Do you really need to buy plastic? If so, which kind is safe?

While the previous article discussed the challenges of down-cycling plastic and the complications that arise out of mixing different types together, this one will go into details of understanding plastic and learning to choose wisely.

Once you segregate plastic in your home, look for the resin code. The SPI resin code identification system is a series of symbols that are supposed to be marked on each piece of plastic to help separate different grades from each other.

Every time plastic is down-cycled, it delivers a lower grade than what it started from. Moreover, the entire down-cycling process uses tremendous amounts of energy, and adds chemical synthetic additives to the mix, making the whole process quite hazardous and toxic.

We need to understand four important concepts to manage our plastic footprint better. Firstly, plastic needs to be identified with a resin code in order to be sorted and processed properly. It has to be of high quality in order to create a lower grade product after down-cycling. Second, quality is measured by Grade (type) and Gauge (thickness, measured in microns). It must be “pure” to enter the processing cycle. Thirdly, too many colours and additives are not good. Neither should it be mixed with other forms like metal-coated plastic. And finally, when we send out plastic, it should be clean without food and liquid scraps sticking to it.

Using these concepts, let’s examine some common plastic items in the home and see if it passes the down-cycling test:

1. Mineral water bottles: These bottles are usually made PET of low gauge. The instructions on the package ask you to crush the bottle after use. They are intended for one-time use only and if re-used at home to store other liquids, starts leaching chemicals into the contents. Your best option is carry your own bottle (preferably steel or glass) everywhere rather than encourage usage of PET bottles.

2. Plastic shopping bags: They are usually made of either HDPE or LDPE. The thicker HDPE bags can be down-cycled, if they are not printed with many colours or graphics. The thin black bags used by your vegetable or flower vendor are LDPE. They are already of extremely low gauge, and therefore cannot be down-cycled. A better option is to carry your own cloth or jute bag when you go to a store. 3. Take-away food containers: These containers are made of low gauge PET, as is evident since they develop cracks after single use. This cannot be down-cycled. If we don’t clean the food scraps properly, these containers definitely do not enter the down-cycling stream. Be responsible and reduce take-aways. If you order often from the same restaurant, give them your own cutlery.

4. Ready-to-eat snacks: Metalized plastic used in biscuits and chips is a particular menace. It is not only impossible to down-cycle but also uses precious metal resources for the flimsiest of reasons – keeping junk food crisp. You could do yourself a favour and try to reduce consuming them. Plastic is an important and useful material. It is light, cheap and an electrical insulator. For example, you cannot manufacture a phone charger entirely out of metal; it needs a plastic cover for safety. This charger is also likely to be used for a few years, justifying the use of plastic. It is the mindless and indiscriminate use of plastic that lead to environmental cancer.

So, always ask yourself the following questions; Do I need this plastic item? Am I using it for an important reason? Will this item last long? If not, please look for a more sustainable alternative.


The truth about plasticMarch 15, 2013