Plastic bottles are convenient for grabbing water or soft drinks on the go. Although plastic bottles are among the most accepted recyclables, most enter the municipal solid waste stream instead of being recycled. Recycling plastic bottles helps the planet by reducing the amount of gas and oil used in creating plastic and making it into bottles, and in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, ground and water pollution and the volume of municipal waste. (See References 1 and 2)
Plastic bottles are one of the top produced categories of plastics. Durable and lightweight, plastic makes a convenient packaging material for beverages, hair products, food items and many more. Most detergent and milk bottles are high-density polyethylene; water and soft drink bottles are polyethylene terephthalate. (See References 3, pages 1-2)
Petroleum and Natural Gas
All steps of plastic manufacturing, especially resin production, generate greenhouse gases (see References 3, page 2). Plastic manufacturing requires quantities of petroleum and natural gas derivatives. About 4 percent of world oil and gas production goes into producing plastic feedstock, and as much as another 4 percent into manufacturing products such as plastic bottles. (See References 1) Extracting these nonrenewable fuels consumes energy and releases greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane and sulfur dioxide. Transporting and refining the fuel emits air pollutants. (See References 4 and 6)
Global Climate Change
Discarding plastic bottles wastes nonrenewable resources and generates higher levels of greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases trap the sun's heat in the atmosphere, in a natural process called the greenhouse effect. Human activities, such as burning fossil fuels for energy and plastic production, substantially increase greenhouse gas levels. High concentrations of greenhouse gases amplify the amount of heat from the sun that remains trapped in the lowest layer of the atmosphere. This extra heat causes changes in climate patterns, including the severity of wind, precipitation and temperature fluctuations. (See References 5, page 3)
Recycling Versus Discarding
Plastic bottles in the municipal solid waste stream go to landfills or incinerators, where their petroleum and natural gas derivatives go unused. Recycling plastic bottles conserves energy and natural resources, reducing petroleum and natural gas consumption and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. Manufacturing new plastic products from recycled material requires less energy than refining new plastic resins from raw material. Greenhouse gas production from recycling plastic bottles is considerably less than the emissions released from processing virgin resources. (See References 2) Researchers estimate that each ton of recycled PET bottles saves 1.5 tons of CO2 emissions (see References 1).
- Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences; Plastics Recycling: Challenges and Opportunities; Jefferson Hopewell, et al.; July 2009
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Wastes - Resource Conservation -- Common Wastes & Materials -- Plastics
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Plastics
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Oil
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Frequently Asked Questions About Global Warming and Climate Change: Back to Basics; April 2009
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Natural Gas
Based in Colorado, Jacqueline Lerche has been writing alternative health, natural science and environment-related articles since 2009. Lerche holds a Bachelor of Science in biology and an Environmental Affairs Certification from Colorado State University.
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