11 Surprising Items That Contain Plastic

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Despite being a relatively new material, with widespread usage not occurring until the 1960s, plastic is a ubiquitous part of just about every aspect of our daily lives.  But were you aware of just how omnipresent plastic is?  I’ve rounded up 11 surprising household items that contain plastic.

sources of hidden plastics

1. Chewing Gum

It’s hard to believe, but chewing gum is made of plastic.  Manufacturers don’t tend to disclose their ingredients because chewing on plastic doesn’t sound particularly appealing.

The reason they do not need to disclose exact ingredients in their gum bases is that these are considered trade secrets.  Therefore they can use non specific terms such as “gum base”, making it hard for consumers to know exactly what’s in their chewing gum.  What we do know is that most gum bases contain polyethylene, a plastic that’s used to make plastic bottles, plastic bags and seal tea bags.  Gum bases also tend to contain polyisobutylene – a rubber that’s used to make the inner tubes of tyres.  Delightful, I’m sure you’ll agreed.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this.  Chewing gum was made without plastic up until around the 1960’s, at which point it became more economical to use more synthetic ingredients.

From what I have read I believe that all the main gum brands use plastics and rubbers in their gum production, and I haven’t been able to find a single gum that is free from plastic and also comes in plastic free packaging.  Instead I found three brands (only available on Amazon) that I believe to be free from plastic but come in plastic packaging: Chicza, Spry and XyliChew if giving up gum isn’t for you.

2, Clothing

Clothing is the one area that gives me the biggest headache.  All clothing made from man-made fibres, such as microfibre fleeces, polyester, acrylic, and nylons are made from plastic.  And every time you wash those items of clothing, microplastics are released into our waterways, as the fabric sheds in the wash.

There are some solutions – when you buy new clothes try to purchase clothing made from natural fibres over synthetic fibres.  I wouldn’t recommend purging your wardrobe of man-made materials though – donating clothes to charity doesn’t help the  microplastic problem as the person buying the clothes will wash and wear the clothes, and I would never advocate binning perfectly good clothes.  Instead you could wash them in some of the new products coming out, such as Guppyfriend which acts as a microplastic filter until your clothes reach the end of their lifespan.

3. Disposable Coffee Cups

Disposable coffee cups have been in the news a lot recently, so I guess it’s not such a hidden plastic as such, but I thought it is worth bringing to your attention again in case you missed the news.

If you did miss the news, disposable coffee cups are lined with plastic, which makes it difficult to recycle them.  A 25p ‘latte levy’ is currently being proposed – a tax on consumers – in a bid to encourage people to use reusable coffee cups.

Looking for an alternative?  KeepCup sell a snazzy glass reusable coffee cup with a cork ring to stop you burning your hands.

4. Drink Cans

items that contain plastic

Think a drinks can is just made of aluminium?  Well, it turns out that every single drinks can on the market is lined with a plastic resin, usually epoxy, to stop the drink contained within corroding the aluminium.  Wired reports in a rather oddly fascinating article that “without that [expoxy] shield, a can of Coke would corrode in three days“.

Roughly 80% of that epoxy is bisphenol-A, or BPA for short.  BPA has been associated with a myriad of negative health implications.  And interestingly, that same Wired article I quoted above goes on to note that Frederick vom Saal, a respected biologist who leads research into the effects of BPA on our endocrine systems, won’t buy canned foods or beverages, and won’t allow polycarbonate plastics in his home.

5. Glass Jars with Lids

Think glass jars are a great plastic free solution?  Well, I hate to be a bearer of bad news, but whilst glass jars themselves don’t contain plastic, the lids of glass jars contain a layer of plastic on them.

Yup, almost all jar lids are lined with plastisol, a PVC product.  The purpose of the plastisol is to produce a vacuum seal, and also to help the lid resist corrosion from acidic ingredients.  Good for food storage, not great if you’re looking to give plastic the heave-ho.

