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Other Common Plastic Types

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Acrylics - Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), Acrylonitrile Styrene (AS)/Styrene Acrylonitrile (SAN), Methacrylates

Description:   Acrylics are common strong and rigid thermoplastics with rubber-like properties in that they can undergo substantial physical stress and still return to their original shape and size without permanent defomation. Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), for example, is made by combining acrylonitrile (15-35%) and styrene (40-60%) in the presence of butadiene (5-30%) through a rubber toughening process. Because it is susceptible to breakdown by ultraviolet light, additives may be mixed with it to increase it's strength and versatility.

Properties:  hard, rigid, impact resistant, can be clear as glass, heat resistant, rubbery toughness, glossy, oil resistant, good electrical insulator, resistant to some acids, not resistant to alcohols. 

Typical Use:  Acrylics, especially ABS, are used to make a wide variety of household consumer goods, including toys (e.g., LEGO is made from ABS), dishes (SAN), small appliances, luggage, musical instruments (e.g., recorders, clarinets, piano movement parts), golf head clubs, office equipment. It is common for other mechanical applications like drain-waste-vent pipe systems, car parts (trim, bumpers), casing for computers and electronics, helmets, whitewater canoes, furniture edging, plexiglass, plane windows, outdoor signs, car taillights, aquariums, shower doors. Acrylic resins (especially methacrylates) are commonly used in the dental applications to make crowns and bridges and as a filler. 

Toxicity:  While ABS and AS/SAN are made in part from styrene, they are significantly more stable than polystyrene (they are twice the cost of polystyrene to manufacture) and thus leach much less readily. Even though styrene monomer should not be present in the final ABS or AS/SAN product, ABS and AS/SAN are made from styrene, which is highly toxic.

The methacrylates used in dental applications have been shown to be cytotoxic, or toxic to cells, and the Environmental Protection Agency considers methyl methacrylate toxic. For example, this study of three denture base resins found that all exhibited some degree of cytotoxicity. Also, this review of literature relating to the effects of acrylic denture base resins found numerous reports of mucosal irritation and sensitization of tissues due to substances leaching from the denture resins.

Recycling Rate:  Low, primarily because of the difficulty of recovery (e.g., ABS is usually attached to products as parts), because there are varying amounts of the key ingredients (causing recycling inconsistencies), and because it is considered a low value polymer (Tolinski, pp. 98-99). Nonetheless, there are companies that specialize in recovering and recycling ABS.

Alternatives:  Acrylics are best avoided for food uses as there are safer alternatives. Use stainless steel, glass and ceramic dishes instead of acrylic ones. It may be difficult to find other safe alternatives in dental applications (acrylic fillings are certainly safer than ones containing mercury) but discuss all options with your dentist. 

Our Suggestion:  NOT PROVEN UNSAFE, BUT...  try and avoid for food use, and be aware of possible irritation and toxic effects from dental applications. We prefer to avoid synthetic clothing wherever possible - this is especially important for people with chemical sensitivities. It is petroleum-based, directly against the skin, and is sometimes treated with extra chemical finishes for protection and other properties (e.g., for static-, stain-, wrinkle-resistance). Here is a brief overview of key concerns. A recent Greenpeace clothing investigation has uncovered the presence of various hazardous chemicals in children's clothing across a number of brands. 

 

Epoxies

Description:  Epoxies are a polymer group encompassing adhesives, plastics, paints, or other material made from synthetic thermosetting polymers containing epoxide groups in their chemical makeup. They are versatile and often used as adhesives, coatings, sealants and structural materials. The most common epoxies in the consumer market are made by combining epichlorohydrin and bisphenol A, both of which are seriously toxic.

Properties:  hardness and rigidity when set, strong mechanical properties, temperature and chemical resistant.

