Why is Plastic Bad?

14th June 2024

By Graham Matthews

Every year we create 430 million tonnes of plastic waste across the world. It’s one of the most used materials for packaging as well as for creating furniture, casings for electronic devices, vehicle parts, and even clothing. Look around and it won’t take you long to spot something containing plastic.

There are many benefits of plastic. It’s cheap to produce, lightweight, can be moulded into many shapes, and doesn’t corrode or conduct heat or electricity. However, there are problems when any plastic product reaches the end of its life. Some plastics are recyclable, but many types aren’t and seriously damage the environment.

Understanding the importance of recycling plastic from your business or household and the reasons for cutting down on its use is essential. Here we explain why plastic is bad, which types you can and can’t recycle, and how to dispose of it responsibly to help inform your future plastic choices.

plastic bottles washed up on a beach.

Why are plastics bad 
for the environment?

Plastic is bad for the environment as it can take anywhere from 20 to 1,000 years to biodegrade – and some types don’t fully break down. When old plastics are discarded irresponsibly and end up in the environment or landfill and start to decompose they release toxins. These can damage nearby soil, water, and wildlife.

There are many bad things about plastic from the start to the end of their lives. Most are made using chemicals that come from fossil fuels such as gas, coal, and oil. Fossil fuels are the largest contributors to global warming and are responsible for 75% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

Then there are all the environmental problems of plastic waste. These are some of the main reasons why plastic is bad for the environment:

  • Plastic takes hundreds and thousands of years to decompose so is present in our environment for a long time
  • Any plastic types that break down in the environment release toxins due to the chemicals they contain, which can contaminate groundwater, soil, and air
  • These toxins may enter water sources and cause harmful health effects for humans and wildlife that drink from them
  • Problems with littering plastic mean animals can get tangled up in wrappers, choke on bits of plastic waste, ingest it and die
  • Incinerating plastic waste prevents it from rotting in landfill, yet it still releases toxic emissions and adds to air pollution
  • Reusing, recycling, and recovering plastic is better for the environment but this requires high amounts of energy that can have a negative environmental impact

Is all plastic recyclable?

Not all plastic is recyclable. The Resin Identification Code (RIC) is the number in a triangle on any plastic product that identifies its type. Generally, the lower the number the higher the chance it is recyclable. For example, RIC 1 is for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which covers many plastic drinks bottles and cups that are commonly recycled.

RIC 6 is for polystyrene (PS), which isn’t recycled as often or easily. Some plastics aren’t recycled as it’s currently too expensive or ineffective to do so. Thin plastic film, wrapping, and some bags can cause plastic recycling machinery to jam as they can clog the equipment.

The process of recycling certain plastics is also not economically viable for recycling plants and the recycled materials may be too weak to be of any use. However, improvements are being made to try and recycle thin plastic bags and wrappers separately, away from solid plastics like those for drinks bottles.

crab walking on a beach with plastic bag on it.

Which plastic cannot be recycled?

The way plastics are made affects whether they’re recyclable or not. Thermoset plastics contain polymers that form irreversible chemical bonds, which means they can’t be recycled. Normally plastics with a higher RIC are less likely to be recyclable than the likes of PET and HDPE plastics.

Technically, most plastics are recyclable but in reality, there are various types that aren’t recycled. This is due to a lack of infrastructure or economic viability to recycle certain kinds. Domestic plastic recycling also varies across the UK. If you want to recycle plastic at home then check with your local council or authority what types they accept.

Generally, these are some common types of plastic that cannot be recycled yet:

  • Black plastic
  • Plastic-coated wrapping paper
  • Blended foil and plastic wrappers (like crisp packets)
  • Cling film and thin plastic film
  • Plastic blister packages
  • Composite plastics
sheet of plastic film.

What plastics can you recycle?

Most plastics are recyclable, but you should check with your local council or waste collection company first. It’s important that the plastics are clean and dry before being placed in a recycling bin. This removes any contaminants to improve the chance of the materials being recycled.

These are common plastic types you can and should recycle at home or work:

  • Plastic drinks bottles (often PET)
  • Plastic milk, shampoo, and cleaning product bottles (often HDPE)
  • Margarine tubs, yoghurt pots, and plastic food trays (often PP)
  • Some plastic bags (often LDPE)
  • Bubble wrap, polystyrene, bread bags (miscellaneous plastics)

Can you recycle hard plastic?

Hard plastics such as children’s toys, furniture, and plant pots can be recycled but you can’t normally put them in your household recycling bin. Whether such hard plastics are recyclable depends on any other materials they contain, the type of plastic they’re made from, and the recycling facilities.

For example, a plastic toy that contains electronic elements is harder to recycle than a solid hard plastic chair. This is because the electrical components, metal, and other materials must be separated before the plastic is processed. Check with your waste collector or at your local household waste recycling centre (HWRC) if they will recycle your hard plastic waste.

Some hard plastics can be recycled

Arrange plastic waste collection and recycling

Reducing plastic waste is the best way to avoid a negative environmental impact. However, as plastic is everywhere it’s almost impossible to do so. As a business you should use plastic waste bins to separate your waste plastic at the source and ensure as much as possible is recycled.

At Divert we provide free plastic waste bins to businesses across Yorkshire, you only pay for collection. All waste plastics are diverted away from landfill and recycled, recovered, and disposed of responsibly. Get a free quote for commercial plastic waste collection today – call 0333 444 0118 or contact us online.

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