The problem with plastics

When people ask me where to start going green, one of the first things I always suggest is to reduce the use of plastics, particularly disposable plastics.  I say this because it is one way to go green that is easy to do, healthier for you, better for the planet, and puts money in your wallet. It’s a win-win for everyone.


Photo by: teddave

But first, what’s the problem with plastics?

The toxicity of plastics is not fully understood or adequately tested. Most plastics contain chemical additives to make the plastic more pliable, or UV resistant, etc. Some of these ingredients or additives are not thoroughly tested, and other we know are harmful, like bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates (a chemical used as a plastics softener). These chemicals are both shown to be potent hormone disruptors and are increasingly linked to adverse health effects like cancer, infertility, early puberty, obesity, behavior changes, and reproductive system damages. For more information, see this post, “What plastics do to your body”. 

BPA is a chemical used to make polycarbonate plastic or items marked with the number 7 on the bottom. BPA also is used to line the inside of metal food and soda cans and can leach from the can liner into the food. Phthalates are found in number 3 plastic, made with polyvinyl chloride or PVC and marked with the number 3. In addition to the health concerns with PVC-plastic, the production of and burning of PVC plastic releases dioxin, a known carcinogen, into the atmosphere. Basically, it’s bad for us, and bad for the environment.

We also know that plastics chemicals leach into the food and water they contain. So that means, BPA, phthalates and a host of other chemicals found in plastics end up in our food and water, and eventually, our bodies. While the amount may be small, it is still of concern. In fact, plastics are considered safe not because they have been proven to be safe, only because they have not been proven to be unsafe. As EWG senior scientist Dr. Anila Jacob says, "There is very little published research on the potential adverse health effects of chemicals that leach from plastic food containers, so it's difficult to say they're safe with any degree of certainty, especially with long-term use."

The second problem with plastics is that they are an environmental nightmare. First, they are a non-renewable, fossil fuel based substance. Plastics are made from petroleum so they never ever biodegrade. In fact, every piece of plastic ever produced is still in existence in some form today. Over time (a long period of time) plastics actually photodegrade into smaller and smaller toxic pieces but never disappear. Many of these tiny pieces end up in our oceans and waterways and are eaten by marine life.

There is so much plastic in the ocean, that we have inadvertently created something called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is roughly the size of Texas, containing approximately 3.5 million tons of trash, primarily plastic.  In this accidental dump floating midway between Hawaii and San Francisco, plastic to sea life ratios are 6:. Birds and mammals are dying of starvation and dehydration with bellies full of plastics. Fish are ingesting toxins at such a rate that soon they will no longer be safe to eat.

“But I recycle my plastic” people argue. The fact is, most people don’t. Only 3% of the 380 billion (that’s right, billion) plastic bags used in the U.S. each year get recycled. Even if you are one of the few who does recycle your plastic waste correctly, recycling plastic is an inefficient system. It’s actually referred to as “downcycling”. Unlike aluminum or glass, plastic degrades so not only can it never be made into the same form of plastic (like a plastic water bottle into another plastic water bottle), but we also need to introduce new virgin plastic during the recycling process. So while recycling plastic is certainly better than throwing it away, it’s not the silver bullet to solve our plastics problem.

Now that you know the problem with plastics, my next post will discuss how to choose safer plastics and handle them more carefully. Next up, how to reduce your use of plastics overall and how that benefits your health and actually saves you money.

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