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Simply Sustainable: Life Cycle of Plastic

We have all come face to face with the reality of plastic pollution in our world. Everyday we are constantly exposed to different social media campaigns and messages, but regardless of that, single-use plastics are still used everyday. This creates conflicting messages, we are told that plastics are bad and are polluting the world but are still in high demand. 

It is hard to avoid plastics, especially because most of our products and goods consist of some type of plastic -- either in the packaging or the product itself. Being conscious of your use and avoiding plastics when you can is the best way you personally can work towards living a more sustainable life. 

We hear so much about plastic recycling and how plastics can exist in landfills basically forever, so what is the actual lifecycle of plastic?

Plastic Lifecycle 

Plastics are made out of polymers, which are basically just long repeating chains of strong molecules. Synthetic or man-made polymers were created in a lab to mimic natural polymers, like animal horns. We were in need of a material that was strong, flexible and lightweight and boom, synthetic polymers were created to make plastics. 

1. Extraction 

This is the first step of creating plastic. Synthetic polymers are created by extracting things like crude oil and methane gas -- aka mining and drilling natural resources. Both actions that are historically linked to environmental degradation. 

2. Refinement and Cracking 

After the materials are extracted they are sent to a refinery where the "building blocks" of plastic are derived from the extracted raw materials. Here the crude oil is refined into ethane and the methane gas is refined into propane. Then these new materials are sent to a Cracking plant where they are broken down further into ethylene and propylene. 

3. Processing and Manufacturing 

This is where the plastic is processed in several different ways. Basically the materials are melted down, cooled and then molded into whatever the specific plastic product is. The number on the bottom of your plastic products refers to way that specific plastic was processed and how you should dispose of it. 

The main differences between the different types of plastic products are the chemical additives that are introduced during the processing. These are what threaten the ecosystems when the plastic ends up in landfills or other places in the environment. 

4. Distribution and Consumption 

Once the product is created it is then distributed and consumed by us. 

"Since 1950, approximately 9.2 billion tons of plastic have been produced -- 40% of that being single-use products" -- National Geographic

5. Recycling & Waste

It is essential that we have a way to responsibly dispose of plastic products. If a plastic item can continue to be re-purposed, then recycling is a some-what sound solution. But it is not a long term solution to the problem. Check out a previous SUR blog here to learn more about how to recycle different types of plastics. 

Recycling takes a lot of energy and plastics cannot be recycled forever -- each time a plastic is recycled, the quality of the plastic decreases until it eventually cannot be reused again and must be disposed of. 

We have the power to change the demand for plastic. By changing our purchasing habits and reaching for plastic-free options, companies will be pushed to embrace more sustainable materials and reusable products. 

SUR and Plastics 

At SUR, we are always brainstorming new ways we can be more sustainable as a company. Most of our products use glass packaging instead of plastic and we try to re-use shipping materials whenever we can. 

We also recently launched a refill program where you can send your bottles back to us and we sanitize, refill them and send them back to you! Learn more about the SUR Refill Program here

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