Q: My wife has suggested that our family try to go
plastic-free. But the idea of that seems pretty overwhelming. What
are the effects of plastic on people and the environment? Is it
worth it to make the sacrifices we’d have to make to eliminate
plastic from our lives?
Plastic is ubiquitous. And that makes it a
huge problem for the health of both people and the planet. The main
areas of concern are the pollution that occurs during the
manufacturing process and in the form of waste when it’s discarded,
and the health effects from its use in connection with food.
The International Plastics Task Force, a global network of
activists, ecologists, non-profit organizations and waste management
experts, says that “plastic has become an environmental problem of
Plastics are essentially a byproduct of petroleum refining – and,
of course, petroleum is a non-renewable and rapidly declining
resource. The components of oil or natural gas are heated in a
“cracking” process, yielding hydrocarbon monomers that are then
chemically bonded into polymers, which are long-chain molecules.
Different combinations of monomers produce polymers with different
characteristics. Additionally, various chemicals such as
plasticizers, antioxidants, anti-static agents, colorants, flame
retardants, heat stabilizers and barrier resins are added to give
plastic products their performance properties.
Among the 47 chemical plants ranked highest in carcinogenic
emissions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 35 are
involved in plastic production.
In the late 1990s, the Oakland Recycling Association commissioned
an analysis of the toxic chemical burden of the plastics industry
using data from the EPA, especially the Toxics Release Inventory. In
the Report of the Berkeley Plastics Task Force, it said that the
plastics industry contributed 14 percent of the national total of
Significant releases of toxic chemicals included trichloroethane,
acetone, methylene chloride, methyl ethyl ketone, styrene,
toluene, benzene and 1,1,1 trichloroethane. Other major emissions
from plastic production processes include sulfur oxides, nitrous
oxides, ethylene oxide, methanol, and other volatile organic
Dioxins, which are highly toxic even at low doses, are produced
when plastics are manufactured or incinerated. While dioxin levels
in the environment have been declining for the last 30 years, they
break down so slowly that some of the dioxins from past releases
will still be in the environment for many years to come.
The Berkeley Plastics Task Force says that although the refining
process uses waste minimization methods, air emissions are still
high because of inherent difficulties in handling large flows of
Manufacturing PET resin generates more toxic emissions (nickel,
ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide, benzene) than manufacturing glass.
Producing a PET bottle generates more than 100 times the toxic
emissions to air and water than making the same size bottle out of
glass, according to the Berkeley Plastics Task Force.
PVC is another type of plastic that presents notorious
environmental problems. Its manufacture involves the use of
hazardous raw materials, including the basic building block of
plastic, vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), which is explosive, highly
toxic and carcinogenic. PVC production facilities have a long
history of generating complex and hazardous chlorinated wastes, some
of which are inevitably released into the surrounding environment.
People are exposed to these chemicals not only from the
manufacturing process, but also by using products made from plastic,
by eating food contained in plastic packaging and even by breathing
them as they off-gas in the indoor environment.
One substance of concern is Bisphenol-A (BPA), an endocrine
disruptor that has been widely used in polycarbonate products like
food containers, water bottles, baby bottles, eyeglass lenses, nail
polish, dental sealants, water pipes and the plastic lining of food
cans. (Some plastics bearing the numbers 03 and 07 - see chart above
- have been found to leach BPA.) Endocrine disruptors behave like the hormones estrogen and
androgen and could wreak havoc on the body’s endocrine system. The
National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Training reported in
its newsletter in 2000 that University of Missouri researchers found
that extremely low amounts – 100,000 times smaller than thought – of
BPA causes reproductive problems in mice.
Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Cincinnati
announced in the journal Toxicology Letters that when polycarbonate
bottles were exposed to boiling water, BPA was released 55 times
more rapidly than when exposed to cold water. That finding had huge
implications, given the widespread use of this plastic for baby
bottles, which are regularly boiled for sterilization purposes.
Researcher Dr. Scott Belcher stresses that it is still unclear what
level of BPA is harmful to humans. But he urges consumers to think
about how cumulative environmental exposures might harm their
health. And children are, of course, more at risk due to their small
In 2006, the Canadian government selected BPA as one of 200 toxic
substances deserving of thorough safety assessment; it had not
previously been studied by them in depth, having been grandfathered
when stricter regulations were passed in the 1980s. As a result, it
has just (April 2008) announced a ban on the use of BPA plastic in
baby bottles. Research is
ongoing but some U.S. retailers have stopped selling polycarbonate
bottles. (2010 update: A report issued in January, 2010 by
the U.S. FDA raised further concerns regarding exposure of
fetuses, infants, and young children and suggested that parents
Plasticizers, which are commonly added to PVC as softeners, pose
another concern. Also known as phthalates, they make plastics
flexible and durable and are used in everything from electrical
cables, hoses, gaskets and vinyl sheet flooring to toys, teething
rings and medical equipment. They have also been found in infant
shampoos, powders and such.
Although there is conflicting research, some phthalates are
endocrine disruptors. The use of some phthalates in children’s toys
is restricted in the European Union and will be in California
starting next year. The majority of Americans tested by the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention have metabolites of multiple
phthalates in their urine.
