Life in plastic is (not) fantastic

Did you know that there are different types of plastic? And also, did you know that sometimes recycling it’s more harmful than safe, both for people and for the environment?

In this article we will talk about the origins of plastic and its different development, explaining which are its differences and usages.

The origin of plastic can be traced back to the 19th century when the first synthetic polymer was invented by John Wesley Hyatt following the need of human beings to have something that would last longer than natural resources to build new things. After a few decades, in 1907, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, meaning it contained no molecules found in nature. From here the industry of plastic started to grow and produce more plastic items, for a thousand different purposes, but already in the middle of the 20th century scientists understood that plastic was causing environmental problems, and nowadays these concerns are increasing. This is happening mainly for one reason: plastic lasts forever in the environment and, even if the industry offered recycling as a solution, not all plastic is recyclable. Recycling is indeed a long process that requires not only the effort of the whole citizenry but also and especially a great contribution from the local government. Then, there are different kinds of plastic, usually differentiated internationally by the numbers they have written on their items. These numbers are from 1 to 7, but this doesn’t mean the number of times they can be recycled nor in which bin we have to throw them, it’s just to differentiate for the consumers the kind of plastic they’re made of (scientifically called “resin identification code”). The first one is called PET and it represents a clear hard plastic often used as single-use food and drinks containers; this is the easiest to recycle. The second one is HDPE and which is a hard plastic not as transparent PET, that is often used for shampoo bottles or yoghurt containers, and also this one is the easiest to recycle. PVC is frequently used for vinyl and pipes, and it’s more difficult to recycle because it requires separation from other plastics. Then, the LDPE is a soft flexible plastic that is often used, for example, as frozen food bags; also for this type, there must be a separation of its different films (its components are usually HDPE and LDPE films). The PP is commonly found in caps and straws, and it’s one of the least recycled post-consumer plastics, also because of its complexity. The process of recycling is even worse and way more difficult to apply with the last two types: the PS, which is commonly found as single-use coffee cups, and all the other types of plastics that can be found for example in mixed plastics containers and items.

To sum up, when people think it is a good action to reuse the plastic bottle they bought and they fill it again and again, well, it’s for sure a nice thing for the environment but not for themselves. At the same time, when people are trying to do their part in throwing in the right bin, well, it’s again a good thing for themselves because they could feel better and relieved, but still not enough to help with the whole and long process of recycling. So, it is essential to get the right information and not just to follow the ‘green wave’ that is apparently good (and sometimes can also have good intentions, why not) but that nowadays is mostly used as a smart form of marketing.

Debora Vezzoli

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