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Guest Post: Six Things You Didn’t Know About Plastic

six thing you didn't know about plastic

Think you know what’s in your coffee cup… or closet? Think again—it could contain a type of plastic that’s polluting the environment and/or endangering your health. With nearly a decade spent committed to the fight against marine plastic pollution, The 5 Gyres Institute shares these tips on discovering hidden plastic—and going #plasticfree.

1. Your faux-fur jacket is plastic. So are your workout pants.

All materials shed fibers. But unlike wool and cotton, which biodegrade, microfibers from synthetic clothing never biodegrade—because they’re made from plastic. When these garments are washed, the tiny plastic microfibers slip right through sewage treatment filters and into our waterways: One recent study found a single synthetic fleece jacket released as many as 250,000 microfibers when washed in a machine. When these fibers are eaten by small organisms and fish, they can work their way up the food chain and onto our plates.

Solution? Avoid acrylic garments, which are particularly harmful and can release as many as 700,000 microfibers during the lifecycle of one item of clothing, and if you do own synthetic fabrics, wash them less. Oh, and if you’re buying a new washing machine, choose a front loader—it releases fewer microfibers.

2. Much of the plastic dropped in recycling bins isn’t recycled.

In 2014, 22% of PET plastic collected for recycling was exported out of the United States. Why? Our facilities can’t keep up: Plastic production surged from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 tons in 2014—an increase of more than 2,000 percent. Also, as oil prices fluctuate, so too does the price of plastic. When those markets are depressed, virgin plastic becomes far cheaper to buy than recycled. Without a profitable market in which to sell it, it’s not cost-effective for many recycling companies to process plastic—so they sell it to other countries at a loss. In 2011, China imported nearly half of America’s plastic waste.

Solution? Use less disposable plastic! Refuse the top five sources of single use plastic: plastic bags, water bottles, to go containers, takeaway cups and straws, and switch to reusable solutions.

3. Most coffee cup lids are made from the same type of plastic as Styrofoam.

Starbucks sells 400 billion cups of coffee annually—each with a polystyrene lid. Toxic styrene—the primary component of polystyrene, and expanded polystyrene foam better known as Styrofoam—is proven to be carcinogenic to animals, and is a probable human carcinogen. It can migrate from containers into food and drinks when it comes in contact with fatty or acidic foods, and when heated—like for your coffee or take out. While some cups are recyclable; typically, the lids are not. Billions of coffee cup lids are landfilled and/or littered daily.

Solution? Request your coffee without a lid. Or better yet, bring a reusable insulated stainless steel coffee cup and avoid the plastic waste altogether.

4. Straws are not recyclable.

Americans use more than 300 million plastic straws each day. Straws are too small to be easily recycled. So they become trash—often in the ocean. In fact, plastic straws are one of the top polluters on our beaches and can be harmful to animals. More than 600 species are impacted by small pieces of plastic—like straws—in the ocean, either through ingestion or entanglement, which can sicken or even kill them. Birds, fish, turtles, dolphins, sharks and even whales can be poisoned or trapped by plastic waste.

Solution? Ask for your beverage “straw-free” or try reusable stainless steel straws.

5. You might be washing your face with plastic.

Many exfoliating products contain plastic microbeads—tiny round beads look innocuous but are actually pretty evil. When we use products that contain them, plastic microbeads go down the drain. Because they’re too small to be filtered—smaller than a grain of salt—they end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans. In the United States, we release 8 billion plastic microbeads into the environment each day.

In 2013, research conducted by 5 Gyres and SUNY Fredonia found a high concentration of plastic microbeads in the Great Lakes, which inspired a movement that culminated when President Obama signed The Microbead-Free Waters Act into law. However, at the current rate, more than 7.3 trillion microbeads will enter the marine environment before the Microbead-Free Waters Act becomes effective in 2018.

Solution? Avoid exfoliating beauty products that contain “microbeads,” or show polyethylene, polypropylene, polylactic acid (PLA), polystyrene, or polyethylene terephthalate on labels.

This was reposted, with edits, with permission from 5 Gyres.