Plastics are strong, waterproof, lightweight, durable, mi-crowavable, and more resilient than glass. For these reasons they have replaced wood, paper, and metallic materials in packaging and other applications. Plastics generate toxic by-products when burned and are nonbiodegradable when landfilled; they also take up 30% of landfill space even though their weight percentage is only 7% to 9%. Recent research has found that paper does not degrade in landfills either and because of compaction in the garbage truck and in the landfill, the original volume percentage of 30% in the kitchen waste basket is reduced 12% to 21% in the landfill. In addition, plastics foul the ocean and harm or kill marine mammals. Other problems include the toxic chemicals used in plastics manufacturing, the reliance on nonrenewable petroleum products as their raw material, and the blowing agents used in making polystyrene foam plastics, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which cause ozone depletion. CFCs are now being replaced by HCFC-22 or pentane, which does not deplete the ozone layer but does contribute to smog. For these reasons, recycling appears to be the natural solution to the plastic disposal problem.
Unfortunately, recycling and reuse are not easily accomplished because each type of plastic must go through a different process before being reused. There are hundreds of different types of plastics, but 80% of plastic used in consumer products is either high-density polyethylene (milk bottles) or polyethylene terephthalate (large soda bottles). It is not yet possible to separate plastics by types because manufacturers do not indicate the type of plastic used. Plastic parts of automobiles are still uncoded, so salvagers cannot separate them by type. Even if recycled polystyrene were separated and could be used as a raw material for a plastics recycling plant, such plants are just beginning to be built and we do not know if they will be successful. For these reasons, environmentalists would prefer to stop using plastics altogether in certain applications.
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