Hidden Plastics

What doesn’t meet the eye

As a shape-shifter of a material (that’s how plastic rose to prominence in the 1950s), plastic isn’t always easy to spot since it’s often incorporated into other materials such as the rust-protective lining on some glass bottle lids and inside cans, the protective layer in paper ice-cream tubs and Gore-Tex jackets and other clothing made from synthetic fibres. The drawback with these hidden plastics is that they rarely get recycled because they’re stuck or glued to another material, and they’re often of a lower-grade plastic that can’t be reused. A pop bottle, a sippy cup or a toothbrush handle are obviously made of plastic. As for hidden plastic, only by knowing where it lurks can we reduce — or refuse — its use.

Tea bags

If it looks like paper and feels like paper, is it paper? Not necessarily. Regular tea bags contain up to 30 per cent heat-resistant polypropylene to hold the paper together in water and are therefore not fully biodegradable. Most pyramid tea bags are plastic, while some are made from corn starch, which in theory is biodegradable (in theory, because they may require heat to break down). Look for stitched muslin (cotton) bags, or, better still, use loose-leaf tea in stainless steel strainers.


We might feel good about picking up a jacket that’s made from recycled plastic bottles, but research has shown that it too has a negative effect on the environment and wildlife. When washed, fleece (and other garments made from synthetic fibres) sheds tiny threads that make their way into the sewage and, eventually, our waterways. A study out of the University of California at Santa Barbara for outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia found that a single Patagonia fleece jacket can shed 250,000 microfibres. With some 100,000 jackets worn worldwide each year, throwing them in the washer would produce enough plastic to make 11,900 grocery bags. These microplastics could also become airborne after sewage sludge is spread on farm fields, making it into our lungs and, potentially, into our bloodstream. 

Wet wipes

Wet wipes, such as baby wipes, were declared “the biggest villain of 2015” by the Guardian newspaper. No wonder: most of these disposable cleaning cloths contain plastic fibres that won’t biodegrade and will remain in landfills for centuries. What’s more, they make their way into sea and stream, washing up on shorelines. In 2014 in the U.K. alone, there was an average of 35 wipes found on every kilometre of beach, up by 50 per cent since the previous year. Once they get into aquatic ecosystems, they fragment, adding microfibres to the waterways. The same holds true for facial wipes, wet wipes for mops and most other disposable cloths for personal and household use. 

Paper cups, Tetra Paks 

Milk and juice cartons are made of paper, but to keep the material from getting soggy in contact with liquids, it’s treated with polyethylene film. This plastic layer, which can make up 22 per cent of such a container, is difficult to reuse or recycle, as it would have to be separated from the paper before doing so, and the paper can’t be recycled if there’s plastic attached to it. Glass bottles are an eco-friendlier choice.

Face washes, shower gels, body scrubs 

Many personal care products contain polyethylene microbeads as exfoliants. While these were banned in the United States in 2018, and will be completely banned in Canada on July 1, 2019, and have been, or will be, outlawed in several European countries, they linger during the phase-out period. Also, many countries still permit the use of microbeads in beauty products, so read the labels of such products before buying or using. Environmentally friendly alternatives include coarse salt, coffee grounds and ground nut shells.

Cotton wands

The plastic used in Q-Tips is not hidden, we just don’t tend to think of the item as a piece of plastic. But the cotton swabs are attached to each end of a plastic stick that, despite its size, can take forever to break down. Choose swab sticks whose wand is made of paper instead. 

Fabric softener sheets

The anti-static laundry sheets used in dryers are also made from petro plastics. Plus, like many wet wipes, they contain chemicals that may be harmful to human health.

Other invisibles

Coffee bags and packages that look like aluminum foil are made of plastic, as are the produce stickers on bananas, peppers and apples. (In the case of bananas, the stickers need to be removed before the peel is tossed into the compost.) And grocery store and other cash register receipts are often a mix of paper and plastic. 

Did you know?

“Chewing gum contains plastic and can be dangerous to wildlife,” says Vito Buonsante from the Toronto-based environmental non-profit Environmental Defence. “What’s more, spitting gum out on the street is a littering problem, with municipalities doing costly cleanups.” During the 1950s, when synthetic resins such as polyester and vinyl made from petroleum became all the rage, natural chewing-gum resins such as chicle, used by the Aztecs, and mastic, chewed by the ancient Greeks, were being replaced with synthetic, non-biodegradable resins for chewing gum.

Take Action

Look for a slowly increasing number of plastic-free gums on store shelves, for the time being mostly at health food stores. And dispose of your old gum in the garbage, not on the street. Better yet, keep a bamboo toothbrush on hand for a quick brush after meals on the go and away from home.