Plastic is forever.

Before knowing anything else about plastic, the single most important thing to take in is that plastic is forever.  Plastic does not biodegrade.  Exposed to the elements, it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller plastic bits. Nearly every single item that was ever created, still exists on this planet, and will for thousands of years.  Every item that you have ever discarded, will be around long after you are gone.

Plastic is pervasive.

Wikipedia tells me that “the word is derived from the Greek πλαστικός (plastikos) meaning fit for molding, and πλαστός (plastos) meaning molded.” And sure enough, it has been molded into a million different uses.  Undeniably “useful” and convenient. Plastics are everywhere.

Plastics pollute.

Single Use plastics and disposable plastics are the main source of plastic pollution.

Part of their usefulness stems from the durability of plastics.  Herein lies the big environmental dilemma.  Plastics are extremely resistant to natural processes of degradation, persisting in our environment for hundreds or even thousands of years.  Think about that- every piece of plastic that you have consumed and discarded is still out there, and will be for possibly thousands of years!

The discarding of plastic is not the only problem, even manufacturing the stuff creates large quantities of chemical pollutants.  And sadly, according to Greenpeace, “every year, about 300 billion pounds of plastic is produced around the world.”

Marine life is affected by plastics.

Oh the ocean… With sun, wind, and currents, plastic simply breaks down into smaller bits and pieces.  Tempting food for all sorts of creatures.  Check out this baby albatross, who has been fed plastic meals until its early starvation-induced death.  And it is not just birds we are talking about.  It is everything from turtles, to whales, to fish- even jellyfish!  Most of the time, plastic ingestion results in death.

Photo credit: Chris Jordan.

Have a look at more of Chris Jordan’s images. And this is all that was inside, making up 80% of its weight (note, this is not just someone faceless person’s plastic- this is all common stuff we use everyday):

Plastic from the belly of an albatross.  Plastic made up 80% of the bird’s weight at death.

A lot of people have heard about the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch in the ocean, a vortex of a swirling plastic soup basically, the size of two times Texas (just under 2 times British Columbia).  That would be 1382060 square kilometers, and I personally can’t even grasp that concept.  However, I know that is big, and that is gross. And it is thought that there are 4 other such gyres around the globe.  My friend has been there, and he said that you could never imagine it in your wildest plastic nightmares.  Plastic milk cartons, straws, bottles, you name it.  And this stuff cannot be cleaned up.  Too much plastic is entering the oceans to ever be able to catch up, where would we put it all, and most of it is very small particles (and you would end up removing useful stuff like plankton too). Here is a water sample from the gyre:

Pacific Gyre Ocean Sample

The plastics floating out there aren’t just those dumped in the ocean.  In fact, 80% of the plastic in the oceans came from land.  About 20 million tonnes a year enters the ocean.  Think wind and water.

Plastics are poisoning our food chain.

The bits of floating plastic also act as magnets for stuff like PCBs and DDT (up to a million times background levels according to the Algalita Marine Research Foundation folks), becoming little poison pellets.  And these poison pellets are in our food chain.  Plastic bits are found in common seafood we eat, like Mahi Mahi and clams, just to name a few.

Plastic recycling is a myth.

Plastic cannot be recycled.  More accurately, plastic is merely donwcycled. This means that you can only turn one plastic item into a lower grade plastic product, and NOT in perpetuity as the classic recycling symbol suggests.  Most often, you just extend the life of the plastic product for one iteration until it gets trashed.

Nobody can say that they “recycle” plastic.  We put plastics in out in recycling containers and these taken away.. where? Nobody knows.  Most of the plastic disposables from the West Coast used to get shipped to China where they were burned for energy or melted into low-quality plastic. China has now closed its doors to our trash, leaving westerners scratching their heads about what to do with all our plastic waste.

Recycling of plastics is a myth, designed to perpetuate a business built around the generation of waste.

For what it’s worth, Greenpeace provides the following chart on plastics.  At least you can see what plastics are easier to downcycle.

Plastics affect human health.

And then, there is the health side of it all.  Plastics are toxic and can have severe impacts on your health.  Here are some things you should know (source: http://lifewithoutplastic.com/):

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE)

Used in soft drink, juice, water, beer, mouthwash, peanut butter, salad dressing, detergent and cleaner containers.

Leaches antimony trioxide and di(2ethylhexyl) pthalate (DEHP). Workers exposed to antimony trioxide for long periods of time have exhibited respiratory and skin irritation; among female workers, increased incidence of menstrual problems and miscarriage; their children exhibited slower development in the first twelve months of life. The longer a liquid is left in such a container the greater the concentration of antimony released into the liquid.  DEHP is an endocrine disruptor that mimics the female hormone estrogen. It has been strongly linked to asthma and allergies in children.  It may cause certain types of cancer, and it has been linked to negative effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, bone formation and body weight.  In Europe, DEHP has been banned since 1999 from use in plastic toys for children under the age of three.


