Life with Plastics
When plastic manufacturing took off in the early 20th century, plastic was seen as one of the world’s greatest inventions. Plastic is versatile, lightweight, flexible, waterproof, durable, strong, relatively inexpensive, and practically unbreakable. These are incredibly useful qualities, and there is no doubt that plastic has, and continues to play many important roles in industry and, our lives.
We eat and drink out of plastic, wear it, keep our food in it, sit on it, our children play with it etc. etc. etc. Items that surround us and are so everyday – electronics, household appliances, drink bottles, toothbrushes, toys, food packaging, storage containers, furniture, furnishings, clothes, computers etc. Everyday items that seem so harmless and innocuous. But are they really?
In recent years, questions have been raised, and articles have appeared regarding the consequence of plastic use for our health and, the environment with increasing regularity! While it is always difficult to separate out the facts many of us it seems, are already thinking very carefully about our own and, our family’s use of plastics; wanting to preserve health, whilst doing the right thing for the environment too. The concerns are becoming too frequent to ignore! And we can make simple changes in our everyday living, reducing our consumption, looking for sustainable alternatives, making thoughtful and deliberate choices about what we buy. Re looking at traditional materials, such as wool. cotton, wood, stainless steel, glass, ceramic, which plastic has replaced in most of their former uses.
What follows is a plethora of information about plastics and the concerns surrounding them. Many of the issues concern the potential toxicity of some of the components used in their manufacture and their potential to harm us. Others centre on the environmental consequences of plastic manufacture and their end life:
It would appear that, due to their insolubility in water, and relative chemical inertness, pure plastics generally have low toxicity in their finished state, and will pass through the digestive system with no ill effect. However, plastics often contain a variety of toxic additives. For example, plasticizers like adipates and phthalates are often added to brittle plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to make them pliable enough for use in food packaging, children's toys and teethers, tubing, shower curtains and other items. Traces of these chemicals can leach out of the plastic when it comes into contact with food. Out of these concerns, the European Union has banned the use of DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate), the most widely used plasticizer in PVC. Some compounds leaching from polystyrene food containers have been found to interfere with hormone functions and are suspected human carcinogens.
Moreover, while the finished plastic may be non-toxic, the monomers used in its manufacture may be toxic; and small amounts of those chemical may remain trapped in the product. TheWorld Health Organization's International Research on Cancer (IARC) has recognized the chemical used to make PVC, Vinyl Chloride, as a known human carcinogen. Some polymers may also decompose into the monomers or other toxic substances when heated.
The primary building block of polycarbonates, bisphenol A (BPA), is an oestrogen-like endocrine disruptor that may leach into food. Research finds that BPA leached from the lining of tin cans, dental sealants and polycarbonate bottles can increase body weight of lab animals' offspring. A more recent animal study suggests that even low-level exposure to BPA results in insulin resistance, which can lead to inflammation and heart disease.
As of January 2010, the LA Times newspaper reports that the United States FDA is spending $30 million to investigate suspicious indications of BPA being linked to cancer. Bis(2-ethylhexyl))adipate, present in plastic wrap based on PVC, is also of concern, as are the volatile organic compounds present in a new car smell.
The European Union has a permanent ban on the use of phthalates in toys. In 2009, the United States government banned certain types of phthalates commonly used in plastic. (Sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic)
And more specifically:
- PVC, children and the home
- Babies bottles and BPA
- Reusing plastic bottles
Last but not least, the following site offers all sorts of articles relating to plastic (both from a health and environmental perspective):
Plastics are durable and degrade very slowly; the molecular bonds that make plastic so durable make it equally resistant to natural processes of degradation. Since the 1950s, one billion tons of plastic has been discarded and may persist for hundreds or even thousands of years. In some cases, burning plastic can release toxic fumes. Burning the plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) may create dioxin. Also, the manufacturing of plastics often creates large quantities of chemical pollutants.
Prior to the ban on the use ofCFC's in extrusion of polystyrene the production of polystyrene contributed to the depletion of the ozone layer; however, non-CFCs are currently used in the extrusion process.
By 1995, plastic recycling programs were common around the World. Most industrial plastic waste is re-used. To assist recycling of disposable items, the Plastic Bottle Institute of the Society of The Plastics Industry devised a now-familiar scheme to mark plastic bottles by plastic type. A plastic container using this scheme is marked with a triangle of three cyclic arrows, which encloses a number giving the plastic type: (also see http://www.econation.co.nz/ - an informative site covering all the basics of sustainability)
Plastics type marks: the resin identification code
1 PET (PETE), polyethyleneterephthalate: Commonly found onsoft drink and water bottles, cooking oil bottles, peanut butter jars, biscuit trays, salad domes etc.
2 HDPE, high-density polyethylene: Commonly found on crinkly shopping bags, freezer bags, milk bottles, ice cream containers, juice bottles, shampoo, chemical and detergent bottles, buckets, rigid agricultural pipes etc.
3 PVC, polyvinyl chloride: Commonly found in cosmetic containers, electrical conduit, plumbing pipes, blister packs, wall cladding, floor tiles, shower curtains etc..
4 LDPE, low-density polyethylene: Commonly found in Glad wrap, produce bags, garbage bags, squeeze bottles, food storage containers etc.
5 PP, polypropylene: Commonly found on bottle caps, dip pottles, ice cream tubs, potato chip bags, microwave dishes, lunch boxes, drinking straws, yogurt containers etc.
6 PS, polystyrene: Commonly found in plastic cutlery, cups and tableware, low cost brittle toys, and expanded polystyrene (PS-E) in hot drink cups, meat trays, take-away food containers etc.
7 OTHER,: This plastic category, as its name of "other" implies, is any plastic other than the named #1–#6, (e.g. SAN, ABS, PC, Nylon) Commonly found on car parts, appliance parts, computers, electronics, water cooler bottles, packaging etc.
Unfortunately, recycling plastics seems to be difficultt. New mechanical sorting processes are being utilized to increase plastic recycling capacity and efficiency. While containers are usually made from a single type and color of plastic, making them relatively easy to sort out, a consumer product like a cellular phone may have many small parts consisting of over a dozen different types and colors of plastics. In a case like this, the resources it would take to separate the plastics far exceed their value and the item is discarded. Polystyrene is rarely recycled because it is usually not cost effective. These unrecycled wastes are typically disposed of in landfills, incinerated or used to produce electricity at waste to energy plants. (Sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic)
And more specifically:
- The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’.
The essence of this video on You Tube shows a giant garbage patch that has accumulated because of the movement of the seas and stretches for millions of square miles across the Pacific Ocean. Approximately 3.5 million tons of garbage of which approx. 80% is plastic. Plastic of course, doesn’t biodegrade but gets broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. Animals eat the plastic pellets and the video questions whether it then ends up in the human food chain. The conclusion appears to be that it is extremely difficult to clean up, if at all, and that the key is changing our own behaviour and to stop producing it in the first place:
Another article in Wikipedia on the same subject:
- What happens to the humble coat hanger?
We really like this article which we found by chance on the internet. In a nutshell, it highlights most of the environmental issues concerning consumption of plastics by considering the life cycle of a humble coat hanger:
Or, bring up Green Peace website http://www.greenpeace.org/international/ for a plethora of both health and environmental issues and current campaigns related to plastics