:: Frequently Asked Questions
||What is resource conservation and why is
Through effective resource conservation, we can
minimize our impact on the planet by using the earth's
resources wisely. To do this, we must more efficiently
manage natural resources and lessen the environmental
impact of the products we use, from raw materials to
production to distribution and on through ultimate
disposal. In other words, you should strive to minimize
the energy consumed and wastes generated during production,
as well as through the life of a product and on to
|| What can I do to conserve resources?
In order to conserve resources, you must know about the resources utilized and the way in which they are consumed. Then decisions can be made based upon facts. Some simple actions include carpooling to work or taking public transportation, turning off lights in empty rooms, selecting the energy saver mode on your dishwasher, turning down thermostats at night during the winter and purchasing items with the most efficient packaging.
How do plastics contribute to effective resource conservation?
From production through use to waste management, plastics
help conserve resources. Their unique properties and
characteristics-light weight, durability, formability-enable
manufacturers to minimize the raw materials used, energy
consumed and waste generated in the production of goods
ranging from automobiles to coffee cups. It's important
to think about all those steps in a product's life cycle-not
just what happens when a product's useful life is over-to
get a true picture of its environmental performance.
How are plastics made?
||Plastics consist of building blocks called hydrocarbons,
typically derived from petroleum or natural gas. These
monomers (small molecules) are bonded into chains called
polymers or plastic resins. Different combinations of
monomers yield resins with special properties and characteristics.
Why are plastics used in packaging?
||Packaging serves many purposes, but one of its primary
functions is to help protect the quality of goods -- ranging
from sensitive electronics to fresh and prepared foods
-- during shipping, handling and merchandising. Plastics
are a versatile family of materials that are suitable
for a wide range of packaging applications. In many cases,
plastics offer the best protection while using minimal
resources and creating less waste than alternative materials.
In fact, 400 percent more material by weight would be
needed to make packaging if there were no plastics, while
the volume of packaging would more than double.
Why do we need different kinds of plastics?
Copper, silver and aluminum are all metals, yet each
has unique properties. You wouldn't make a car out of
silver or a beer can out of copper because the properties
of these metals are not chemically or physically able
to create the most effective final product. Likewise,
while plastics are all related, each resin has attributes
that make it best suited to a particular application.
Plastics make this possible because as a material family
they are so versatile.
Six resins account for nearly all of the plastics used
PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is a clear, tough
polymer with exceptional gas and moisture barrier properties.
PET's ability to contain carbon dioxide (carbonation)
makes it ideal for use in soft drink bottles.
HDPE (high density polyethylene) is used in milk, juice
and water containers in order to take advantage of its
excellent protective barrier properties. Its chemical
resistance properties also make it well suited for items
such as containers for household chemicals and detergents.
Vinyl (polyvinyl chloride, or PVC) provides excellent
clarity, puncture resistance and cling. As a film, vinyl
can breathe just the right amount, making it ideal for
packaging fresh meats that require oxygen to ensure
a bright red surface while maintaining an acceptable
LDPE (low density polyethylene) offers clarity and
flexibility. It is used to make bottles that require
flexibility. To take advantage of its strength and toughness
in film form, it is used to produce grocery bags and
garbage bags, shrink and stretch film, and coating for
PP (polypropylene) has high tensile strength, making
it ideal for use in caps and lids that have to hold
tightly on to threaded openings. Because of its high
melting point, polypropylene can be hot-filled with
products designed to cool in bottles, including ketchup
and syrup. It is also used for products that need to
be incubated, such as yogurt.
PS (polystyrene), in its crystalline form, is a colorless
plastic that can be clear and hard. It can also be foamed
to provide exceptional insulation properties. Foamed
or expanded polystyrene (EPS) is used for products such
as meat trays, egg cartons and coffee cups. It is also
used for packaging and protecting appliances, electronics
and other sensitive products.
What about CFCs?
||In response to concerns about the ozone layer, polystyrene
manufacturers voluntarily phased out the use of chlorofluorocarbons
(CFCs) in the late 1980s.
Why are plastics used in durable goods?
|| Manufactured items with a useful life of more than
three years -- cars, appliances, computers, etc. -- are
called durable goods. Manufacturers of durable goods choose
plastics for many reasons: The automotive industry chooses
plastic for its durability, corrosion resistance, ease
of coloring and finishing, resiliency, energy efficiency
and light weight. Lightweight, for instance, translates
into lowered handling and transportation costs all down
the line. Major appliance manufacturers use plastics because
of their ease of fabrication and outstanding thermal insulation
-- characteristics that significantly reduce energy consumption.
