, certain cancers, and damage to the central nervous system. Similarly, families and businesses located near or around the manufacturing site are also exposed. Toxic runoff and waste from plastic manufacturing plants poison local soil and water supplies, fumes cause public health problems, and prolonged exposure to toxic fumes and tainted ecosystems has been linked to fertility problems and birth defects.
How to Help Reduce Plastic Pollution
So, you get it, right? Plastic pollution is a serious problem, one that isn’t going to go anywhere without a little hard work and dedication from people around the world. While nothing can be done about the billions of tons of plastic already in existence, measures can be taken to reduce the demand for plastic, thereby slowing overall production. If it seems like too big a task to tackle, don’t despair; you can make a difference with just a few simple changes to your life.
Recycling Whenever Able
If you have not already set up your home recycling system, now is the time to do so. While you might want to ditch plastic altogether, realistically, you won’t be able to completely rid your life of plastic, at least not right away. As you work to reduce your personal plastic waste, be sure to recycle whenever you are able. Not totally sure where to start when it comes to recycling? Here is a general guide to recyclables and non-recyclables:
- Plastic bottles
- Cardboard boxes
- Tin, aluminum, and steel cans
- Glass jars
- Glass bottles
- Plastic bags
- Plastic wrap
- Egg cartons
- Takeout containers
- Pizza boxes
- Foam cups and plates
- Fast-food packaging
- Plastic cutlery
Educating yourself on alternatives to traditional plastic is another important step you can take to fight your personal plastic pollution. Learn, for example, about compostable plastics! You have probably heard of biodegradable plastic before, but have you heard of compostable? Biodegradable plastic requires the help of microorganisms to break down, and once degraded, will still leave behind unnatural/toxic material.
Compostable plastic can break down on its own, disintegrating into natural compost free of toxic waste or materials. Compostable plastics have become so advanced that they can now degrade into a state where they are able to support plant life, a far cry from the poisonous environment created by traditional plastics.
Making Eco-Friendly Choices
Another key to reducing your plastic waste is to make generally eco-friendly choices. There are tons of amazing products and services out there to help you avoid plastic and other wasteful practices, and with environmental consciousness on the rise, your options are likely to continue to expand. Now, consumers have the power to make their own choices regarding the brands they choose to support and have more opportunities than ever before to make their voices and opinions heard.
At Pela, we are striving to help make eco-friendly products the new industry standard, rather than an anomaly or niche alternative. We are doing our part by creating awesome eco-friendly products that make everyday life a little greener. Our line of eco-friendly phone cases is made from 100% compostable bioplastic that will not be sitting in a landfill in 1000 years. Stylish, durable, and functional, you can use your Pela Case for as long as you want, or until you need a new one. Once you are done with your case, you have three simple options:
- Toss your Pela Case in your home compost bin where it will quickly degrade into healthy, usable compost
- Bring your Pela Case to your local composting facility or site
- Send your Pela Case into the Pela Cycle program to be made into another generation of Pela Cases
Educating Friends and Family
One of the best ways to share your message for a healthy planet is by sharing it with those that you care about. As your interest in finding eco-friendly alternatives grows, you’ll be able to teach those around you about how they can care for the environment themselves. Pela Cases are a great way to start a conversation about environmental consciousness, especially if someone compliments you on the beautiful design of your phone case.
Pela Cases are an excellent example of the kind of product most people don’t consider when thinking about the environment. One of the reasons so many people are reluctant to engage with the topic is because a solution seems either inconvenient, less appealing, or unnecessary. By sharing your Pela Case with friends and family, you’ll be able to show that there are lots of unexpected ways to reduce plastic pollution, and plenty of awesome eco-friendly products to rival the old standards.
Gifting Eco-Friendly Products
Like sharing the news of your commitment to cutting back on plastic pollution, giving the gift of an eco-friendly product to a friend or family member can be a great way to get them on board. Sometimes, the first step is the hardest one to take, and people feel nervous about initiating eco-friendly living on their own. A gifted eco-friendly product can be a great way to introduce someone to a new product and to help encourage them to seek out more eco-friendly alternatives to other items they use daily.
Pela biodegradable phone cases make an awesome gift, and with virtually endless designs and colors to choose from, you are guaranteed to find a gift for everyone in your life. We carry cases to fit almost any smartphone and are constantly updating our designs with new colors and motifs. We also offer eco-friendly AirPods cases designed to slip tightly over your charging case to protect it from bumps, scratches, drops, and dents.
The first truly eco-friendly phone case, Pela is a one-of-a-kind brand with a vision for the future of our planet. To date, our contributions have helped to remove more than 150,000 pounds of plastic waste from the waste stream, and this is just the beginning. Pela is also a member of 1% for the Planet, proudly using proceeds from our sales to make a difference and protect the planet.
On the hunt for eco-friendly products or just an awesome phone case? Visit Pela to check out our full collection of 100% compostable phone cases, and to learn more about waste-free living.