Folks, this is about my "consumption" of plastic over the next year. I'm looking at what I have, what I buy, and why I seem to need this hundred and fifty year old man-made concoction more than my mother's fried chicken.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Week 9: #2 HDPE



Just in case anyone is interested, I thought I would report out on a few observations so far...
  1. I average about 25 plastic items a week, except for last week. I had 100 items (half of which were band-aids as you can make out in the photo. They were part of my Halloween costume...any guesses?)
  2. Straws are my nemesis. They are so sneaky. I really have to be alert if I want to have a straw-free waste stream. Last night I had a dream I ordered a beer, and the server brought it to me with a straw...and I drank it! I never thought of myself as a straw user until I started this endeavor. Try collecting any straws you get for a month...you'll be surprised.
  3. I eat a lot of corn chips. Like, a lot. I think the tortilla chip bag is a mainstay in my weekly plastic stream. I heart Green Mountain Gringo & Garden of Eatin' chips.
  4. Joe Plastic. I also love Trader Joe's. I have made one trip there since September and on that one trip (camera zoom in to my face & shopping cart), I realized that almost EVERYTHING there is packaged in plastic...even the bulk avocados.
OK, so on to #2--HDPE (high density polyethylene).
HDPE technology is about 60 years old. According to one website, two dudes named Paul & Bob from Phillips Petroleum came up with it and called it "Marlex". According to another website, a guy named Zeigler was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963 for "his invention of HDPE."

Regardless, I would like to personally thank (insert true inventor's name here) for inventing a source of happiness to Friday gym class for me. "Hula Hoop War" was my FAVORITE. Eric Hammer was the best, but my best friend, Katy and I would team up to bring his hoop down by spinning into it from both sides with the advanced technique known as "chicken scratch." The hula hoop was one of the "first editions" of HDPE.

HDPE is the plastic superhero: able to withstand temps ranging from -100 C to 120 C (-148 F to 248 F), powerful enough to hold acids, alcohols & bases, and contain a gallon of milk in a single container! HDPE in its raw form (pellets or "nurdles") looks like this:

These cute lil' fellas are formed from a highly volatile compound of crude oil called naphtha (a euphemism for crude solvent coal tar and also the root of the word napalm). If you cause naphtha to get all hot & bothered, it releases ethylene gas, and these free loving gas particles join hands to form long chains of ethylene molecules. So, these "many ethylenes" are commonly known as polyethylene. Now, take this choo-choo train of ethylenes and cram them all together like drunkards at the St. Patrick's Day parade in Southie, and you've got high-density polyethylene. Because of these durable, resistant & tight-packing qualities, HDPE is the golden child of labs & medical facilities around the world.

HDPE incarnations include, but are not limited to the following:
  • motor oil containers
  • milk jugs
  • cutting boards
  • stiff plastic bags (some retail stores have them)
  • garbage bags
  • grocery bags (aka, "plastic jellyfish", "turtle killer", "tree shower cap", "African snowflakes", "#2 for #2", "poorman's lunch box")
  • frozen food containers
  • cereal, cookie, & cracker bags inside cardboard boxes
  • milk crates
  • bread trays
  • caps & closures
  • hard hats
  • home insulation
  • storage tanks for agricultural chemicals
  • some household chemical containers
  • mooring buoys
  • covers for some electronics, furniture & appliances
  • newspaper bags
  • safety aprons
  • pipes & sheets for industrial applications
  • recycled plastic lumber (survey your local park benches)
  • toilet seat covers
  • manhole covers
  • non-carbonated drinks
  • 1/3 of all children's toys (it takes color well, so HDPE is the preferred plastic of the toy industry)
  • playground components
  • sheds & garden furniture
  • water pipes
  • gas mains
In my online travels, I discovered that I can purchase the market research report on HDPE in the world market. For a mere $4,450, I can snuggle up with 25 cups of coffee a warm blanket & a chamber pot to absorb the 400 plus pages. It's tempting. I'll think about it. What I could find out about the global market is that North America & Western Europe accounted for 44% of the market demand in 2007. Not surprisingly, China, India, Japan and South Korea are the world's leading HDPE manufacturers. Demand for HDPE has been increasing by 20% each year since 2000.

Given all of these applications, if I were stranded on a desert island and had to choose just one number of plastic, I think it would be HDPE...and then I would just rely on the tides to bring me the other plastics. ; )

6 comments:

Song Anh Nguyen + Alison Cole said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Song Anh Nguyen + Alison Cole said...

So Jessica Stamp and I are in the VE office at the aquarium right now. We're trying to assess what items in the office still have their plastic virginity. (Our mission stemmed from a conversation about alkyphenols from plastics that influence immunodefficiency in marine animals (fishes, crustaceans))... and this is what we could list: a gourd, a whale rib bone, some shells, metal keys, a penny. That's it from the most cluttered office on Earth.

Jessica Stamp said...

Hi Sunnye! Here is a blog that implicates a relationship between the alkyphenols of plastics and lobster shell rot.

http://thissphere.blogspot.com/2008/06/sick-lobsters-message-in-plastic-bottle.html

Sunnye said...

Doesn't it just blow your mind? That's why I'm a little anxious about doing my home plastic inventory because I think my plastic engulfs me even more than I think...

I want to ask Mike & Anita in the Lobster lab about this alkyphenol thing...have you mentioned it to them?

Lee Winters Cruising Blogspot said...

Funny thought about the desert island choice. I just ordered about 20 gallons of storage containers from Nalgene for my boat trip. Yep, all HDPE. Stuff can take a beating.

Sunnye said...

Leeward. Can I call you Leeward? It seems appropriate at this point in your life. I just linked to your blog, friend-o. So glad to be in touch with you again! Good to know that my desert island choice of plastic is backed up by true seafaring folk like yourself! Please post any plastic encounter comments while on your journey!