Plastic is a relatively new material, with widespread usage not occurring until the 1960s. Despite this, plastic is a ubiquitous part of just about every aspect of our daily lives. But were you aware of just how omnipresent it is? I’ve rounded up 11 surprising household items that contain plastic.
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1. Chewing Gum
It’s hard to believe, but chewing gum is made of plastic. Manufacturers don’t tend to disclose their ingredients. Perhaps because chewing on plastic doesn’t sound particularly appealing!
The reason manufacturers 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”. This makes it hard for consumers to know exactly what’s in their chewing gum. What we do know is that most gum bases contain polyethylene. This is a plastic that’s used to make plastic bottles, plastic bags, and seal tea bags. Gum bases also tend to contain polyisobutylene. This a rubber that’s used to make the inner tubes of tyres. Delightful, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Chewing gum was made without plastic up until around the 1960s. At this 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.
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 Try Chicza*, Spry*, or XyliChew* if giving up gum isn’t for you.
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 is 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, if you can. 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 them.
I would also never advocate binning perfectly good clothes. Instead, you could wash them in some of the new products coming out, such as Guppyfriend*. This 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. However, 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. This makes it difficult to recycle them. A 25p ‘latte levy’ was proposed, as a tax on consumers. It was thought this would encourage people to use reusable coffee cups. However, the UK Government voted against this levy in 2018.
Looking for an alternative? My favourite reusable coffee cup is the Stojo cup*. This is a collapsible silicone cup that when flattened down takes us very little room in your bag. It then pops up in seconds when you’re ready for your cup of coffee.
I try to avoid compostable cups, as these kinds of cups are only compostable under very specific circumstances that many of us don’t have access to yet. These types of cups therefore often end up in landfill.
4. Drink Cans
Think a drink can is just made of aluminium? Well, it turns out that every single drink can on the market is lined with a plastic resin, usually epoxy. This stops 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. He also 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). This helps you avoid having to recycle the lids, as 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!
More surprising news is 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 2021 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. 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
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 75% paper, 20% polyethylene, and 5% 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 has not disclosed how many Local Authorities send their Tetra Paks for recycling, simply stating that “many Local Authorities are already using [the recycling facility] and [we] would like to get many more onboard“.
Looking for an alternative to tetra paks? Some dairies will deliver milk, including oat 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.
PS: I found out recently that sunscreen also contains plastic. The actual cream itself. Let that sink in…