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You line up at the cashier after combing through the grocery store and, while you wait, look down at your cart. You realize you’ll be leaving with much more than you planned for and haven’t brought enough reusable shopping bags to carry it all.

What do you do? You could leave the line, making the walk of shame to replace a dozen items on the shelves. Or you could use the plastic bags at the end of the counter and cower under the judging looks of those behind you in line. Neither sounds appealing, but the easiest choice would be to use the plastic bags. Can they really all be bad?

Well, that depends. Believe it or not, there is a whole army dedicated to manufacturing plastics that won’t be harmful to the environment, and it all starts with plastic resin. Here are the basics of how your plastic bags come into being.

What is Plastic Made of?
Plastic usually comes from fossil fuel byproducts like petroleum; however, they can also be created from renewable materials like corn, cotton, and potato starches. These products are broken down in a process called “cracking”, and after some pretty cool chemical reactions, you end up with polymer resins. These polymer resins can then be combined with dyes and other chemicals to produce the right kind of plastic for the job.

What is Plastic Used for?
The way plastic is used is determined by the combination of additives it contains. There are seven common types of plastic, which can loosely be defined as PET (Dacron or Mylar), styrofoam, PVC, Teflon, Saran, polyethylene, and polypropylene. You might be familiar with most of these and will know from experience that some are made to be flexible, some dense, others to withstand higher melting points, and so on.

According to the American Chemistry Council, there are natural polymers like tortoise shells and animal horns that homo sapiens made use of before modern plastics were introduced in 1862. Today, we use them in everything from bags to bottles, coatings for beverage cups, packaging products, medical instruments, parts for cars and airplanes, toys, and everyday tech like your laptop and collection of pens. The more you think about it, the more you’ll realize how dependent we are on plastics.

How Durable is Plastic?
The life expectancy of your plastic items is categorized by the term durable or nondurable. Durable plastics last three years or more, while nondurable plastics are classified as any product lasting less than three years.

It takes an estimated 500 years for plastic to break down in a landfill. Serious environmental issues like this have prompted more focus on the creation of products like NuPlastiQ that come from renewable materials (in this case, potato starches) and are compostable and/or biodegradable rather than simply broken down into microplastics. Many of these come certified, so manufacturers and consumers can be sure the environment isn’t suffering.

Which Plastics Should I Avoid?
An easy way to start sorting out which types of plastic to avoid using is by checking the Plastic ID Code. You can find this on the bottom of the bottle or container inside the “recyclable” triangle logo. Generally, polypropylene (#5 PP) and polyethylene (#2 HDPE or #4 LDPE) products have a low toxicity that is okay.

So use that plastic bag cautiously, and if you want to see more positive changes toward the use of environmentally friendly plastics, do some more in-depth research on your own and advocate for manufacturers and other large corporations to change out their current plastic resins for those that are biodegradable and compostable.
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