What Do We Do with Plastic?

We are in an era in which we are all being asked to live our lives in as ecological and environmentally friendly a way as possible. Part of this approach involves minimising waste as well as reusing and recycling materials. This all comes at a time when we face the prospect of having less frequent waste collection services and may be asked to pay additionally for the disposal of rubbish by pay as you throw’.

A lot of the contents of our waste bin is plastic. When you look around, you start to realise just how widely used plastics are. Just within your home you most likely have containers, bowls and buckets, wiring, pipe-work, tanks, guttering and window frames, furniture, furnishings and flooring, electrical goods, toys, tools, computers, shoes and clothes that involve plastics in part or all of their construction.

Until the 1950’s, the use of plastic in the home was relatively rare and largely restricted to Bakelite, which was used for handles, plugs and radio casings and to Linoleum for flooring. Neither of these early plastics involved crude oil in their manufacture. Modern plastics however, whilst being wonderfully versatile and adaptive to many uses, are particularly environmentally sensitive materials. Firstly they involve the use of precious crude oil in their manufacture and secondly, most degrade only extremely slowly in the environment. It is surprising that for all the debate on declining oil supplies and the need to reduce our carbon footprint, each year seems to bring more and more plastic into our world and with it the challenge of what to do with it when we no longer need it.

On the basis that you already recycle paper, metal and glass, it is likely that a large part of your weekly rubbish bag consists of plastic containers, wrapping and bags. When you buy plastic products, buy sturdy goods which will have a long life. When you no longer need them, try to sell or give them away, rather than just throwing them away. If you look on the internet, there are firms selling a very wide range of recycled plastic products. Recycled bin bags are widely available from many shops. Buy goods with minimal or no plastic packaging and use reusable plastic carrier bags, or those made from fabric, which can be composted when worn out.

Currently, there is no local kerbside collection of plastic. But you can recycle some plastics at the local recycling centres, which will accept any plastic which is marked with a ‘1’, ‘2’ or ‘3’ within a triangle stamped somewhere on the container.

Containers marked ‘1-3’ will constitute a fair proportion of the plastic coming into your home each week and are often used to hold milk, water, soft drinks, shampoo, fabric conditioner, fruit, vegetables and the like. If you wash and crush these containers, they can be taken to the recycling centre when you or a friend, are passing. Eventually, your plastic will be taken to a factory where it will be processed into useful products like fabrics, garden furniture and compost bins.

Although we can all ‘do our bit’ by recycling some plastics and reusing others with a little ingenuity, the fact of the matter is that a lot is still not currently recycled and ends up being buried or burnt. The good news is that it is possible to turn plastics back into oil, petrol and gas, minimising residues for landfill. Up to half the weight of plastic can be turned back into oil. There are functioning reclaiming plants in operation abroad; some will even turn tyres into oil and the metal can be recovered.

Although there are no plastic to oil units working in this country that I know of, perhaps one day Government and business will see the benefit in having regional reprocessing plants and then perhaps, scrap plastic will enjoy the current popularity of scrap metal.Forum 21 is working to tackle climate change in West Somerset.