The building and construction industry uses vinyl siding
for homes because of its appearance, durability, ease
of installation and energy efficiency. Plastics can reduce
energy consumption for the auto, appliance, and building
and construction industries, providing a substantial saving
in production costs.
Can plastics actually help save energy?
Yes. Only about 4 percent of the United States' energy
consumption is actually used to produce plastic raw
materials, including feedstocks. This is quite a small
percentage in comparison to energy's other uses. In
addition, it often takes less energy to convert plastics
from a raw material into a finished product that comparable
products.10,11 For instance:
During their life cycle, plastic bags require about
one-third less energy to make than paper bags.*
Foam polystyrene containers take 30 percent less total
energy to make than paperboard containers.
Fifty-three billion kilowatt hours of electricity are
saved annually by improvements in major appliance energy
efficiency made possible by plastic applications. Without
the benefits provided by plastics insulation, these
appliances would use up to 30 percent more energy.
How do plastics contribute to waste reduction?
Plastics are strong yet lightweight, meaning it often
requires less plastic to make a certain package compared
to other possible materials:
The plastic film wrappers now used for large diaper
packs create 50 percent less waste by volume than previous
Over 4 million students a day in the U.S. drink their
milk or juice in flexible drink pouches. Compared to
traditional cartons, the source-reduced pouch reduces
weight by 80 percent and volume of waste by 70 percent,
which reduces storage and trash disposal costs for schools.
Plastic grocery bags are lighter and create up to 80
percent less waste by volume than paper sacks. Normal
economic market forces cause manufacturers to continually
look for ways to reduce the cost of their packages by
minimizing the amount of material used:
An average polystyrene foam plate today requires 25
percent less polystyrene to produce than it did in 1974.
Plastic grocery sacks were 2.3 mils (thousands of an
inch) thick in 1976 and were down to 1.75 mils by 1984.
In 1989, new technology gave us the same strength and
durability in a bag only 0.7 mil thick. Along with weight
and size reductions, plastics can contribute to waste
reduction in other ways:
Plastics have an increased life span. Their physical
properties allow them to be used in multiple applications,
while their durability and flexibility allow them to
be used again and again. For example, some laundry products
are being packaged in reusable plastic bottles. Small
packages of concentrated product are used to refill
the original bottles, helping to reduce total packaging
Plastics are lighter than many alternative materials.
They have consistently reduced the weight of truck payloads
and allowed companies to ship more product in fewer
trucks. More than 2.8 million plastic grocery bags can
be delivered in one truck. The same truck can hold only
500,000 paper grocery bags.16
Plastics generally exhibit superior resistance to breakage
and denting. This results in fewer container breaches
and less product loss on the packaging line, and safer
handling in the the home.
Manufacturers of durable goods choose plastics for
Plastics allow highly efficient manufacturing processes
(up to 99 percent efficiency) that increase productivity
by 20 to 30 percent and reduce capital expenditures
by as much as 50 percent.
Without plastics' resistance to corrosion, the product
life of some major appliances would be reduced by nearly
40 percent. By helping them last longer, plastics keep
appliances and other durable goods out of the waste
How does plastics recycling work?
Successful recovery of plastics -- like any material
-- requires an infrastructure that can get plastics
from the consumer and back into use as new products.
The plastics recycling infrastructure has four parts:
Collection-Rather than being thrown away, plastics
(primarily PETand HDPE) are collected for recycling.
Curbside collection with other materials and drop-off
at recycling centers are common plastics collection
Handling-Plastics from collection programs are sorted
to increase their value and compacted to reduce shipping
Reclamation-In conventional recycling, sorted plastics
are chopped, washed and converted into flakes or pellets
that are then processed into new products. Advanced
recycling technologies (see "What are advanced
recycling technologies ?") can take mixed plastics
back to their original building blocks (monomers or
petroleum feedstocks). These can then be recycled into
a number of different products, including new plastics.
End-use-Reclaimed plastic pellets or flakes-or petroleum
feedstocks-are used to manufacture new products.
Why is sorting so important in plastics recycling?
||There are different types of plastics, just as there
are different types of metal, paper and glass. Steel and
aluminum have to be separated before recycling, different
colors of glass must be sorted and white office paper
must be separated from newspapers and paperboard boxes.
Each of the six common packaging plastics has performance
characteristics that make it best suited for specific
applications (see "Why do we need different kinds
of plastics?"). Purchasers of recycled resins want
to be sure that these properties are retained, so handlers
sort plastics by resin type to command the highest market
What kinds of products are made with recycled plastics?
