Seven Sneaky Plastics | And how to spot them

by Emily Carlstrom

Coffee Cups

Takeaway coffee cups, the villains of the zero-waste movement - seems pretty obvious right? So we thought. But, on a weekly basis we meet someone who doesn’t understand just what makes takeaway coffee cups such a pervasive form of plastic waste. It’s not the just the lids that are the issue - black coloured lids can’t be recycled, but non-black lids often can be (BIG caveat here make sure to check the recycling symbol on the lids to make sure it’s being disposed of properly.

No, the silent killer here is the plastic lining on the coffee cup. This is the part that most people aren’t aware of. Even those lovely environmentally friendly-looking, kraft paper, ‘compostable’ coffee cups have a plastic membrane of polyethylene (PE) that is bonded to the paper exterior of the cup. While there are some specialist recycling facilities here in Australia that are capable of separating the PE lining from the paper, the vast majority of takeaway coffee cups are relegated to landfill, or escape overcrowded rubbish bins to end up polluting the natural environment.

Partly decomposed coffee cup revealing plastic lining

Tea Bags

Yep, the humble teabag is another source of plastic that flies under the radar. If something looks like paper and feels like paper, surely it’s paper - right? Unfortunately not. These days it’s pretty rare to find a tea manufacturer that chooses to use 100% paper based teabags. Teabags use a blend of paper and plastics, with plastics making up about 20-30% of the tea bag material content. The plastic in the bags serve a couple of purposes - firstly, they allow teabags to be heat sealed (i.e. the plastic particles fuse together sealing in the tea leaves); secondly, the plastic fibres provide strength so that the bags don’t disintegrate if steeped to long so that, heaven-forbid, we don’t end up with loose tea leaves in our cup!

We’ve sourced a great infograph from Treading My Own Path (one of our favourite zero-waste blogs) to help you determine whether your tea-bags actually contain plastic. Unfortunately, unless you use loose-leaf tea, the answer to that question is a depressing, Yes, Yes and Probably.

 Plastic in Teabags Infograph


Foil Packaging

Love chips? Yeah they’re pretty tasty. Largely nutritionally devoid, but tasty nonetheless. Unfortunately they’re also largely unrecyclable. While the shiny metallic foil may look like metal, it is resoundingly not. It is in fact a metallised plastic film designed to lock in freshness and be visually appealing to consumers looking for a quick snack. While the best option to satisfy your snack cravings is to make your own potato crisps (check out our favourite recipe for sweet potato crisps here), if the cravings get the best of you, make sure you dispose of your empty foil snack packs in a REDcycle collection facility. Currently they’re one of the only recycling facilities in Australia capable of processing these types of packaging.

 Homemade Sweet Potato CrispsRecipe


Synthetic Clothing

Heard of micro-plastics lately? Yeah they’ve been copping a hammering on social media. Well, one of the biggest sources of microplastic is actually from the clothes that we wear. Synthetic fibres shed from our clothes when we wash them. Unfortunately, the filters in our washing machine aren’t designed to filter out these tiny particles and they make their way into the larger sewerage system. Waste-treatment plants, many designed and constructed before plastic pollution was at the forefront of public consciousness, also are not designed to filter out these tiny plastic particles. And so, these tiny, insignificant plastic particles find their way into our rivers and oceans where they are consumed by filter-feeders and the tiniest of the tiny organisms at the bottom of the food chain.

Ironically, the microplastics that we release into the natural environment come back to haunt us by a process called bioaccumulation. In layman's terms, bioaccumulation refers to organisms collecting toxins and pollutants at a greater rate than they can expel them. For example, small organisms are unable to digest plastic, and so they are unable to expel them. The plastic ends up accumulating in their stomach until they starve or are eaten by a larger organism. This larger organisms inherits all the plastic and toxins from the organism they just consumed. This process is repeated end-on-end until we get to the largest organisms in the food chain - the ones we humans love to eat. By this point, the plastics and toxins have become so concentrated that the fish that we catch are often sick or affected by these chemicals. However, as we don’t speak fish, and since fisheries are more often concerned with quantity over quality, sick or affected fish are lumped in with the healthy ones and end up on our plate. For a quick rundown on bioaccumulation in worldwide tuna populations have a read of this - it may make you think twice about where your food is coming from and what you can do about reducing your contribution to the problem.

If you own a lot of clothes made from synthetic fibres, it might be worth investing in microplastic-catching washing ball such as the Cora Ball.

 Microplastic Catching Ball



Look, we love a good glitter-fest as much as the next festival head, but have you read #4 above? Good. Then make sure you get your sparkle on sustainably. Glitter is just shiny plastic chopped up into really really small pieces. In other words - microplastic.

There are a few awesome Aussie brands who have developed plastic-free glitter. Eco Glitz is one such Australian company that has cropped up. Check them out, they’re awesome. So next time you want to get your shine one, or feel like sending your very worst enemy a glitter bomb in the mail, please make sure you’re using a glitter made from natural, organic material.


Um, what - plastic in salt? Yeah, pretty weird right. We thought we would throw this one in here to shine a light on just how pervasive micro-plastics are in the natural environment. While plastic is obviously not an additive in salt production, salt is sourced from salty water sources like the ocean. And since everyone read #4 in depth, we know just how easily microplastics make their way into the ocean. And so, plastics are found in seawater, salt is often made using seawater, hence microplastics are found in salt.

This recent study found that found Americans could be ingesting upwards of 660 particles of plastic each year, if they follow health officials’ advice to eat 2.3 grammes of salt per day. However, most Americans could be ingesting far more, as health officials believe 90% of Americans eat too much salt.

 Sea Salt

Soda Cans

This one took us completely by surprise. We knew that plastic linings are often found in food cans, but we had no idea that beverage cans also had a plastic lining. While these plastic linings serve a variety of purposes, one the main reasons they’re used in soda cans, is to prevent corrosion. Did you know that if a Coca-Cola was to be sealed in a can without a plastic lining, the can would deteriorate within three days! Now imagine what that same can of coke is doing to the sensitive lining of your internals.

While statistics aren’t available for Australian canned beverage consumption, we do know that in order to line the hundred billion beverage cans that Americans gobble up every year, it takes about eighty million litres of epoxy coatings. If you’re curious to learn more about the modern marvels of aluminium can manufacturing, have a read of the following.


  • Jamie

    Thank you for this information. Keep it coming!

  • Sharron

    Holy Moly! Always something new to learn and improve on…

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