Est. 1995

Tag: Recycling

Think that your plastic is being recycled? Think again.

Plastic is cheap to make and shockingly profitable. It’s everywhere. And we’re all paying the price.

Plastic, and the profusion of waste it creates, can hide in plain sight, a ubiquitous part of our lives we rarely question. But a closer examination of the situation can be shocking.

Currently, about 430 million tons of plastic is produced yearly, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)—significantly more than the weight of all human beings combined. One-third of this total takes the form of single-use plastics, which humans interact with for seconds or minutes before discarding.

“The amount of plastic on our planet—it’s like one big oil spill.”

A total of 95% of the plastic used in packaging is disposed of after one use, a loss to the economy of up to $120 billion annually, concludes a report by McKinsey. (Just over a quarter of all plastics are used for packaging.) One-third of this packaging is not collected, becoming pollution that generates “significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean.” This causes at least $40 billion in damages, the report states, which exceeds the “profit pool” of the packaging industry. One paper estimated that the average person consumes five grams of plastic every week—mostly from water. About 95% of the tap water in the United States is contaminated. Microplastics are also widely found in beer, salt, shellfish, and other human foods.

In the United States, only about 5% to 6% of plastics are being recycled each year.

Notably, what doesn’t get reused or recycled does not chemically degrade but rather becomes a fixture of our world; it breaks apart to form microplastics, pieces smaller than five millimeters in diameter. In the past few years, scientists have found significant quantities of microplastics in the further reaches of the ocean; in snow and rainfall in seemingly pristine places worldwide; in the air we breathe; and in human blood, colons, lungs, veins, breast milk, placentas, and fetuses.

The solution to that problem lies further upstream: to address plastic pollution, those who produce plastics need to pay for the damage it causes, and the world will also have to make less of it. We’ll have to develop better, more recyclable products. We’ll also have to find sustainable alternatives and increase what ecologists call circularity—keeping those products in use as long as possible and finding ways to reuse their materials after that.

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Think that your plastic is being recycled? Think again.

Sorry, Your Paper Coffee Cup Is a Toxic Nightmare

Supposedly eco-friendly cups are still coated with a thin layer of plastic, which scientists have discovered can leach chemicals that harm living creatures.

Leaching chemicals isn’t just a problem when paper cups are littered—it can begin when a cup is used. In 2019, a research group from India filled paper cups with hot water to see if plastic particles or chemicals were released. “What came as a surprise to us was the number of microplastic particles that leached into the hot water within 15 minutes,” Anuja Joseph, a research scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, wrote in an email. On average, there were 25,000 particles per 100 ml cup. The researchers also found traces of harmful chemicals and heavy metals in the water and plastic lining, respectively.

A recently published study shows that paper cups can be just as toxic as conventional plastic ones if they end up littered in our natural environment. Seemingly eco-friendly paper cups are coated with a thin layer of plastic to keep their contents from seeping into the paper, and this lining can emit toxic substances.

“Reusable” cups aren’t necessarily much better when it comes to leaching, as they are often made of plastic; heat and wear accelerate leaching, and acidic drinks like coffee absorb chemicals more easily. The carbon footprint of reusable plastic cups is also disputable: A reusable cup has to be used between 20 and 100 times to offset its greenhouse gas emissions compared to a disposable one, according to some estimates. Blame the high amount of energy needed to make the reusable cup durable and the hot water needed to wash it. That said, a reusable plastic cup at least has the potential to last longer and is easier to recycle.

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Sorry, Your Paper Coffee Cup Is a Toxic Nightmare

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