So many types of plastic. Anything sustainable?
Look around. Do you notice how many objects are made of plastic? The ballpen on your desk, the chopping board in your kitchen. But when it comes to plastics, you’re probably thinking of packaging material. Vegetables, yoghurt, soda. Everything comes in a layer of plastic. However, not all packaging is created equal. Many types pollute the environment and bio-based alternatives are on the rise. What are the different types of plastic? And how sustainable are those alternatives? Read all about it in this blog!
The first plastics emerged in the early twentieth century. Plastic is an umbrella term for synthetic materials made of fossil fuels. Crude oil is the most well-known raw material. Most plastics are not biodegradable and contain toxic substances that harm the environment. Many plastic products are reusable and recyclable but a large portion is intended for single use. Plus, part of it ends up in nature which is bad for the environment. Plastic products that are collected in the right way can also put pressure on our planet. Globally, we produce no less than 311 million tonnes of plastic every year. There are many different types of plastic. We have listed them below.
Plastics based on fossil fuel
A large portion of plastics is made of fossil fuel and is not degradable. When these products end up in nature, they are extremely polluting. We have all seen images of the plastic soup, animals trapped in plastic and we’ve all heard about microplastics.
Products made of one type of plastic tend to be reusable. PET bottles are a great example. They can be melted down to produce new bottles. But a lot of plastic packaging contains a combination of two or more types of plastic. The benefit is that you need less plastic to guarantee a long shelf life. But it also means that this type of packaging is non-recyclable and ends up being incinerated.
In recent years, there have been many developments when it comes to plastics. Bioplastics are on the rise and this type of plastic is often presented as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuel-based plastics. But are they? First, let’s talk about the confusing name: because bioplastics do not tend do degrade on their own. We distinguish between two types: biobased plastics and biodegradable plastics.
1. Biobased plastics
Biobased plastics are made of biobased raw materials, such as corn starch or sugar cane. But biobased does not mean they are biodegradable! You can’t dump these products in nature because they won’t degrade on their own and behave just like plastics made of crude oil. Still, biobased plastics are better in terms of their footprint: less greenhouse gas is released during production. But with the global food shortage in mind, this type of plastic does come at a cost.
2. Biodegradable plastics
It’s all in the name: this type of plastic is biodegradable, i.e. compostable. But contrary to the name biobased plastics, the name biodegradable plastic says nothing about the raw material. It can be organic, but this type of plastic can also be made of oil. Biodegradable plastics do however decompose entirely. In most cases, they require industrial composting, which involves composting machinery.
This composting machinery is where it gets tricky; they often mix plastic with VGF waste. The composting process takes four weeks, which is usually too short for biodegradable plastic. The result is that plastic particles remain after four weeks, contaminating the compost. This leaves just one solution: the compost is incinerated.
In short, bioplastics are not always as sustainable as we might think. Which is why Yarrah has opted for a different packaging material. Read all about it in this blog.
Various types of plastic
Are you curious about the various types of plastic? You’ll find a brief overview below.
HDPE, or high-density polyethene, is made of crude oil. The resulting plastic has a high density which makes for strong end products. HDPE is mostly used for buckets, toys and even car parts.
There is another type of polyethene: LDPE i.e. low-density polyethene. This synthetic is also made of crude oil but contrary to HDPE, LDPE is malleable. This is why manufacturers mostly use it for film, bags, protractors and extrusion coating (the coating in milk cartons, photos and magazines).
What makes PP (polypropene) interesting is that this synthetic is resistant against bacterial growth. Which is why this type of plastic is often used in hospitals: from disposable syringes to other medical equipment. But the material is frequently used in everyday life as well. PP is stronger than HDPE. Plastic furniture, carpets and crates are mostly made of polypropene.
EPS (expanded polystyrene) probably doesn’t ring a bell, but you will recognise it under a different name: Styrofoam. This is a light material made of natural gas. EPS is mostly used for insulation and to protect product as they travel from the factory to the end user.
PET is probably the most well-known of all. It stands for polyethylene terephthalate (but let’s stick with the simple acronym, shall we?). This plastic is mostly used in bottles and containers of detergent and other fluids. But it is also used for blister packs. Think containers for grapes or screws and nails.
Another well-known type of plastic is PVC (polyvinylchloride). This is a cheap material, wear-resistant, reusable, easy to process and relatively light weight. The material is often used in the construction and automotive industries: pipes, wiring, carpeting, wallpaper and tape. The raincoat on your coatrack and other protective clothing also tend to be made of PVT.
In short: there are many types of plastic with different applications. They have one thing in common: they can pollute the environment and are difficult to recycle when mixed together.