Typical Use: The applications for epoxy-based materials are side. They are commonly used as the lining of food cans. They are also used extensively for coatings, sealants, adhesives, and composite materials such as those using carbon fiber and fiberglass reinforcements, insulators. Also used in dental applications

Toxicity:  Epichlorohydrin and bisphenol A (BPA) are the primary constituents of epoxy resins and their toxicity is undisputed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers epichlorohydrin a probable human carcinogen. The toxicity of BPA as a hormone or endocrine disruptor and possible carcinogen is well documented - please see our BPA section here.

In general, the toxicity of epoxies to the skin - causing dermatitis - is well recognized. In dried form, dust from sanding, fumes and direct exposure to epoxy can cause health problems.  This information sheet from the California Department of Health provides an overview of some of the health issues related to epoxy resin systems, including eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation, skin allergies, and asthma. If using epoxies for building purposes, be sure to take safety precautions to protect skin and mucous membranes and to avoid inhalation of fumes or dust.

Recycling Rate:  Generally not recylced or recyclable, though some newer epoxy resins might be recyclable. 

Alternatives: Use eco-friendly and natural adhesives, coatings and sealants wherever possible - there are now numerous green options out there.  

Our Suggestion:  AVOID.  


Latex (Rubber)

Description:  Yes, latex is a rubber, but we include it in our plastics categories because it exhibits plastic-like properties. Latex rubber can be either natural or synthetic. Natural latex is extracted as a milky liquid from trees, with most commercial natural latex coming from the Pará rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) found primarily in Southeast Asia. 

Properties:  flexible, elastic, water resistant, heat resistant, chemical resistant.

Typical Use:  Rigid synthetic latexes, such as ABS and SAN, are used for a range of consumer products ranging from toys to piping (see Acrylic section above).  Natural and synthetic latex rubbers are used for numerous products:  baby bottle nipples, soothers, gloves, shoes, toys, tires, balls, balloons, carpeting, hot water bottles, disposable diapers, sanitary pads, rubber bands, ersers, swimming goggles, racket handles, motorcycle and bicycle handgrips, condoms, diaphragms. In the medical setting: blood pressure cuffs, stethoscopes, intravenous tubing, syringes, respirators, electrode pads, surgical masks. Also, pure natural rubber latex can be used to make high quality, non-toxic mattresses

Toxicity:  A key concern with synthetic rubber products such as baby nipples and soothers, as well as balloons and condoms, is the presence of nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens

Research on the release of nitrosamines from rubber products emerged in the 1980s and since then some countries have enacted regulations limiting the amount of nitrosamines in baby nipples and soothers (e.g., United States and European Union). Nonetheless, there is no guarantee that synthetic latex nipples or soothers will be 100% nitrosamine free. Thus, silicone or natural rubber nipples or soothers are considered a safer choice. 

Allergies to latex, in particular to the proteins found in natural rubber, are relatively common and are well understood. The symptoms can range from sneezing or a runny nose to, in rare cases, life-threatening anaphylactic shock. One common cause is rubber latex gloves (such as those used in a hospital or laboratory setting), which in a senstive person can stimulate an allergic reaction in the form of contact dermatitis.  

People who are exposed to latex products early and frequently are at greater risk of developing a latex allergy (e.g., children with spina bifida and people with urinary tract abnormalities at birth, medical workers, rubber industry workers).

Regarding rubber nipples and soothers, the Danish Natursutten brand have removed from the their rubber the protein which can provoke a latex allergy. That said, they also note on their website, "we would never recommend using a product made from natural rubber for a child with a diagnosed latex allergy."

Recycling Rate:  Unclear, but likely low. Tire recycling does occur, but precisely to what extent is not clear. The tires are shredded and made into "crumb" but about half of this ends up being burned as fuel. Tire pyrolysis, which is considered a form of tire recycling, essentially involves the burning of used tires to reclaim materials for reuse, but if it is not done correctly it can be extremely polluting. 

Alternatives: If you have a latex allergy and need to use gloves, your only option may be synthetic rubber gloves (e.g., neoprene, elastprene or nitrile). For latex rubber nipples for babies, silicone is a safer possiblity. 