The variety of products made with recycled plastics
is growing. Here are just a few examples:
Recycled PET can be used in producing deli and bakery
trays, carpets, clothing and textiles.
Recycled HDPE can become bottles for laundry produ
cts, recycling bins, agricultural pipe, bags, motor
oil bottles, decking and marine pilings.
Recycled vinyl can become playground equipment, film
and airbubble cushioning.
Recycled LDPE can be used to manufacture bags, shrink
film and compost bins.
Recycled PP can be used in automobile parts, carpets,
battery casings, textiles, industrial fibers and films
used for packaging products such as candy.
Can plastic be recycled back into food contact applications?
||Today, some recycled plastics are used in food and beverage
containers. Technical and economic barriers currently
limit widespread use of recycled plastic packaging in
direct contact with food.
What are advanced recycling technologies?
||The term advanced recycling describes a family of plastics
recycling processes that yield a variety of versatile
end products. Sometimes the term feedstock recycling or
chemical recycling is used. These end products can be
the building blocks from which plastics are made. By unlinking
or unzipping plastics (polymers) to their original molecular
components, recyclers can produce monomers or a petroleum
product that can be made into monomers (the basic units
from which plastics are made) or a number of other petroleum-based
products. These developmental processes signal a significant
technical breakthrough in plastics recycling technology
because the products are identical to virgin feedstocks
and monomers used to produce new plastics. Advanced recycling
technologies are being researched to augment existing
conventional mechanical systems as part of an integrated
approach. They are designed to increase the volume of
post-consumer plastics diverted from the waste stream
and expand the variety of plastics that are recycled into
new and useful products.
What happens inside a modern waste-to-energy facility?
||The energy value of MSW can be recovered through waste-to-energy
(WTE) incineration. Modern energy recovery facilities
burn MSW in special combustion chambers, then use the
resulting heat energy to generate steam or electricity.
This process reduces the volume of MSW to be landfilled
by as much as 90 percent. In 1997, there were 112 energy
recovery facilities operating in 31 states throughout
the United States with a designed capacity of nearly 101,500
tons per day.
Energy recovery facilities are designed to achieve high
combustion temperatures that help MSW burn cleaner and
create less ash for disposal. Modern air pollution control
devices -- wet or dry scrubbers along with electrostatic
precipitators or fabric filters -- are used to control
and reduce potentially harmful particulates and gases
from incinerator emissions.
Are plastics safe in waste-to-energy incineration?
||Yes. Experts agree that properly equipped, operated
and maintained facilities can meet the latest U.S. standards
for air pollution control, among the toughest standards
in the world. Plastics are a safe and valuable feedstock
for these facilities.
Although some activists have suggested there is a link
between certain plastics and increased dioxin emissions
from w-t-e facilities, a blue-ribbon panel convened by
the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1989 found no evidence
to support this claim. A 1995 report from the American
Society of Mechanical Engineers reached the same conclusion.
How do plastics contribute to waste-to-energy incineration?
||Plastics are typically derived from petroleum or natural
gas giving them a stored energy value higher than any
other material commonly found in the waste stream. In
fact, plastics commonly used in packaging can generate
twice as much energy as Wyoming coal and almost as much
energy as fuel oil (see chart below). When plastics are
processed in modern WTE facilities, they can help other
wastes combust more completely, leaving less ash for disposal.
Btu / Pound
Corrugated Boxes (Paper)
Average of MSW
Heat Content of common fuels
4,500 to 4,800
|| How do modern landfills protect the
||The purpose of solid waste management is to remove wastes
from living areas in a way that protects human health
and the environment. By sealing in wastes, well designed
and well managed landfills control biodegradation and
tend to preserve waste rather than compost it. Uncontrolled
biodegradation could result in production of leachate
that, if leaked, would endanger nearby groundwater supplies,
lakes and streams. Many landfills include heavy-gauge
plastic liners, which are required by the EPA, that help
protect the groundwater from contamination.
||Can degradable plastics contribute to
solid waste management?
||In areas where composting or wastewater treatment is
available as a solid waste disposal option, degradable
plastics can effectively take advantage of these alternate
disposal methods in some situations. Because modern landfills
are apt to limit degradation, degradable materials of
any type are not likely to affect the amount of landfill
space available. Composting degradable plastics and paper
waste with other organic compostable materials like yard,
food and agricultural waste creates a valuable soil supplement
and contributes to improved farming and gardening efficiency.
Flushable, biodegradable products are readily treated
in a regulated wastewater and sewage treatment facility,
reducing the impact on other disposal systems.