We have all been told to put our plastic bottles and any plastic waste up for recycling. But what really happens to these empty bottles we throw away? Let us trace the life cycle of plastic bottles and allow us to shed some light on the dangers these disposables present to the world, in 3 different journeys.
To understand where these bottles end up, we must first explore and discuss their origins. Plastic bottles are made in an oil refinery, where its body is formed by chemically bonding oil and gas molecules to make monomers. In turn, these monomers are bonded into long polymer chains to make plastic in the form of millions of pellets. These are then melted at manufacturing plants and reformed in molds to create the strong and durable material that makes up the bottle. After all that process, machines fill the bottles with liquid, then wrapped, transported, opened, consumed, and unceremoniously discarded. What happens next?
Like hundreds of millions of tons of plastic, they all end up in a landfill, where huge trucks dump unbelievable amounts of trash each day that continue to take up space. As the plastic bottle sit there being compressed among layers of other junk, rain water flows through the waste and absorbs the water soluble compounds it contains, and some of those are highly toxic. Together, they create a harmful stew called leachate – which can move into ground water, soil, and streams – poisoning ecosystems and harming wildlife. This plastic bottle’s life alone can take 1000 agonizing years to decompose.
What happens to a plastic bottle that wasn’t discarded properly? A plastic bottle may float down a stream that flows intro a river, which will then reach the ocean. After months lost at sea, it will be slowly drawn into a massive vortex, where trash accumulates – a place known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Here, the ocean’s currents have trapped millions of plastic debris. Some animals like seabirds and turtles get entangled in the mess. They and other creatures mistake these brightly colored plastic bits for food. Plastic makes them feel full when they’re really not, so end result is they starve to death. Or simply pass the plastic toxins up the food chain, to our plates then to us. And most plastics do not biodegrade, they break down into smaller pieces called micro plastics, which are destined to roam our seas eternally and outlast the living.
Now, what happens to those thrown out properly? Plastic bottles are transported back to a factory where they are squeezed flat and compressed into a big block. The block is then shredded into tiny pieces, which are washed and melted down so they become the raw materials that can be used again. Yes, they get to be reborn again and again, but if you think this is ok, please think again.
Do you consume plastic bottled drinks? If your answer is yes, you are creating a lot more waste than you have to. A plastic bottle requires multiple large-scale operations to extract oil and huge amounts of water to wash them down. Once they are shaped into its desired use, it is shipped to distribution center, to stores, then to you. These eat up lots of fuel and create lots of pollution!
Let’s be kind to the place we call home, who has endlessly provided us our basic needs to live.