Jar lids are recyclable by most Local Authorities, so you can pop them in your recycling bin.  Alternatively, save up your jars and lids to make preserves (I have this book, which I love) to avoid having to recycle the lids (recycling is very resource intensive).  If preserving isn’t your thing then you could save up your jars and list them for free on Freecycle, Gumtree or similar – they will be snapped up by local jam and chutney makers!

6. Glitter

More surprising news it that glitter is in fact a microplastic.  When will the bad news stop, I ask you?!  As well as glitter for cosmetic and craft purposes, consider glittery greetings cards, present labels and wrapping paper as sources of microplastic.  These products can’t be recycled so why not make 2018 the year you give up glitter?  If living in a world without glitter is too big an ask, fear not, all is not lost!  I have sourced some eco friendly alternatives to glitter for you.

7. PLAs and Corn-Based Biodegradable Packaging

Polylactic Acid (PLA) is a type of plastic made from corn.  While this makes it fossil fuel free, it’s very much still a plastic.  It’s sold as a greener alternative to conventional plastic, and it’s widely touted to be biodegradable.  But there are some problems.

I’ve written in length about the problems with biodegradable plastics if you fancy a longer read, but if you just need a quick summary then here goes.  PLAs can be difficult to recycle, and many local authorities cannot recycle them.  Biodegradable is not the same as compostable, so you can’t compost them at home.  PLA plastics will only biodegrade in commercial composters where temperatures are consistently high.  Sending them to landfill isn’t a good option either – PLAs won’t break down in landfill, where waste is mummified in anaerobic conditions.

The lesson here is that some so called green alternatives to plastic sadly aren’t as green as they make out.

8. Produce Stickers

Remembered to take a produce bag to the shop with you to stock up on fruit and veg?  Great work!  Sadly, however, your grocery shopping isn’t as plastic free as you would have hoped – those stickers stuck to each and every single piece of produce is a plastic.  This can be difficult to avoid, but the good news (finally!) is that retailers are researching replacing plastic labels with laser marking.

9.  Tea Bags

hidden plastics

I’ve written at length about plastic in tea bags, but in case you need a short summary pretty much all tea bags are heat sealed using polyethylene, a plastic that will not break down in your compost heap.  There are some plastic free teas available but they all come in plastic packaging.  As an alternative I’d suggest switching to loose leaf tea.  I’m still on the hunt for a good decaff loose leaf tea so if you come across one do let me know!

10. Tetra Paks

Tetra Paks are the cartons that you commonly buy milk, juice and chopped tomatoes in.  Many people believe Tetra Paks to be waxed cardboard, but when you look a little deeper the  Tetra Pak website states that cartons are made from wood in the form of paperboard, as well as thin layers of aluminium and polyethylene plastic. The most common Tetra Pak carton is 74% paper, 22% polyethylene and 4% aluminium.

While Tetra Pak cartons state that they are recyclable, because of these thin layers of aluminium and plastic, which are difficult to separate, then they are not easily recyclable at every recycling plant.

According to the Tetra Pak website there is only one dedicated carton recycling facility in the UK, in Halifax, so whether or not your Tetra Paks get recycled or not depends on if your Local Authority sends collected Tetra Paks to this facility in Halifax.  Tetra Pak have not disclosed how many Local Authorities send their Tetra Paks their for recycling, simply stating that “many Local Authorities are already using [the recycling facility] and [we] would like to get many more on board“.

Looking for an alternative to tetra paks?  Some dairies will deliver milk in glass bottles.  You may have to ring around a few different dairies but there are a few out there.

11. Tin/Aluminium Cans

Much like drinks cans, tin and aluminium cans are lined with plastic.  Indeed, the Independent reported in 2010 that the majority of food cans in the UK have been lined with a plastic coating containing bisphenol A (BPA). The coating prevents acids and other substances from corroding the tin or aluminium of the can, but leaching of BPA into the can’s contents could be a potential health hazard.

Looking for an alternative?  Buy dried pulses instead of tinned pulses, and get into the habit of soaking them overnight before use.  Tricky, I know!

