The Problem with Plastic

Our class engaged in a short garbology project in which we recorded our garbage habits for one week. Everyday I cringed at how much plastic ended up not in the recycling bin, but in the trash. Even with only one week of recording, I know from here on out I will work towards keeping unnecessary plastic out of my trash.

Plastic is not biodegradable. No natural process can break it down. It photodegrades instead. Plastic particles divide into smaller and smaller particles which are called nurdles. These nurdles are very hard to get rid of once they are mixed in with other refuse.


Nurdles do not go away – like other plastic over time they just fragment into smaller and smaller plastic particles.

After reviewing the King County plastics recycling website, I was surprised to learn that yes, many plastics are recyclable but the codes and symbols you might see printed on the plastics does not necessarily mean the product is recyclable anywhere and/or anytime.

“Resin codes (indicated by the small number enclosed by the “chasing arrows” ) are often misleading to the consumer because they were not intended to indicate if the plastic is actually recyclable. Rather they indicate what general type of chemical compound is used to make the products. The codes are not a guarantee to consumers that a given item would be accepted for recycling in their community.”

The disconnection between what people think is happening about their trash habits and what is actually happening had been ignored until the findings of the Garbage Project by Rathje was reported in 1973. Consumerism is directly linked to garbage and the more we engage in buying, the more garbage we accumulate. Thinking about our consumer goods as pre-garbage may be a way to shift our thinking and eventually our shopping habits. Also buying goods and packaging with “post-consumer recycled’ content should be a good way to ‘vote with your dollar’.  Understanding the processes in which we buy, consume, discard and recycle is important for advances in environmentally friendly waste management.

I am also thinking about future archaeologists. What will our garbage say about the way we lived our lives? What other stories about us will be evident in hindsight? What will they find out about us that we do know already know about ourselves?

Six months later they would be sharing the Nobel Prize, but for now all they could do was stare in amazement at what they had discovered...two incredibly well preserved specimens from the styrofoam age.'

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