The Plastic Problem
Plastic is all around us. It forms much of the packaging for our food and drink. For many of us, it is throughout our home, our workplace, our car, the bus we take to and from work. It can be in our clothing, eyeglasses, teeth, toothbrush, computers, phones, dishes, utensils, toys. The list goes on, especially when you look around and begin to notice the plastic in your life.
Plastic is versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, durable, strong and relatively inexpensive. It can be chemical resistant, clear or opaque, and practically unbreakable. These are wonderful useful qualities, and plastic plays many important roles in life on Earth, but the widespread use of plastic is also causing unprecedented environmental problems, and harbours serious health risks – especially for children. Plastic should be used wisely, with caution and only when suitable alternatives do not exist or are not available.
What is Plastic and Where did it Come From?
The term "plastic" derives from the Greek "plastikos," meaning fit for molding, and "plastos," meaning molded. In line with this root etymology, and in the broadest sense, a plastic is a material that at some stage in its manufacture is able to be shaped by flow such that it can be extruded, molded, cast, spun, or applied as a coating.
Plastics are polymers (meaning "many parts" in Greek), which are basically substances or molecules made up of many repeating molecular units, known as monomers (meaning "one part" in Greek). Monomers of hydrogen and carbon - hydrocarbons - are linked together in long chains to form plastic polymers. The raw hydrocarbon material for most synthetic plastics is derived from petroleum, natural gas or coal.
The length and structural arrangement of the polymer chains in part determines the properties of the plastic. Densely packed polymers can create a rigid plastic, whereas loosely spaced ones can lead to a softer more pliable plastic. However, the polymers alone rarely have the physical qualities to be of practical value, so most plastics contain various chemical additives to facilitate the manufacturing process or produce a particular desirable property, such as flexibility or toughness. As we discuss below, these chemical additives can be very problematic from a health perspective.
The first documented plastic was created in 1855 by the British inventor and metallurgist Alexander Parkes who used natural cellulose in combination with nitric acid and chemical solvents to create a plastic he patented as "Parkesine." The first totally human-made, completely synthetic plastic came about in 1907 when Belgian-born, New York-based Leo Baekeland used hydrocarbon chemicals he derived from coal to create Bakelite, which came to be used in radio and television casings, kitchenware and even toys.
And thus emerged the plastic era, especially taking off following World War II when all kinds of day to day household items began to be made of plastics.
Environmentally, plastic is a growing disaster. Most plastics are made from petroleum or natural gas, non-renewable resources extracted and processed using energy-intensive techniques that destroy fragile ecosystems.
The manufacture of plastic, as well as its destruction by incineration, pollutes air, land and water and exposes workers to toxic chemicals, including carcinogens.
Plastic packaging – especially the ubiquitous plastic bag – is a significant source of landfill waste and is regularly eaten by numerous marine and land animals, to fatal consequences. Synthetic plastic does not biodegrade. It just sits and accumulates in landfills or pollutes the environment. Plastics have become a municipal waste nightmare, prompting local governments all over the world to implement plastic bag, and increasingly polystyrene (styrofoam), bans.
Plastic pollution may not even be visible to the naked eye as research is showing that microscopic plastic particles are present in the air at various locations throughout the world and in all major oceans. Plastic is now ubiquitous in our terrestrial, aquatic and airborne environments - that is, it's everywhere.
For more information and references on the environmental issues related to plastics, see the Plastic Types, Plastics & the Environment, and Resources sections in our INFO menu.
In terms of health risks, the evidence is growing that chemicals leached from plastics used in cooking and food/drink storage are harmful to human health. Some of the most disturbing of these are hormone-mimicking, endocrine disruptors, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates.
The plastic polycarbonate - used for water bottles and various other items requiring a hard, clear plastic - is composed primarily of BPA. Peer-reviewed scientific studies have linked BPA to health problems that include chromosomal and reproductive system abnormalities, impaired brain and neurological functions, cancer, cardiovascular system damage, adult-onset diabetes, early puberty, obesity and resistance to chemotherapy. Exposure to BPA at a young age can cause genetic damage, and BPA has been linked to recurrent miscarriage in women.
The health risks of plastic are significantly amplified in children, whose immune and organ systems are developing and are more vulnerable. The evidence of health risks from certain plastics is increasingly appearing in established, peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Of the thousands of chemical additives added to plastics - and which manufacturers are not required to disclose - one type commonly added to plastics are "plasticizers," which are softening agents making it easier for the polymer chains to move and be flexible.
For example, the commonly used and extremely toxic plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can contain up to 55% plasticizing additives by weight. These are generally phthalate chemicals. Phthalates are known to disrupt the endocrine system as well, and have been linked to numerous health conditions including cancers. Certain phthalates have been banned in Europe and the U.S. for use in certain products, such as toys.
For details and references on numerous types of plastics, please see the Plastic Types section.
For more information and references on the health issues related to plastics, see our Plastic Types, Plastics & Health, and Resources sections in our INFO menu.
Alternatives to Plastic do Exist -- so does Empowered Action!
What you have just read may have depressed you to no end. No, no, no. Don't despair! Feel empowered and educated. And don't just take our word on the plastic problem; follow some of the links in our Resources section and do more of your own research on the issues. It is time for all of us to take action and do our part to decrease our use of plastics and help solve the problems of plastic pollution.
There is a huge and growing community of like-minded folks out there all over the world who are working with you to decrease plastic use and pollution and create tangible change at all levels - personal, local, regional, national, global...
Please take a look at our Action section for ways that you can make a difference through individual actions in your own life and by supporting organizations working for change.
And there are many alternatives to plastics now available. Our Plastic Alternatives section highlights and provides information on numerous alternatives ranging from glass, wood and stainless steel to wool, hemp and cotton.
A key aspect of our Vision and Quest is to help people find safe, high quality, ethically sourced, Earth-friendly alternatives to plastic products. That is why our Store exists, so please feel free to browse the Store at your leisure. And if you can't find what you are looking for, please let us know. We are always adding new alternatives to plastics to our product line.
Thank you for visiting, and all the best on your plastic-free journey!
Key references for the above text:
- Anthony L. Andrady, ed. Plastics and the Environment. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
- E.S. Stevens. Green Plastics: An Introduction to the New Science of Biodegradeable Plastics. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.
- Richard C. Thompson, Shanna H. Swan, Charles J. Moore, Frederick S. vom Saal. "Our Plastic Age." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Vol. 364, No. 1526, 27 July 2009, pp. 1973-1976.
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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