Polymers

How much plastic is thrown away in the United States each year?
Answered by Science Channel
  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. Every once or twice a week we take out the trash. All manner of things just crammed in a bag, left in a curbside bin to disappear to someplace we don't have to see. Lots of that stuff is biodegradable; it won't hang around in the soil for decades or more. But it's a different story, sadly, for plastics. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2008 plastics amounted to about 12 percent of the country's municipal solid waste stream -- up from less than 1 percent 50 years ago. That's about 30 million tons (27 million metric tons), close to half of it in the form of containers and other types of packaging. Not good, if you care about the environment. Plastics pose an important environmental problem. When they're made from nonrenewable resources, they do not break down naturally in the environment and therefore continue to exist and cause damage for hundreds of years.

    Fortunately, scientists and chemists have been conducting research into using renewable resources from organic polymers to produce plastics. Starches, cellulose, soy protein, vegetable oil, triglycerides and bacterial polyesters all contain polymers that can be processed to produce biodegradable plastics. Food-based plastics often take less energy to produce than traditional plastics, and companies have begun to take notice, taking a closer look at them as they seek to reduce the environmental impact their businesses make. Another reason food-based plastics has sparked corporate interest is that, over the past several years, their prices have become competitive with traditional plastics.

    In the meantime, there's still plenty we can do to minimize the impact of nonrenewable plastics. Many plastics can be recycled, especially if the number on the bottom (the little triangle shape with a number in the middle) is a 1 or a 2. In fact, about 2 million tons of plastic were recycled in the U.S. in 2008. And the system can handle more such recycling: There's currently a greater demand for reclaimed plastics than there are people recycling them. So there's definitely room for profitable improvement that would benefit the environment as well.

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