Living plastic free: Plastics 101: Part 1: Bad Witch, Good Witch
(Grab a java. And your ruby slippers. This is one long trek through OZ.)
All is not right in Kansas.
It started as just a windstorm a-brewing. But look over there, I'm sure that's a funnel cloud on the horizon. And can you feel a mysterious alteration of the air….and a warm wind headed our way? The birds have stopped singing and the crickets aren't chirping. And when they’re quiet it’s never a good sign…’cuz it’s an omen a real tornado is headed our way.
And that tornado is global warming.
Will you and EnviroWoman be standing in the eye of the storm soon? Or can we change our ways profoundly enough, and fast enough to divert disaster?
Time magazine tells us there are 51 ways to help slow global warming. One way EnviroWoman has chosen is to take the 'no-new-plastic' pledge for 2007.
Now you might think 'Wow, to live a whole year with not letting any new plastic into your life really takes courage, heart, and brains.'
It’s true EnviroWoman is lion-hearted and not afraid to change her ways to save the planet. And long ago she learned to have a heart-full of compassion for nature and other living things.
But the one thing EnviroWoman needs is a better brain, because she's no expert when it comes to plastic. The sad, silly truth is, she is actually quite ignorant about plastic (as are most of us probably).
This became blatantly obvious when she landed in No-New-Plastic Land (with TheBeast tucked under her arm) and started her journey down the yellow brick road to find a non-plastic replacement for trash bags. Yes. Trash bags.
She knew the road ahead was going to be a challenge after reading a comment that :^) made back in January (yes, that really is the name he/she goes by), letting her know some plastic alternatives may not actually be as WizardWonderful as they appear at first.
But, EnviroWoman knew somewhere over the rainbow there must be a better, more earth-friendly solution. And she wanted to make the right, informed choice.
So EnviroWoman decided it was time to start her plastic education. And you my friend, are welcome to follow the yellow brick road with her, share in what she learns….so you too can become plastic-enlightened.
So slip on your ruby slippers…here we go....
THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF PLASTICS 101
(Apologies if there are shameful inaccuracies. Feel free to correct me by adding a comment. I don’t claim to be an expert, nor have I fact-checked the content below with ScienceWizard)
Science and innovation combined their forces and gave birth to the WickedWitchoftheEastOil way back as early as the 1850’s. When she hit puberty in the early 1900’s she started to build her powers and began casting spells on the people of MunchkinLand.
Around that same time, she conjured herself up a little sister – the WickedWitchoftheWestPlastic. And when Baby Sis's own powers started to kick-in during the early 1950’s – ooooeeee she too became a formidable force. WickedWitchoftheWestPlastic increased her hold over the planet 6000% in the next 4 short decades. Wicked, wicked woman.
Today, WickedWitchoftheEastOil and WickedWitchoftheWestPlastic have such a strong spell over MunchkinLand that it's inhabitants are all now OilAddicted and PlasticAddicted. And wrecking havoc on MotherOZ.
But the sister witchs' source of power is non-renewable. And therein lies their weak spot. Because, in the next 40 years or so, their power is going to get completely used up. But not before they completely destroy MunchkinLand.
In EnviroWoman's search for an incantation to release herself from the WickedWitchoftheWestPlastic’s spell, she started researching alternatives to plastic trash bags.
The Munchkins told her, 'Travel to the Emerald City and look for ‘bioplastics’. EnviroWoman had ignorantly thought that all plastics were WickedWitchoftheEast petroleum-based. But bioplastics didn’t seem to be…even though they carried the moniker ‘plastic’. So that made EnviroWoman ask…
What the Heck is Plastic Anyway?
The Munchkins told her 'It’s plastic if it’s fluid at some point during processing but solid in its final form, and the main ingredient is a polymer. Some polymers are natural (silk, natural rubber, starch) and some are synthetic (nylon, polyester).' Boy, those Munchkins are smarter than they look.
Anyway, there are many, many kinds of plastics and a couple of kinds of bioplastics. For the sake of our journey down the yellow brick road, let’s plunk them into 4 broad categories.
WickedWitchoftheWest – Petroleum Based Plastics (I'll get you my little pretty!)
- ‘Traditional’ plastic (the one we're all addicted to) uses non-renewable petroleum as the polymer. No doubt, its durable, cheap, lightweight, and long-lasting. But it’s not degradable (well, maybe in 1,000 years) or compostable. You could drop a house on it, and it still wouldn't go away.
Therein lies EnviroWoman's beef with it.
Over 200 billion pounds of plastics are produced each year worldwide. That’s about 40 pounds for every single person on the planet - every year. Doesn't sound too bad does it? But plastic is super light...a 2 liter pop bottle weighs maybe 1/2 ounce. Now do the math. That’s a lot of plastic.
And the vast majority of that doesn’t get recycled. It gets discarded.
Do we have the right to pollute the planet with garbage that will still be here in MunchkinLand 40 generations later? I hope you answered 'No'.
Imagine if you moved into a new home and the previous residents had left all their garbage behind. You’d be disgusted. (Excuse me while EnviroWoman steps down from her soapbox now...no wait, she thinks she'll stay up here a while longer).
Many varieties of petroleum-based plastic can be recycled and these are denoted with an SPI Resin Identification Code of 1 through 7 on the bottom of the plastic container. One being the easiest to recycle into other goods and 7 being the hardest.
The Munchkins gave Envirowoman the Pyramid of Plastics by Greenpeace shown below, and she added her own personal touch to it.
Look at the three plastics at the top of the pyramid.
