The life of a plastic bottle

9th June 2021

By Lucas Browne and Ben Bell. With thanks to Moya Pinson.

Introduction

Plastic pollution doesn't only occur when plastic is littered or burnt. At each stage of its journey, from the sourcing of raw materials to its eventual waste in the environment, plastic pollutes and causes disease. We must reduce plastic production!

First step:
Extraction

Extraction

Taking oil from deep in the ground is called oil extraction. This process is bad for nature, for humans and animals, in many ways:.

Oil drum
  • It disrupts wildlife.
  • It pollutes the environment.
  • It contributes to climate change.
  • It ruins areas of nature.
  • It furthers light pollution.

To produce each plastic bottle, a quarter of its capacity in oil is used. For a 500ml bottle, 125ml of crude oil would be used (500 / 4 = 125).

Next step:
Polymerisation
Previous step:
Introduction

Polymerisation

Heated plastic

Polymerisation is a process to create long chains of molecules. Chemical reactions using high pressure and chemical additives transform (change) the oil into plastic pellets called nurdles. Some of the chemicals used are toxic (bad for health). A common type of plastic used to make bottles is called PET (short for Polyethylene Terapthalate). PET can harm humans and animals by interfering with hormones. This can lead to disease such as cancers.

Next step:
Production
Previous step:
Extraction

Production

Heating & forming

Pellets are heated and expanded to form into bottles.

Sterilising, filling and capping

Bottles are sterilised, filled and capped.
Sterilisation uses ethylene oxide, which is toxic.

Water requirements

1 bottle takes 3 times the water it contains to produce it!
Being mindful of our water usage (called water conservation), is important in minimising pollution and damage to the environment.

Next step:
Packing
Previous step:
Polymerisation

Packing

Extra materials are used to pack the bottles. These materials require further natural resources, chemicals, energy and water. A few examples: Packing materials

  • Paper and cardboard are made from trees. Cutting down trees is sometimes called deforestation. It is a major issue which contributes to climate change and mass extinction. Large amounts of chemicals and water are used in the production and recycling of paper and cardboard.
  • Plastic tape: Globally it has been estimated that we use enough plastic tape each year to circle the Earth 6672 times!
  • Polystyrene is another type of plastic. It is toxic and breaks apart into small balls which can be extremely difficult to remove from the environment, as we have found out from litter picking.
Next step:
Transport
Previous step:
Production

Transport

Petrol / diesel to fuel the vehicle. Exhaust fumes are released into the air, causing health and environmental problems. According to figures for 2017-18 from the Centre for Cities, deaths from air pollution within the south west region were highest in Swindon.

Fuel and lorry

Approximately 1 litre of petrol / diesel is used for transportation per bottle.

Next step:
Shops
Previous step:
Packing

Shops and warehouses

Shop / supermarket

Energy and land are required for shops and warehouses.

Next step:
Consumption
Previous step:
Transport

Consumption

Consumer

Buying plastic bottles encourages more plastic production; supply and demand. So one way to reduce plastic production is to reduce the demand.

Next steps:
Littering
Waste collection
Previous step:
Shops

Littering

Littering

Plastic litter on the ground doesn't rot down. This causes danger for wildlife, pollutes our environment and makes areas look untidy and horrible.

Unhappy outcomes
Next step:
Conclusion
Previous step:
Consumption

Waste collection

Waste and recycling bins

Only 23% of plastic bottles are recycled.

Next steps:
Recycling
Waste incineration
Illegal dumping
Landfill
Previous step:
Consumption

Recycling

Recycling

More fuel is used for transport. The plastic is sorted and melted back into PET pellets at the recycling centre. It is then made into other products. Such recycling can only happen a few times, as plastic degrades. This means that plastic recycling only slows down the rate of plastic pollution. Plastic recycling is better termed downcycling.

New products
Next steps:
Waste incineration
Illegal dumping
Landfill
Previous step:
Waste collection

Waste incineration

Waste incineration

Sometimes called waste-to-energy. Incinerating or burning waste is bad for health and the environment. It lowers recycling rates, contributes to climate change, releases toxins into the air, and is not nice to live by. In Swindon, we dry much of our waste into what is called Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF). It is sent to Eastern Europe to be burnt in cement kilns. This is an indirect method of incinerating waste, including plastic.

Sadly, the construction of a new waste incinerator at South Marston has been approved. Read our article on waste incineration for further information.

Unhappy outcomes
Next step:
Conclusion
Previous step:
Waste collection

Landfill

Landfill

Toxic to soil, the surrounding environment, animals and people. No-one is sure how long plastics take to decompose. Estimates are generally hundreds of years.

Ocean pollution Unhappy outcomes
Next step:
Conclusion
Previous step:
Waste collection

Illegal dumping

Illegal dumping

Governments of countries including the UK have been illegally dumping plastic waste onto poor countries. Swindon Borough Council were until recently sending our plastic waste to Turkey and Taiwan. Greenpeace recently reported that such dumping of plastic waste by the UK is still occurring. To try and stop this continuing, the poor countries who have had plastic waste dumped on them have been working together as part of the Basel Convention.

Ocean pollution Unhappy outcomes
Next step:
Conclusion
Previous step:
Waste collection

Conclusion

Plastic pollutes the environment, animals and us throughout its journey. We need to prioritise its reduction rather than focus on recycling. Such understnading forms the basis of the waste hierarchy.

  • Consider the difference if we stopped buying single-use plastic bottles and used reusable bottles instead. The Refill scheme launched in 2015. It is estimated to have saved hundreds of millions of bottles from being created.
  • Consider the difference a Deposit Return Scheme would make. In the UK, we used to be able to take glass bottles back to shops. The bottles would be cleaned for reuse and we would receive a small amount of money for our efforts.
  • Consider the difference if we shopped locally. Plastic packaging is used as it's cheap and light. Buying locally can reduce the need for such packaging. Supporting local independent businesses can help transform our world.

Also watch The Story of Plastic animated short.

Sharing this resource can help reduce plastic pollution!

Make sure to go back through all the steps as there are several endings.

Previous step: