The Origins of Plastic

“People don’t realize the sustainable origins of plastic,” said Brunda Katikireddy (‘20), a member of Oyster River High School’s (ORHS) sustainability club. 

Today, it’s pretty much common knowledge that our immense production, use, and disposal of plastic is having a negative effect on our ecosystem. However, most people don’t know about the different types of plastic and how our improper recycling of them is causing the demise of the global recycling industry. The ORHS sustainability club is working to not only bring awareness to this issue but to implement a new system of recycling throughout the Oyster River school district.

 Starting this year, the ORHS sustainability club is focusing all of its attention on the plastic problem at hand. ORHS Biology teacher and advisor of the sustainability club, Jon Bromley, expressed his thoughts on how the sustainability club is going to do this. “I think we need to focus on changing minds and hearts and people’s behavior around sustainability issues,” said Bromley. “I think we can end up talking about specific things that need to be accomplished and we can try to target and do little projects that solve a problem but our experience has shown us that to really accomplish something you have to change minds and hearts.”

The immediate action the sustainability club is taking to reach this long term goal was described by the Youth Justice Leadership grant request written by Bromley along with Maggie Morrison, the district sustainability coordinator. “This grant will be used to implement a yearlong student-led study and audit into the ORCSD’s use of single-use plastic.” The sustainability club submitted a proposal on October 10th, 2019 for a $500 grant to achieve their goals. 

The long term goal of the sustainability club is to eliminate single-use plastic. Don’t get it twisted though, they’re not taking away your yogurt containers and banning all plastic. The club is figuring out a way to rework the system so that recycling the right way is easy, and using food contaminated disposable plastics isn’t the only option. 

Alex Freid (‘09), an original member of the Oyster River sustainability club and founder of a non-profit organization called the Post Landfill Action Network (PLAN), put it best when he described PLAN’s goal to get rid of single-use plastic. “Our perspective is that a zero-waste lifestyle today is really difficult because the system doesn’t exist to make that possible. In many ways the work that we do is we look at what are the systems that facilitate disposability and how do we change those systems that then facilitate reusability. How do we build the system so that people don’t have to think twice about whether or not they’re taking a recyclable product?”

In a National Geographic article titled, “We Made Plastic. We Depend on it. Now We’re Drowning in it.” the origin story of plastic is explained. During the mid-1800s objects like piano keys, combs and billiard balls were made from elephant ivory. In 1867, a New York billiard company offered $10,000 to anyone who could find a substitute. While attempting to create a substitute, inventor John Wesley Hyatt was the first to create modern-day plastic. Although he was never awarded the prize money because the substance he created was too soft for billiard balls, Hyatt started what could be referred to as the plastic revolution.

A Ted-Ed lesson, “What Really Happens to the Plastic You Throw Away” by educator Emma Bryce, explains that plastic has strong carbon bonds which cause it to take between 500 to 1,000 years to break down. However, most plastics don’t biodegrade and instead break down into microplastic: pieces of plastic that are smaller than five millimeters. The study, “A global inventory of small floating plastic debris,” done by Erik van Sebille, et al, in 2015, found that there are over fifty-one trillion microplastic particles in the ocean. If possible, those particles could rotate there eternally. 

These pieces of microplastic travel throughout the food chain by being consumed by various marine life until, eventually, it lands on our plates. Microplastic has been found in over 114 species, according to an article titled, “In a First, Microplastics Found in Human Poop” from National Geographic, and has shown signs of possible damage to the liver and reproductive system in many species of marine life. Microplastics have been found in honey, sea salt, beer, tap water, and household dust. In a previous MOR article “Plastic Pollution” by Joe Morell(‘20), Morell goes in-depth about microplastics and their effect on the environment.

While microplastics affect us from the smaller end of the spectrum, the global recycling industry’s intimidatingly large and complex system has a more present and obvious effect. 

Freid explained that the recycling industry can be broken down into three parts. We’re all familiar with step one: use a bottle, place it in a recycling bin, and leave it for a company to pick up and bring to a facility. The facility sorts all of the recycled material so that they can sell the same type of product to a company who’ll buy those recycled products. According to Freid, all of our recycled material ends up in a facility in Boston known as the Material Recovery Facility or MRF for short. This facility processes 700 tons of metal, paper, plastic, and other various materials a day.

In step two, a company, say CarbonLite, buys a truckload of the same material, which in this case would be plastic. Their job is to break this material down so that it’s able to sell in the third step. Described by Bryce, the plastic is squeezed flat and then compressed into a block. The blocks are shredded into tiny pieces that are washed and melted to become pellets that can then be reused. 

The pellets are sold to a company that makes certain products. “This company has the option of buying plastic pellets that come directly from the earth. Those pellets were pulled out of the earth as oil and refined into plastic pellets. This gives companies the option of buying plastic that’s brand new or they can buy plastic that comes from a recycling facility,” said Freid.

The brand new plastic pellets are significantly cheaper than recycled plastic, which makes convincing companies to buy the older, but more sustainable plastic challenging, especially when the recycled plastic is contaminated. Plastics become contaminated when they’re covered in food or mixed in with plastic without an assigned number. As described by Freid, not every piece of plastic can be recycled. The numbers on the bottom of plastic objects determine how they’re organized when shipped off to facilities that process recycled material. When we put plastic without a number into a recycling bin thinking it can be recycled, it’s mixed in with all of the recyclable material and contaminates it, which, in turn, decreases its value. The same goes for products like a plastic salad bowl. It may be recyclable but if it’s coated in salad dressing it becomes contaminated. 

 Freid explained what we need to do in order to stop this cycle. “The answer to this challenge is that we need to completely eliminate non-recyclable disposable plastics. Things like K-Cups are causing the entire demise of the global recycling industry. Things like plastic silverware that don’t have a number to them, are causing the entire demise of the global recycling industry. Because when plastic silverware winds up in the recycling bin, it makes it so that the number one recyclable bottle and the piece of paper that you put in the bin, isn’t recyclable anymore,” said Freid.

Although the sustainability club has their hands full attempting to reduce the school’s single-use plastic, Freid has high hopes for Oyster River, “in the next five to ten years we will see society start to shift away from all disposable plastics. I think Oyster River is a school that has always led the way and they should continue to do so.” 

Artwork by Hannah Jeong