Our Suggestion:  AVOID SYNTHETIC LATEX RUBBER PRODUCTS FOR FOOD AND MOUTH USE. OTHERWISE RUBBER IS RELATIVELY SAFE UNLESS YOU HAVE A LATEX ALLERGY, THEN AVOID.


Melamine resin

Description:  Melamine resin is formed through the polymerization of melamine - a nitrogen-rich, white, powdery, synthetic, toxic chemical - and formaldehyde, which is a highly toxic and volatile carcinogen. It is quite common in both household consumer and construction applications.

Properties: strong, hard, rigid, fire resistant, heat tolerant.

Typical Use: Melamine resin is used to make both dishes and utensils (e.g., Melmac). It is also used to make dry erase boards. In the construction setting it is used to make high pressure laminates used for kitchen and bathroom countertops (e.g., FormicaArborite), laminate flooring, and cabinets.   

Toxicity:  The chemical melamine has been linked to serious kidney damage. And recent studies (Zheng, April 2013; Weinhold, May 2013) have shown that certain bacteria in the human gut play a role in metabolising melamine to produce cyanuric acid, which is thought to contribute to the formation of stones in the kidney, ureter and bladder.

Much of the latest interest in and research on melamine has been in response to a 2008 problem in China in which melamine was illegally added to milk, infant formula and other foods to increase their apparent protein content. This contamination resulted in an estimated six deaths and 294,000 affected infants, with more than 50000 of them being hospitalized with urinary and renal problems linked to melamine ingestion. This comprehensive report on melamine was prepared by the World Health Organization in 2009 in response to the Chinese incident.

Melamine can leach from dishware and cutlery into food, as indicated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA, Health Canada and the World Health Organization acknowledge the potential for adverse kidney effects from melamine, but they discount the danger of melamine in tiny amounts. Nonetheless, we prefer a precautionary zero tolerance approach for a chemical as dangerous as melamine.

Recycling Rate:  Very low. Melamine is a thermoset plastic, and thus is not readily recyclable like a thermoplastic which can be repeatedly remelted without losing certain properties.

Alternatives: Use stainless steel, glass, and ceramic dishware and stainless steel or bamboo utensils. Use eco-friendly and natural constuction materials wherever possible - there are now numerous green options out there.  

Our Suggestion:  AVOID.

 

Neoprene

Description: Neoprenes or polychloroprenes are a family of synthetic rubbers produced by the polymerization of chloroprene, which is made from chlorine and butadiene, the key building block for synthetic rubbers. It resists degradation more than natural and synthetic latex rubber, and thus has more applications for extreme conditions.

Properties: chemical resistantheat resistant, water resistant, breathable, flexibilty over a wide temperature range, insulator.

Typical Use: It is used in a wide variety of applications, including clothing (sometimes combined with spandex), flyfishing waders, laptop sleeves, lunch bags, orthopedic braces (e.g., wrist, knee), masks and face protection, electrical insulation, liquid and sheet applied elastomeric membranes or flashing, automotive fan beltsA neoprene foam (foamed with nitrogen gas) is used as a buoyant insulation material for wetsuits and other aquatic applications. Its industrial uses include:  insulation, gaskets, hoses, adhesives, caulks, corrosion-resistant coatings, padding, weather stripping, flame-resistant cushioning. 

Toxicity:   Neoprene itself may cause an allergic reaction - possibly a skin inflammation like dermatitis or eczema - in certain people. This is likely caused by thioureas, which are additive chemicals used to accelerate the rubber vulcanization process when manufacturing neoprene. The most commonly used thiourea is ethylene thiourea (ETU), which has been shown to have adverse effects on the thyroid in rodent studies, and which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified as a probable human carcinogen

Recycling Rate:  Unclear, but likely very low. Neoprene can be recycled and can be mixed with other synthetic rubbers to make new products but there is no widespread recycling system in place. Not part of municipal recycling streams. The company Neocombine recycles neoprene wetsuits into bracelets and key holders

Alternatives:  For lunch bags, consider one of our cotton and wool-insulated ones or a metal lunchbox. There are lots of alternatives to neoprene clothing - wool is an excellent insulator and there are now excellent options for high performance sports gear from companies like Smartwool and Ibex. And cotton (ideally organic) always has been and still is an excellent material for sports clothing. 