I appreciate all of this information may be a little shocking and perhaps a tad overwhelming.  I’m not sharing this to overwhelm but to help share this information because I believe that the more we know, the more informed choices we can make.  And the more we know, the more we can lobby manufacturers and retailers to provide better packaging solutions and to avoid the use of unnecessary plastic.  For example, here’s a petition you can sign to lobby supermarkets to  stop selling raw fruit and vegetables in plastic packaging.

Have you found any more surprising sources of plastic?  Do let me know in the comments below.

16 comments

  1. Some of these I knew but some are completely new to me. Chewing gum?! For goodness sake. Lots of these are not going to be a quick fix. But I agree, what is the point of selling a cucumber in a plastic sheath. That nonsense seems easy to tackle.

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  2. So many things that it’s hard to avoid and live without (jars/tetrapacks/cans?), but if someone can’t stop chewing gum (all thouse non-degraded ones on pavements make me cringe!) or if someone can’t live without glitter… then what a strange world we live in. Thank you for sharing the petition!
    As for tea, there is quite a few retailers in Edinburgh that do decaf tea/infusions e.g. Rosevear, Pekotea, Eteaket. But if one wants to avoid plastic then Rosevear gives you 50p off tea if you bring in your own tea caddy! Haven’t been to Pekotea lately, but Eteaket’s teas are wrapped in a thin film of plastic even though the whole packaging is cardboard tin with metal top…
    Good read! :)

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      • Where i work there is an option for a customer to have their receipt emailed, but people are not so inclined to give away their email address to a shop in case of spam, and what if one needs to return the goods? It is a bit of a hassle for many and probably would be very impractical at supermarkets.. but if one has a clubcard (which is probably plastic anyway) maybe that itself should be connected to an email address and the cashier would have a pop out to email the receipt before the till prints it? that’s just my idea, who knows what future will bring!

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      • Definitely not easy! Tesco and M&S self checkouts let you choose not to take a receipt but I think they’re the only ones so far.

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  3. Lesley Anne Rickard
    January 16, 2018 at 12:11 am

    Useful article – many thanks. Re produce, I went to my local greengrocer stall today and none of this apples, pears or oranges had stickers on and he uses brown paper bags rather than plastic. I’m also looking for decaf leaf tea – I’ll let you know if I find it :-)

    Reply
  4. I’m really surprised at the tea bag one! As for decaf tea (or tea without caffeine?), I’m a fan of rooibos :)
    The majority of the teas I drink are herbal though, nettle, elderflower, chamomile, mint etc. No caffeine in those.

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  5. Thank you so much for this post, i had no idea about some of these items, like tea and chewing gum!!! I’m using mainly loose leaf teas but chewing gum are one of my vices and i need to stop that now, i’m a bit disgusted actually! Thanks you for those discovery Wendy! xo
    Melodie | http://happymelodie.com/

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  6. Thanks for the article, I didn’t know that washing fleeces released microplastics, I’ll have to be more careful washing mine in future!

    On the subject of tea – have you tried Steenbergs (www.steenbergs.co.uk)? They do a huge range of loose tea including decaf, and it’s all either organic or fairtrade, or both. I’ve not tried the decaf but I really like their English Breakfast. No connection, other than as a satisfied customer…

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  7. Really helpful post and you’ve given me a lot to think about and work on. Baby steps now as I go into 2018. I’m working on replacing my plastic food containers with glass first. However, there’s no way I feel comfortable about throwing all them away, so now I’d have to figure out what to do with them. I suppose I can start storing non-food items in them. And, I’m going to search out loose tea at my local co-op.

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  8. It’s so frustrating that even cans aren’t free from plastic. And Tetra Pak?! UGHHHH. I had no idea about chewing gum at all; I don’t understand why companies don’t have to be 100% transparent when it comes to labelling ingredients. If there’s something in there you’d rather your customers didn’t know about, perhaps you shouldn’t use it.

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  9. Rooibos tea is a good alternative to decaff black tea (still haven’t found a good one!) It’s got quite a full bodied malty flavour. it’s very fine so make sure you use the right infuser for it.

    Reply

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