Your Top 10 Plastics Questions, Answered

plastic bottles and caps

Plastics have been in the news lately for being a major source of pollution. You might have questions, and you’re not alone. Here, we answer some of the questions we get asked most about plastics and recycling.

1. Does banning single-use plastic even make a dent in the bigger problem of climate change?

Yes! Plastic is derived from crude oil. Banning plastic puts pressure on its producer, the fossil fuel industry. Plastic bans also bring attention to climate change, pushes customers to reuse, and encourages businesses to create reusable options.

2. I’ve heard that China used to buy plastic recyclables from the US but has cut back? What should I do with my plastic recycling?

Every town has a different situation. To find out what your recycling program’s current policy is, contact your municipality. If they’re no longer taking certain plastics, try to avoid those in the store as much as you can. You can also inquire about local drop off facilities for those types of plastic.

3. How can I avoid bringing home plastic packaging from the supermarket? Some of this plastic is not recyclable through the municipal system.

Opt for produce that isn’t wrapped in plastic and bring your own bag to carry them in. If possible, buy from a farmers market where food generally is loose. If it’s a product you love, contact the company asking for non-plastic wrapping. Your consumer voice matters!

4. What are microplastics, and what kind of plastic is most likely to become a microplastic?

Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are 5 mm or smaller. They can be created to be that size–such as microbeads in soaps—and they can be broken bits of a larger plastic or material with plastic parts. A Friends of the Earth study of UK waters found that the four leading contributors are car tires (due to abrasion on the road), external paint (from buildings and road markings), plastic pellets (used to make plastic products), and synthetic fibers from clothing.

5. Are certain plastics worse than others?

Yes. Non-recyclable and non-reusable plastics are the worst in that they take several lifetimes to break down and leach chemicals like BPA in the process. Plastic straws have taken the limelight in the single-use arena, but abandoned fishing gear, plastic bags, cigarette butts, and food packaging (including water bottles) are the more commonly found debris in the ocean.

6. What do the numbers on the bottom of plastic products mean?

Plastic is coded with numbers 1-7 that designate material. Not all plastics are recyclable, and some aren’t reusable. Refer to your local recycling center’s guidelines of what numbers are accepted at

7. Why is so little plastic recycled?

Plastic is the most complicated material to recycle because each number designates a different polymer design–in other words, a #1 can’t be recycled with a #5 because they melt at different temperatures. Municipal funding levels, community pressure, and demand for recycled plastics determine what gets recycled. Unlike metals like aluminum that can be recycled indefinitely, plastics degrade each time they’re processed, making recycling more expensive than manufacturing new plastic.

8. Is it ever environmentally helpful to have plastic-wrapped food to keep food from being wasted?

Plastic wrap extends shelf life by regulating contact with air. Since food waste has a larger carbon footprint than any country except China and the US, reducing waste is important. However, alternatives to plastic wrap like Bee’s Wrap, Green America’s People and Planet Award Winner, achieve the same goal while being reusable and eco-friendly.

9. Most vegan non-food products are made of plastic, like faux leather shoes. Is there a better alternative?

Many vegan clothing companies use recycled plastic as a leather-free alternative, but plastics in clothing still break down into microplastics that marine life consume. Consider buying secondhand.

10. When we ban plastic, doesn’t that force us to use other materials that are more expensive and energy-intensive? Shouldn’t we keep using it, but get better at recycling it?

While plastic bans are a recent trend, the reality is that plastic has become so integral to society that it won’t disappear soon. We should get better at recycling it, but that alone won’t solve the plastic problem. While alternatives may be more energy-intensive and expensive than plastic, reusables last longer than single-use plastic and may be indefinitely recyclable or compostable, making their overall carbon footprint lower. Lowering our consumption of plastics, not buying to begin with, and opting for reusables are less energy-intensive than consuming more.

Interested in learning more?

Here are eleven easy ways to kick the plastic habit. And a challenge: could you go entirely plastic-free?

From Green American Magazine Issue