Our Suggestion:  AVOID. We prefer to avoid synthetic clothing wherever possible - this is especially important for people with chemical sensitivities. It is petroleum-based, directly against the skin, and is sometimes treated with extra chemical finishes for protection and other properties (e.g., for static-, stain-, wrinkle-resistance). Here is a brief overview of key concernsA recent Greenpeace clothing investigation has uncovered the presence of various hazardous chemicals in children's clothing across a number of brands. 

 

Polyamides (Nylon, Kevlar)

Description:  The polyamide family of thermoplastic polymers are distinguished by the presence of an amide (nitrogen-based) group as part of their molecular backbone. Two of the most well known members, both creations of DuPont, are nylon and kevlar. Nylon was born of the search for an artificial silk and has come to refer to a whole subfamily of synthetic polyamides known as the aliphatic polyamides. The polyamides are widely used for numerous consumer and industrial products because of their extreme strength and durability and relatively low cost. They are often combined with glass fibre reinforcements to enhance their mechanical properties, like tension, compression, and shear.

Properties: high tensile strength, durable, resilient, elastic, luster variable (lustrous, semilustrous or dull), excellent abrasion resistance, resistant to mold/mildew, chemical resistant, melts (does not burn).  

Typical Use:  Nylon fiber: clothing, stockings, various textiles and fabrics, wedding veils, rope, instrument strings, tents. And in solid form: toothbrush and hairbrush bristles, combs, Velcro, carpets, seatbelts, tires, boat propellers, skateboard wheels, tents, various military supplies, mechanical parts (screws, gears), car parts, fuel lines, fuel tanks.  

Kevlar: heavy duty clothing (gloves, jackets, chaps, motorcycle gear, fencing equipment), shoes, bicycle tires, sports raquet strings, racing sails, body armour, drumheads, audio equipment, non-stick frying pan coating (replacement for Teflon), rope, cable, sheath coating for fiber optic cable, joints, hoses, car brakes.

Toxicity:  Polyamides in general appear to be relatively safe (we have not found scientific research regarding their toxicity), but our principle concern is with synthetic Nylon and Kevlar clothing. In particular, most synthetic clothing is treated with chemicals to impart certain characteristics. For example, formaldehyde, an immune system toxicant skin irritant and known carcinogen, is used to make wrinkle-resistant clothing. The irritation caused by wearing clothing treated with formaldehyde is well-recognized and is directly linked to contact dermatitis.

Recycling Rate:  Unclear, but likely very low. Not part of municipal recycling streams. Nylons can be reclaimed and recycled but they require extremely careful separation methods. (Tolinski, p.97)

Alternatives:  There are lots of alternatives to nylon and kevlar clothing - wool is an excellent insulator and there are now excellent options for high performance sports gear from companies like Smartwool and Ibex. And cotton (ideally organic) always has been and still is an excellent material for sports clothing.

Our Suggestion:  RELATIVELY SAFE, BUT...  We prefer to avoid synthetic clothing wherever possible - this is especially important for people with chemical sensitivities. It is petroleum-based, directly against the skin, and is sometimes treated with extra chemical finishes for protection and other properties (e.g., for static-, stain-, wrinkle-resistance). Here is a brief overview of key concernsA recent Greenpeace clothing investigation has uncovered the presence of various hazardous chemicals in children's clothing across a number of brands. 