#3 Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was called the ‘poison plastic’ in Greenpeace’s excellent document. Dated, but still excellent.
Both #3 and #6 are not accepted by our own municipal blue box recycling program (EnviroWoman is always surprised by how many people don’t know that….and even more stupefied that some people don’t know about the 7 symbols and where to find them on plastic items. Staggering.)
- Degradable plastic uses non-renewable petroleum as the polymer, but includes an additive (often a starch, like the tapioca mentioned in :^)’s comment). The additive accelerates degradation under certain biological or physical conditions (sunlight or heat, for example) making the plastic break down into small fragments that themselves take a long, long time to degrade.
The fragments (which remember, are petroleum based) can be ingested by marine life or migrate into the water table or soil where they can attract and hold highly toxic elements like little munchkin PCBs and DDTs. In essence, the fragments can act like little toxic chemical transport systems.
If you continuously put degradable plastic bags in your compost pile, eventually you’d pollute the soil.
Degradable plastics are marketed as if they are a beautiful field of poppies, lulling us into a ‘these are good’ comfort so much so that we fall asleep and forget that our real goal is to reach the EmeraldCityNirvana of a planet-friendly alternative.
Sometimes you have to get past the smoke and mirrors, and pull the curtain to discover the true Wizard.
In fact, degradable plastics are really more like ‘Winged Monkeys’ - modified from their original form but still actually hand maidens of the WickedWitchoftheWestPlastic.
GoodWitchoftheNorth – Bioplastics (There's no place like Mother Earth)
- Biodegradable plastics are a much friendlier witch. Classified as ‘bioplastics’, they are not derived from petroleum, but from renewable resources like, corn, trees, and soy. That makes them much more EarthFriendly, as noted in the Greenpeace chart.
Naturally-occurring micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi and algae feed on them, degrading them in the process. Biodegradable plastics may not disintegrate instantaneously, but still degrade faster than traditional plastics. Manufacturers can even ‘tune’ the degradation period by incorporating certain additives so that biodegradation occurs within a certain time period.
One downside: biodegradable bioplastics are not required to ensure they leave 'NO toxic residues' once degradation has occurred.
- Compostable plastics are bioplastics that degrade at the same rate as paper and into C02, water, inorganic compounds and biomass when composted. That means they are completely benign and leave no toxic or heavy metal residues in the soil. They even support plant life. And they usually disintegrate in less than 180 days under industrial composting conditions (usually 60 degrees, defined humidity and micro-organisms present).
- They don’t prevent people from littering
- Animals can still choke on them (but in small pieces they get assimilated as normal food)
- They shouldn’t be mixed in with traditional plastics during the recycling process (small quantities are okay, but with big quantities WickedWitchoftheWestPlastic likes to scream 'I'm melting. I'm melting' all on her own.)
- They’re more expensive (but as demand increases you'd think the price would come down. So start demanding!)
- And just imagine all the agricultural land it would take to grow enough corn etc. to satisfy our lust for plastic addiction.
- They're thicker than traditional plastic, so cost more to transport
- And so on and so on…
The BagtoNature trash bags EnviroWoman finally decided on, fall into this category and are made from a renewable resource - corn. BagtoNature is careful to not even use the word 'plastic' in their sales material, so we know they are an offspring of the GoodWitchoftheNorthBioplastic.
Don’t they sound ‘EmeraldCity spectacular? Alas….some bloggers report that in household composting systems, compostable bioplastics seem to take forever to degrade.
Here in Vancouver’s corner of MunchkinLand, although we have a fantastic blue-box-recycling program, we don’t have a community composting program. So EnviroWoman’s lovely BagToNature bags are gonna make their way to a landfill instead of an industrial composting site. But (fingers-crossed) they should decompose much, much faster and into much healthier particles than the Safeway plastic bags she used to use.
Now let’s not get too fooled by all this TechnoWizardry. When WickedWitchoftheWest plastics were first introduced they probably looked EmeraldCitySpectacular too. And now 60 years later we’re discovering all the toxic, polluting, and gonna-be-around-for-1,000-years downsides. Maybe the same will happen with bioplastics.
Someday they may not appear so WizardWonderful. And let’s face it, they still have their problems:
But the WickedWitchoftheEastOil begins to lose her powers, and oil becomes increasingly expensive because of its rarity, the only logical move is to towards bioplastics. The GoodWitchoftheNorthBioplastics may be our future.
Forgive EnviroWoman while she gets UberOZ on you….but she had an epiphany while reading an article from Bioplastics Magazine (She used to read InStyle, now she reads Bioplastics…wow, the times, they are a-changing).
The BrightBulbConcept goes something like this…..Composting mimics the way nature takes care of its own waste here on Earth. It’s a perpetual loop system that goes like this: grow/produce/convert – use – biodegrade – grow/produce/convert, etc. It’s sort of an ashes to ashes, dust to dust kinda concept (that doesn’t add toxic chemicals in the process, I might add).
Nature doesn’t produce things that can’t be composted (except for maybe mountains...and even then, if you waited long enough....). And Nature rarely uses incineration (forest fires) to recover materials (she knows burning your garbage isn't as planet-friendly).
EnviroWoman knows MotherNature is a superior intelligence. Way, way smarter than the WizardofOz. And bizillions of light years ahead of our own little peabrains. If it’s the way MomNature does things…it’s the way EnviroWoman thinks we should do things, too.
And if we do...and use our courage, heart, and brains, maybe we can save the planet.
Now close your eyes, tap your ruby slipper heels together, and repeat after me three times:
There’s no place like MotherEarth. There’s no place like Mother Earth. There’s no place like MotherEarth.