Pardon our French, but plastique c’est le worste. Its reputation is less than stellar, and might we add, deservedly so. In the United States, every second of every day 1,500 plastic bottles are discarded. Americans send more than 38 billion water bottles to landfills every year, the equivalent of 912 million gallons of oil. If laid end to end, that’s enough bottles to travel to the moon and back 10 times. Holy moley!
The worst thing is that only about 31% of plastic bottles will make it to a recycling bin, and even if they do, they will never be recycled. You see, plastic doesn’t get recycled, it gets downcycled. That is, it loses quality and volume in the recycling process so that an old bottle will never turn into a new bottle. The remaining 69% of plastic bottles will go directly to landfills and to our oceans, where they will slowly break into smaller and smaller pieces, but will take about 1,000 years to biodegrade (good news for your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren).
The rumors are true… There is indeed a huge floating patch of trash in the Pacific Ocean. Exactly how big is this “patch”? Well, scientists estimate that it’s about the size of Texas (or about 121 million football fields!). It turns out that close to 10% of the plastic we use each year ends up in the oceans. In fact, 90% of ocean trash is plastic. A portion of it floats and is carried by currents to the middle of the Pacific, forming the garbage patch.
Once a piece of plastic makes it to the ocean, it begins a process known as photodegradation (do we sound smart, or what?). This doesn’t mean that the plastic slowly disappears, but rather that the sun’s beautiful rays break it down into tiny little pieces. These eventually become so small that they get ingested by marine life and enter the food chain.
Learn more about the garbage patch over at GOOD (they’re awesome).
Betcha now you’re going to point out that there are several plastic bottles out there that are made from plants. PLANTS! That has to be the most eco-friendly! Well, it’s true that they are produced with less energy, but this doesn’t change the fact that the end product is still plastic and that means that they come with all of plastic’s end-of-life problems. A common misconception is that just because they’re made from plants, they’re compostable. Most often, they’re not. Even when bottles are labeled as biodegradable or compostable, it doesn’t mean you can just toss them in your backyard and watch them dissolve into the soil. The process requires an industrial composting facility. In order to even get to an industrial composter, the bottles need to be separated from petroleum-based plastics (and that just isn’t happening), so they usually end up in landfills and oceans anyway. Not sounding like such a great option anymore, huh? Still thirsty for knowledge about plant based plastics? Check this out.
These guys are more complicated than they seem... Shelf-stable cartons are made of multiple thin layers of paper, plastic, and aluminum. Every single carton contains all these materials, so recycling them can be quite the challenge. In fact, only half of American households have access to curbside recycling for cartons, which means that a lot of these packages never even get the chance to be recycled!
Although glass is also infinitely recyclable (Woot! Woot!), it doesn’t get recycled nearly as often as aluminum does (34% vs 67%). It’s also the heaviest beverage container, so transporting it takes a lot of fuel and creates the most carbon emissions.