 

Polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE, Teflon)

Description:  Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is a synthetic thermoplastic fluoropolymer most commonly known to the world as Teflon, the brand name given to it by its creator, the DuPont Corporation. It is a widespread non-stick coating used on cookware. PTFE is also used to make Gore-Tex waterproof and breathable fabric. PTFE is generally manufactured using perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) - a toxic carcinogen and persistent environmental pollutant - as a surfactant additive, and PFOA can be released from PTFE products. DuPont claims that Teflon is no longer made using PFOA, but gives no indication of what is being used in its place.

Properties:  slippery (low coefficient of friction), heat resistant, non-reactive (chemically inert), strong, self-lubricating, flexibile, insulator.

Typical Use:  Most PTFE applications are industrial, with about 50% of its production being used for aerospace and computer applications including: hookup wire, coaxial cables, cable and connector insulators, printed circuit boards, fuel and hydraulic lines. But it is best known as the non-stick cookware coating Teflon, or as the key ingredient in Gore-Tex sportswear. 

Toxicity:  The problem with PTFE is PFOA. Animal studies have indicated that PFOA is linked to cancers as well as serious adverse effects on the endocrine system, immune system, liver, and pituitary gland. National agencies such as Health Canada and Environment Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been slow to pronounce on the adverse health effects of PFOA, but an independent assessment by the Environmental Working Group of the EPA Draft Human Health Risk Assessment of PFOA shows just how clear the research is that there are serious health problems associated with PFOA. 

Pressure from the EPA and public health advocates has led to a decrease in production of PFOA in North America, but it is still produced by DuPont in China and Japan. It is an extremely persistent environmental pollutant, so wherever it is produced it is a health and environmental risk. Furthermore, research indicates that in Europe and North America we are all exposed to regular significant environmental doses of PFOA and its similarly toxic and persistent family member, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). 

While DuPont claims it no longer uses PFOA to make Teflon, we prefer to take a precautionary approach and avoid Teflon and all PTFE products altogether. As we have seen with bisphenol A (BPA), replacements recruited to perform the same functional application (e.g., bisphenol S), can be just as toxic and unsafe.

Recycling Rate:  Unclear, but likely very low. Not part of municipal recycling streams.

Alternatives:  There are now lots of non-Teflon, non-stick options for cookware. Here are a couple we offer that use ceramic as the non-stick coating. There are lots of alternatives to Gore-Tex clothing - wool is an excellent insulator and there are now excellent options for high performance sports gear from companies like Smartwool and Ibex. And cotton (ideally organic) always has been and still is an excellent material for sports clothing.

Our Suggestion:  AVOID.  We prefer to avoid synthetic clothing wherever possible - this is especially important for people with chemical sensitivities. It is petroleum-based, directly against the skin, and is sometimes treated with extra chemical finishes for protection and other properties (e.g., for static-, stain-, wrinkle-resistance). Here is a brief overview of key concerns. A recent Greenpeace clothing investigation has uncovered the presence of various hazardous chemicals in children's clothing across a number of brands. 


Polyurethanes (Spandex/Lycra)

Description:  Polyurethanes are a large family of plastics made from a combination of rigid and rubbery elements composed of an isocyanate and a polyol. They are very versatile and can be molded as a flexible or rigid foam or solid parts, spun into a fibre, or extruded into a thin film.

Properties: properties vary widely depending on the types of isocyanates, polyols and additives used (from soft & flexible to hard & rigid, foam, solid, film); most are thermosets (do not melt when heated), flammable (unless flame retardants added).

Typical Use:  Foams: mattresses, high-resilience foam seating, rigid insulation panels, spray foam insulation; microcellular foam seals and gaskets, carpet underlay.

Solids: wheels and tires, car parts, hard plastic parts for electronics, hoses, skateboard wheels.

Coatings: high performance adhesives, surface coatings, varnishes and sealants, coating for silicone breast implants.

Fibres:  synthetic fibers such as Spandex/Lycra, which are used for all kinds of stretch clothing ranging from sportswear to bras to wetsuits. Usually constitutes a small percentage of the final fabric, which is often a base of cotton or polyester. 

