Plastic: Breaking it Down but, Can We

When it comes to the production and the use of single-use plastics, we are doing a whole lot of harm to our planet. The manufacturing companies that produced the plastics in this category, saw the error, but put the onus on the consumer to dispose of the plastic waste product (and cans) as “recyclable.” In the 1970s, ads in magazines and television showed plastic trash as something that could be properly disposed of by taking it to your local recycling facility under the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign. So who started the campaign blitz?

 “Corporations got involved: Keep America Beautiful, a coalition of “public and corporate interests,” including a number of manufacturers of disposable products like cans, [and plastic bottles and containers] ran spots like the now-famous “Crying Indian.” The Container Corporation of America ran a competition seeking “an emblem to put on their recycled cardboard products,” Goodyear writes. The winning design, by a college student named Gary Anderson, was the now-ubiquitous three arrow recycling symbol.” (See: Smithsonian Magazine Online How the 1970s Created Recycling As We Know It).

As discussed in last weeks article, the invention of celluloid was a big step in producing products, formerly from natural sources such as Ivory, Tortoiseshell, wood, etc., from plant material as a less expensive material than natural sources. In 1907 came the first fully synthetic plastic made from chemicals known as Bakelite. The success of Celluloid and Bakelite stirred the monetary interests of major chemical companies who “… invested in the research and development of new polymers, and new plastics soon join[ed] celluloid and Bakelite.” Both celluloid and Bakelite were developed using materials with specific properties in mind.  “…the new research programs sought new plastics for their own sake and worried about finding uses for them later.”  — the market exploded with the variety of plastics, including the single-use that we now encounter on a daily basis. (See: Science History Institute Online, History and Future of Plastics  accessed July22, 2021).

So, how is this working out for us. We now have floating islands of trash in our oceans, one of which was three times the size of France in 2018. This is a very deep and layered topic. While large items like laundry baskets, yes laundry baskets, are found in these floating garbage islands, it remains that the much smaller plastics and single-use that is extremely deadly to oceanic plant and animal life. Follow the food chain and we begin to find plastic in our own bodies, yet scientific innovators continue to search for ways to make recycling more efficient while others hope to perfect a process that converts plastics back into the fossil fuels from which they were derived.” This begs the question….using fossil fuels in the manufacturing process is damaging to the environment, so what happens when you try to reverse it? (See: ABC News Online Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is massive floating island of plastic, now 3 times the size of France March 23, 2018, accessed 7/22/2021.)

For now, the immediacy of the problem is to reduce the use of single-use plastic and urge the market to find sustainable and truly recyclable/compostable ways to re-engineer the containers of which, we have become so fond.


First, let’s look at the three major plastic categories that are in current everyday use, but are NOT recyclable largely due to toxins they emit as they slowly breakdown while leaching chemicals into ground water. 

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

PVC can be flexible or rigid, and is used for plumbing pipes, clear food packaging, shrink wrap, plastic children’s toys, tablecloths, vinyl flooring, children’s play mats, and blister packs (such as for medicines). PVC contains a phthalate called DEHP,  has been banned in many countries, but not the U.S.  In some products, DEHP has been replaced with another chemical called DiNP, which has similarly been shown to have hormone disruption properties which can be feminizing’s to male traits. They release hydrogen chloride fumes, and leach phthalates, which are carcinogenic causing cancer, birth defects and liver problems. This is the hardest category to recycle because of high chlorine content, but can be repurposed into traffic cones, electrical boxes and cables and most likely the credit cards you carry everyday.

Low-Density Polyethylene (LPDE

Again, a mixed category of single-use like plastic bags, cling wraps, bread bags, dry cleaning bags, garbage bags, hot/cold beverage cups and squeeze bottles like ketchup or mustard, and multi-long term use items like water pipes and more. They are safe to reuse, but the maximum temperature should not exceed 120 C degrees for food containers. LDPE does not contain BPA, but as with most plastics, it can leach estrogenic chemicals.

Polystyrene (PS)

Simply, Styrofoam is not recyclable. It is used in making egg cartons, disposable cups/plates, takeaway containers, loose fill packing foam for shipping and all Styrofoam. Styrofoam in particular may leach styrene. Styrene is a toxin that is linked to health risks affecting the reproductive and respiratory system, as well as a cause of cancer due to prolonged exposure. According to OSHA: Styrene is primarily a synthetic chemical that is used extensively in the manufacture of plastics, rubber, and resins. It is also known as vinylbenzene, ethenylbenzene, cinnamene, or phenylethylene. Many workers, including those who make boats, tubs, and showers, are potentially exposed to styrene. Health effects from exposure to styrene may involve the central nervous system and include complaints of headache, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, malaise, difficulty in concentrating or a feeling of intoxication. (See:

As these three categories are the most likely to wind up in landfills, is it surprising to anyone that the effect of their gradual breakdown may be contributing to increased health risks including respiratory diseases and cancers. Perhaps banning these three plastic types and replace them with proven sustainable/reusable production properties would be a massive improvement.  

Finally, how long does it actually take for these three categories to breakdown and/or decompose once they hit the landfills (and ocean dumps, as we know that it is a problem exhibited by the trash islands in the oceans).  The following chart gives the rate in years that specific items take to decompose in marine debris, ex. fishing line takes 600 years. (See: University of Oxford Martin School offering courses in Global Development, Our World in Data, Online, accessed July 7, 2021 › faq-on-plastics FAQs on Plastics).

PVC may take as long as 1000 years or more. Manufactures have stated that it continues to serve for a minimum of 100 yrs when used as buried pipes. We do not have the data to determine the exact rate of decomposition as Plastic is man-made and not naturally occurring in the environment. The worst part of the plastic story is that the developers/producers of these types of plastics knew that the materials used in making their end product was the cause of numerous health issues. Until we can successfully beat the lobbyists in the game of environmental responsibility vs greed, nothing much will happen. Again, the strongest message that we can send to corporations is to beat the lobbyists by using our purchasing power and stop buying non-sustainable products from irresponsible corporations.

Next week will cover the remaining categories of plastic materials that show up in our homes through various sources, including; their effect on the environment, their recyclability and potential toxicity. Micro-plastics, which can be a compilation of many different types of plastic formulations, will be covered at a later date to receive individual coverage.