We’ve all heard about how plastics cause damage to the environment. But what about those items that contain hidden plastic? 

According to AISB’s Global Issues Network (GIN) service group members, this is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. “We have to start looking past recyclable, common-use plastics,” says GIN leader Anna K. “If you ask people to define plastic waste, they talk about plastic bags, packaging, straws; but micro plastics are a huge, less noticeable aspect of plastic pollution.”

Results from a January survey of AISB students.

Our own community was asked to identify their main source of plastic in their day-to-day lives. And while most students surveyed selected plastic containers and water bottles, many respondents were unable to identify disposable plastics.

Additionally, common hidden plastics like tea bags, cotton buds, toothpaste, wet wipes, menstrual products were not mentioned at all. To get a list of common hidden plastics, click this link.

Why Hidden Plastics are Problematic 

All the items listed above contain hidden plastics and microfibers, which make them more durable, but also render them non-biodegradable and toxic to our environment. And because most people don’t identify them as plastic, many of these items are accidentally getting thrown away in the wrong place—or flushed down the toilet.

As Elizabeth Peberdy, Lead Author of a recent study on microplastics, wrote in her paper, “Many are unaware that tampons often contain plastic, and therefore it is perhaps not surprising that some people think that it is okay to flush these products down the toilet.” Because of this, more and more plastics are reaching oceans and contaminating our ecosystems.

Hidden Plastics, which degrade into microplastics, can pollute the air, water, and soil, posing a threat to plants, animals, and humans. Microplastics are eaten by fish, birds, and other aquatic animals, who mistake them for food and die as a result. They can also be consumed by humans when they eat fish or drink tap water. And the toxic chemicals plastics leach-out can affect plants, soil, and other essential microbial organisms. 

“It’s everywhere,” says Chelsea Rochman, a microplastics researcher at the University of Toronto, “The stuff is even floating around in the air—from dense urban areas to the remote Arctic Ocean.”

Romania and Hidden Plastics 

In Romania, there is a high use of hidden plastics and misguided disposal of them. An example of this is cigarette butts. Although they might seem harmless, they are “the most abundant form of plastic waste in the world.” 

Romania’s use of tobacco is high, and consequently, around 3 million cigarette butts are dumped yearly in Romania, according to estimates quoted by Romanian newspaper Adevărul

The butts are made of many thin layers of plastic and take up a minimum of 15 years to disintegrate and can be toxic to their environment. Hence, it is imperative to ensure that cigarette butts find their way to the waste bin or are sent to a recycling facility. Smokers should consider finding designated smoking areas or carrying their own “pocket ashtrays” to collect their waste. 

Moreover, according to the European Environment Agency, Romania has one of the lowest recycling rates in Europe, producing 4.58 million tons of municipal waste per year and recycling only 14% of it. The garbage is both not sorted correctly, and there are objects that, due to their anatomy and condition, can’t be recycled. (Click this link for a list of such items.)

This makes identifying hidden plastics paramount, so we can make sure that we reduce their consumption, as recycling is often not an option. 

AISB and Hidden Plastics 

Since many hidden plastics show up in people’s morning routines (coffee cups, tea bags, to-go containers, etc.), GIN members surveyed the student body to get a clearer picture of student habits. 

One-fifth of respondents claimed no plastics were involved in their morning routine, which is great. Hidden plastics were used in the morning routine of 106 respondents, and a very significant portion (29%) claimed plastic was used in the preparation and consumption of tea and coffee, a common drink for that time of day. 

An interesting observation to be made is that despite the consumption of the aforementioned drinks, only 4% of participants reported the use of plastic cups. However, the definition of “plastic” cups is very misleading since people tend to only think of the traditional cups made fully out of plastic; yet, paper cups often contain a layer of polyethylene plastic. This layer makes them impermeable but also unrecyclable, and a type of hidden plastic. Hence, this percentage is not realistic. 

Moreover, tea bags also contain hidden plastics (polypropylene) in order for the tea bags to seal up and keep their shape in hot liquid. One of the solutions is to use stainless steel infusers, which are reusable, and completely circumvent the use of tea bags altogether. Certain tea brands also claim to not use any plastic in their tea bags at all, such as Teapigs, or Abel & Cole, though they do tend to be pricier. 

Some more facts about plastics in our school and potential replacements are shown below:

As seen from both infographics, 20.5% of those surveyed stated that food packaging was a part of their daily morning routine, while only 8% of AISB families claimed to store food in reusable containers. There is quite a disparity between those percentages, indicating that a change in lifestyle or habits could lead to a higher percentage of families in our community relying less on non-reusable packaging. 

While not all packaging can be replaced, certain adjustments can be made. For example, invest in a reusable water bottle instead of buying plastic; avoid individually-wrapped vegetables and fruits; and simply make sure you’re buying goods that come in glass containers or jars as opposed to plastic.

As for plastic and hidden plastic consumption on campus, AISB Director Peter Welch says that “It should be our shared ambition to reduce and eventually eliminate all non-recyclable plastic products at AISB.” 

This would mean not only strengthening community members’ personal habits, but examining products used by the school and the distributors that provide said products. Welch explains that he already tries to work with suppliers that use ethically-sourced, recyclable materials, and has been working with the catering company to employ best practices for reducing waste and recycling. 

Welch adds that the pandemic has made plastic reduction challenging, as there’s been a dramatic rise in individual packaging of food delivery items. “However, there are exciting developments [and incentives] to use recycled materials. What we want to see is that these products come more on to the Romanian market at a competitive price point.”

Pandemic + Hidden Plastics 

During the pandemic, the takeaway industry has exploded. The industry is now worth 26.2 billion dollars in the U.S. alone, representing an increase of 20.2% from the previous year. And unfortunately, the packaging is often unsustainable. It’s either made of entirely plastic or, in many cases, has a layer of polyethylene or other types of hidden plastics. 

This is becoming a growing concern that our community should be aware of, as there’s been a 40% increase in single use plastics worldwide in the last year. 

The International Solid Waste Association estimates that the consumption of single-use plastic cups has increased between 250 and 300% in the last year. Organizations such as Habits of Waste have created hashtags like #cutoutcutlery to discourage the use of plastic cutlery in take-out deliveries, but we need to do more.

This starts with education, as much of the time it’s not obvious that delivery services are using plastic in their containers and cutlery; and this is because the industry is moving towards more fancy, hidden plastics, such as cardboard containers that contain plastic and styrofoam. Therefore, we need to reduce our take-out food consumption. And food delivery companies need to prioritize reusable containers.

We contacted Glovo, one of Romania’s most popular corporations for foodservice delivery, to get a better idea of plastic usage within the country. Unfortunately, their response to questions on recyclable packaging were ambiguous. They did, however, state that things could look better in the near future, as they “are designing solutions for all our partners to use sustainable packaging for their delivery orders,” but no specific dates were given.  

Additionally, the company explained that they created something called “GlovoStore” in 2019, where their partners “can get discounts for buying packaging made from recycled or recyclable materials.” Unfortunately, the initiative has not yet been implemented in Romania. 

From the research conducted for this article, it is evident that our community does a fairly good job recycling and using reusable products; but it’s also clear that some level of misinformation or uncertainty exists in regards to where plastics exist in our everyday lives. 

The GIN group’s next steps are trying to reduce the school’s consumption of hidden plastics (such as coffee cups, containers, and tea bags) and raising awareness for people so they can identify them. And while the pandemic makes cutting back on plastics more difficult, being aware of our consumption and being able to reduce the usage of hidden plastics are important steps to healing our earth.