Toxicity:  There are serious concerns with the polyols (such as ethylene glycol) and isocyanates used to make polyurethanes, as well as various additives such as phosgene catalysts (in the making of isocyanates) and toxic and persistent flame retardants like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Flame retardants are a normal additive to polyurethane consumer products because polyurethane is highly flammable.

Isocynates are recognized as a leading cause of occupational asthma - especially for workers in the polyurethane industry - and researchers have raised concerns about possible links to asthma from skin exposure to polyurethane products. This study revealed the development of contact dermatitis from polyurethane toilet seat. The risks emanating from phosgene - a poisonous gas used as a chemical weapon in World War I - are primarily to workers in the polyurethane industry, although little research has been done to assess the extent and effects of occupational exposure to phosgene

Cases of skin irritations, rashes and contact dermatitis have been traced back to direct contact with Spandex/Lycra. Such concerns with reactions to Spandex/Lycra go back a long way, as indicated with this 1967 overview of "spandex dermatitis." 

Polyurethane spray foam insulations are often touted as a "green" insulating material. But there are very serious health and environmental concerns associated with polyurethane spray foams, as described in detail in this excellent informative five-part series on hazards associated with spray foam insulation.

Similarly, polyurethane foam mattresses are best avoided as they are made with a variety of additive chemicals, including flame retardants, which can progressively gas off or be released as the mattress is used and degrades over time (e.g., polyurethane dust particles). 

Recycling Rate:   Unclear, but likely very low. While in theory polyurethanes can be recycled, they are not included in municipal recycling streams, and one must find a facility willing to accept them.  

Alternatives:  There are lots of alternatives to Spandex/Lycra clothing - wool is an excellent insulator and there are now excellent options for high performance sports gear from companies like Smartwool and Ibex. And cotton (ideally organic) always has been and still is an excellent material for sports clothing.

Cotton and cellulose insulation are good alternatives for most applications where polyurethane spray foam insulation might be used.

There are now lots of organic natural mattress alternatives.  Our favorite choice is Obasan (we know the owner well and know that all materials and the full production process are completely safe and toxin-free).

Use eco-friendly and natural adhesives, coatings and sealants wherever possible - there are now numerous green options out there.  

Our Suggestion:  AVOID. We prefer to avoid synthetic clothing wherever possible. It is petroleum-based, directly against the skin, and is sometimes treated with extra chemical finishes for protection and other properties (e.g., for static-, stain-, wrinkle-resistance). Here is a brief overview of key concerns. A recent Greenpeace clothing investigation has uncovered the presence of various hazardous chemicals in children's clothing across a number of brands. 

 


 

Other key references for the above text:

  • Anthony L. Andrady, ed. Plastics and the Environment. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
  • Susan Freinkel. Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.
  • Rick Smith & Bruce Lourie. Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
  • E.S. Stevens. Green Plastics: An Introduction to the New Science of Biodegradeable Plastics. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Beth Terry. Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2012.
  • R. C. Thompson, C. J. Moore, F. S. vom Saal and S. H. Swan, eds. "Theme Issue: Plastics, The Environment and Human Health." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Vol. 364, No. 1526, 27 July 2009.
  • Michael Tolinski. Plastics and Sustainability: Towards a Peaceful Coexistence between Bio-based and Fossil Fuel-based Plastics. Salem, MA: Scrivener Publishing, 2012.
 

IMPORTANT NOTES: While we strive to provide as accurate and balanced information as possible on our website, Life Without Plastic cannot guarantee its accuracy or completness because there is always more research to do, and more up-to-date research studies emerging -- and this is especially the case regarding research on the health and environmental effects of plastics. As indicated in our Terms & Conditions, none of the information presented on this website is intended to be professional advice or to constitute a professional service to the individual reader. All matters regarding health require medical supervision, and the information presented on this website is not intended as a substitute for consulting with your physician.

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