Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Plastics #5

We've already discussed Number 5 Plastics, or polypropylene (PP)... to an extent. Recall if you will the initiatives taken by companies such as Aveda and Brita in finding uses for plastic bottle caps and water filters, respectively, to divert this previously little-recycled plastic from the landfills. Thankfully, more recyclers are accepting polypropylene, including Chicago's curbside program.

The appeal of polypropylene is that this particular polymer chain has a very high melting point, which is ideal for hot liquid containers. It is also used for yogurt containers, medicine, syrup and ketchup bottles, and straws. Once recycled, it becomes fodder for battery cables and casings, brooms and brushes, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bins, and pallets and trays.

Remember, plastics aren't so much recycled as they are downcycled-- they will never be as strong or as effective as they were at the start of their lifecycle. And although recycling is now possible, the best solution for recycling plastics remains to reduce the amount of plastic products used in the first place.

Monday, March 22, 2010

World Water Day

Happy World Water Day! Did you know that World Water Day has been observed worldwide since 1993? This initiative was one result of a resolution made by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which met in Rio de Janiero in 1992. Originally, nations were invited to "devote the Day to implement the UN recommendations and set up concrete activities as deemed appropriate in the national context." Thus far, this has included laying pipes and pouring concrete and digging wells in areas most in need of fresh drinking water. The fundraising efforts continue in hopes that providing fresh water will increase sanitation, improve health conditions, and lift impoverished people out of wretched circumstances world wide.

The 2010 celebration of this day falls right in the middle of the UN-dubbed "Water for Life" decade. Launched in 2005, the Water for Life campaign aims to reduce by half the number of people without adequate access to water (which at the time was 1.1 billion; 2.4 billion if you count everyone without clean, potable water). The aim is to implement water programs in poorer and developing nations and rural areas, and to include women in the process of establishing safe water sources within their villages, especially in areas where there has traditionally been a large gender disparity between men and women.

Safe access to clean drinking water should be considered among the most basic of human rights, and while much has been done to combat this problem, the world still has a long way to go. Fresh water makes up less than 3% of all the water on the planet, and that number is only going down. While it sometimes seems like we in the U.S. have water to spare, there are people in this world who would give anything to have collected the water wasted by even one person who left the tap on while brushing their teeth. So in honor of this initiative, think of some ways to conserve (and not waste) this precious resource, and be glad that you're not one of the 2.5 billion people in this world without a toilet.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Plastics #4

Number 4 plastics, or low-density polyethylene (LDPE) shares most of its name with #2 plastics, but not much else. LDPE most commonly used to make bags: shopping bags, tote bags, bread bags, dry cleaning bags, you name it. Also found in squeeze bottles and sometimes carpeting or furniture, plastics #4 does not hold up well to everyday wear and tear, and because the recycling process further breaks down its polymerized structures, it was long thought to be an undesirable material for remanufacture.

Thankfully, more and more curbside programs are now accepting LDPE for recycling, as manufacturers have found a way to incorporate it into trash cans and liners, compost bins, envelopes, and certain construction materials. Many stores now accept plastic shopping bags for recycling. In fact, all the big-box stores in Chicago are now required to reycle shopping bags as part of a compromise reached between retailers and the City after the proposal to ban plastic bags (or at least charge customers who chose to use them) failed miserably.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Plastics #3

The third category in the plastics family is Polyvinyl Chloride, or PVC, which is a polymerized byproduct of vinyl chloride. A highly durable plastic, it is used extensively in construction materials such as windows, siding, and piping, and is also found in yoga mats, as well as various types of medical equipment. Its composition makes it a cost-effective and long-lasting product, one that will take hundreds of years to break down.

Occasionally PVC is used to make cleaner or detergent bottles or food packaging. However, PVC is not nearly as benign as plastics #1 or #2, nor is it as easy to recycle. Because of the chlorine present in its molecular structure, highly dangerous toxins can be released into the air during its manufacture. Plastics #3 should never be used for cooking or heating food, as the toxins within are released when the plastic is heated or burned. Some studies have suggested the dreaded chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) may be present in plastics #3 as well, which is suspected of affecting human growth and reproductive hormones when leached into food or drinking water.

Of the municipalities that do accept PVC packaging for recycling (and yes, Chicago does!), it is recycled into plastic lumber and flooring, cables, speed bumps, and mats.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Plastics #2

High-density Polyethylene, or HDPE, is like a little brother to PETE. Better known as plastics #2, it is easily recyclable and can be remanufactured into a number of products. Uncolored HDPE has a milky, or translucent sheen, as evidenced in milk jugs, shopping bags, and cereal box liners. Colored, or pigmented HDPE is common as well, and tends to be a bit stiffer than its naturally hued counterpart. Colored HDPE usually packages cleaners, detergents, and beauty products.

HDPE is easy to form and easy to process. Not only does the chemical make up of high-density polyethylene make it unlikely to leach into food products or break down too much when heated, it is highly resistant to chemical reactions, which makes it ideal for packaging bleach, motor oil, household cleansers and industrial chemicals.

Because of its strength and stability on a molecular level, HDPE is one of the only plastics that can be recycled back into a plastic bottle or container. Other products commonly made from HDPE include: floor tiles, artificial lumber and fencing, drain pipes, dog houses and picnic tables. There's also a pretty good chance that your recycling bin is made out of #2 plastics! How many of your HDPE containers are making it into that bin?