About ten years ago, scientists at the Consumers Union found that
some plastic deli wraps use a plasticizer known as DEHA, which has
been show to be an endocrine disruptor in rats, and that it could
leach from the plastic into fatty foods such as cheese and meat.
A study by Finnish researchers, which was published in the
American Journal of Public Health in 2000, showed that plastics
found in flooring and indoor wall surfaces may have adverse
respiratory effects on children. Many of these materials, which are
PVC- based, can emit plasticizers, solvents and alcohols. The study,
involving over 2,500 children, showed that the risks of respiratory
symptoms typical of asthma were associated with the presence of
plastics. The overall risks of asthma and pneumonia were also
increased in those children exposed to plastics than those
unexposed. In 2004, a joint Swedish-Danish research team found a
very strong link between allergies in children and the phthalates
DEHP and BBzP.
Plastics are very stable and therefore stay in the environment a
long time after they are discarded, especially if they are shielded
from direct sunlight by being buried in landfills. Decomposition
rates are further decreased in food containers by the antioxidants
that are often added to enhance their resistance to attack by acidic
At the same time, the low cost of plastics has enabled the
development of disposable products, which has increased the amount
of trash. Plastics account for an estimated one-quarter of all waste
in landfills. Tens of billions of pounds of plastic are used for
packaging designed to be discarded as soon as the package is opened.
Some types of plastic are accepted in municipal recycling
programs. But, as the International Plastics Task Force points out,
plastics don’t actually recycle. Instead of being reformed back into
the original products, they are reprocessed into secondary (and
usually non-recyclable) products. This is due to several factors,
including structural/ chemical sensitivity, the extremely low cost
of virgin plastics and poor product design. Extended producer
responsibility would change that, with manufacturers legally
required to ensure socially and environmentally sound product
design, which would include bio- degradability or producer take-back
While containers are usually made from a single type and color of
plastic, which makes them relatively easy to sort for “recycling,” a
consumer product like a cellular phone may have many small parts
consisting of over a dozen different types and colors of plastics.
The resources needed to separate those various components often
exceed their value on the secondary products market.
In addition, a significant amount of plastic never even ends up
in landfills or recycling programs. Plastic trash has made its way
to coastal ecosystems and the ocean, presenting a danger to marine
and bird life. Greenpeace says that about ten percent of the 100
million tonnes of plastic produced each year ends up in the sea,
notably in a floating “island” in the north Pacific that is twice
the size of Texas and swept together by ocean currents. The plastics
act as a sort of “chemical sponge,” concentrating many damaging
pollutants and transferring them up the food chain.
Biodegradable plastics made with plant-based materials have been
available for many years but have not replaced traditional mass
market plastics. Traditional plastics are not biodegradable because
their long polymer molecules are too large and too tightly bonded
together to be broken apart and assimilated by organisms that aid
decomposition. However, plastics based on plant polymers derived
from wheat or corn starch have molecules that are readily attacked
and broken down by microbes.
The biotechnology and agricultural industries have tried three
main approaches: converting plant sugars into plastic, producing
plastic inside microorganisms and growing plastic in corn and other
However, these processes have proven to be just as
energy-consuming and chemical-emitting as traditional plastic
manufacturing. Two scientists who work in industry and academia to
develop technologies for making biodegradable plastics – Tillman
Gerngross from Dartmouth College and Steven Slater with Monsanto
subsidiary Cereon Genomics – have decided that the formerly most
promising approach of growing plastic in corn plants would consume
even more fossil resources than most petrochemical manufacturing
routes. They concluded that, “The environmental benefit of growing
plastic in plants is overshadowed by unjustifiable increases in
energy consumption and gas emissions.” Both Monsanto and Cargill Dow
have been considering using biomass to solve that problem.
They might be encouraged to work harder on the problem as one way
to clean up a dirty industry with some dirty secrets if we refuse to
buy plastic products and avoid its use as a packaging material. So
we encourage you to do what you can to decrease or eliminate plastic
from your life.
Avoid The Plastic Menace
Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over
40 years of experience. She is also the author of 13 books. This article was first published in
Natural Life Magazine in 2008.
- Store foods, especially those with high fat content, in
something other than plastic, preferably glass jars or
Pyrex-like containers. Note: aluminum foil is not an
environmentally perfect option; if you must use it, wash and
reuse as many times as possible, then recycle it.
- Avoid microwaving foods in plastic and do not allow plastic
wrap to touch food when microwaving.
- When purchasing foods wrapped in plastic, trim off a thin
layer where the food comes into contact with the plastic and
store the rest of the food in a non-plastic container.
- Buy cheese and meat from a dairy and butcher and ask them
not to wrap it in plastic.
- Avoid plastic bags at stores by taking reusable cloth bags.
- Buy foods like peanut butter, as well as laundry soap,
shampoo and other products in bulk, using your own containers.
- Avoid canned and take-out food.
- Make your own yogurt at home.
- Buy eggs in paper cartons and return them for reuse or
- At coffee shops, take your own mug or, if you’re not having
it “to go,” ask for a china mug.
- Wash and reuse any plastic containers you feel you must buy.