High density polyethylene (HDPE)

Used in opaque milk, water, and juice containers, bleach, detergent and shampoo bottles, garbage bags, yogurt and margarine tubs, cereal box liners.

Considered a ‘safer’ plastic.  Our research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.

Polyvinyl chloride (V or Vinyl or PVC)

Used in toys, clear food and non-food packaging (e.g., cling wrap), some squeeze bottles, shampoo bottles, pet toys, cooking oil and peanut butter jars, detergent and window cleaner bottles, shower curtains, medical tubing, and numerous construction products (e.g., pipes, siding).

PVC has been described as one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created. Leaches di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) or butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP), depending on which is used as the plasticizer or softener (usually DEHP). DEHP and BBzP are endocrine disruptors mimicking the female hormone estrogen; have been strongly linked to asthma and allergic symptoms in children; may cause certain types of cancer; linked to negative effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, bone formation and body weight. In Europe, DEHP and BBzP and other dangerous pthalates have been banned from use in plastic toys for children under three since 1999.

Low density polyethylene (LDPE)

Used in grocery store, dry cleaning, bread and frozen food bags, most plastic wraps, squeezable bottles (honey, mustard).

Considered a ‘safer’ plastic.  Our research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.

Polypropylene (PP)

Used in ketchup bottles, yogurt and margarine tubs, medecine and syrup bottles, straws, Rubbermaid and other opaque plastic containers, including baby bottles.

Considered a ‘safer’ plastic.  Our research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.

Polystyrene (PS)

Used in Styrofoam containers, egg cartons, disposable cups and bowls, take-out food containers, plastic cutlery, compact disc cases.

Leaches styrene, which is an endocrine disruptor mimicking the female hormone estrogen, and thus has the potential to cause reproductive and developmental problems; long-term exposure by workers has shown brain and nervous system effects; adverse effects on red blood cells, liver, kidneys and stomach in animal studies. Also present in secondhand cigarette smoke, off-gassing of building materials, car exhaust and possibly drinking water. Styrene migrates significantly from polystyrene containers into the container’s contents when oily foods are heated in such containers.

Other

This is a catch-all category that includes anything that does not come within the other six categories.  As such, one must be careful in interpreting this category because it includes polycarbonate – a dangerous plastic – but it also includes the new, safer, biodegradable bio-based plastics made from renewable resources such as corn and potato starch, and sugar cane.  Polycarbonate is used in many plastic baby bottles, clear plastic “sippy” cups, sports water bottles, three and five gallon large water storage containers, metal food can liners, some juice and ketchup containers, compact discs, cell phones, computers.

Polycarbonate leaches Bisphenol A (some effects described above), and numerous studies have indicated a wide array of possible adverse effects from low-level exposure to Bisphenol A:  chromosome damage in female ovaries, decreased sperm production in males, early onset of puberty, various behavioural changes, altered immune function, and sex reversal in frogs.

Important Note: Two other types of plastic that fall under code 7 are acrylonitrile styrene (AS) or styrene acrylonitrile (SAN), and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). Both AS/SAN and ABS are higher quality plastics with increased strength, rigidity, toughness and temperature and chemical resistance.   AS/SAN is used in mixing bowls, thermos casing, dishes, cutlery, coffee filters, toothbrushes, outer covers (printers, calculators, lamps), battery housing.  The incorporation of butadiene during the manufacture of AS/SAN, produces ABS, which is an even tougher plastic. ABS is used in LEGO toys, pipes, golf club heads, automotive parts, protective head gear. Our research on risks associated with AS/SAN and ABS is ongoing.

The plastics industry doesn’t want you to stop!  So every time there is a scare, they come up with “safer” plastics.  Think BPA free sippy cups, which have been shown to still leach estrogen-mimicking substances.  Best to avoid them altogether.

If nothing else, for the love of your baby, avoid plastics when you are pregnant and breastfeeding.  Recent studies have shown that babies are born pre-polluted with plastic chemicals in their bloodstream.  Meaning the plastics mom consumed end up in the baby.  These chemicals have serious consequences for development (especially their brains) and later in life.

Bioplastics are not the solution.

What about bioplastics?  Bioplastics are just plastics made with plants. Bioplastics may or may not be biodegradable, may or may not be toxic, just like any other plastic.  Bioplastics raise lots of questions. As of today, the term Bioplastics lends itself to greenwashing.

The term biodegradable needs to be defined (plutonium is also biodegradable… just give it 300,000 years…). Some “biodegradable” plastics take years to disappear, some require heat in commercial composting facilities, and some do not biodegrade at all if they end up in landfills or the marine environment.  Biodegradable plastic may leave toxic contaminants in the soil and water.  All biodegradable plastics require use water, land, energy, crops (largely GMO). Lots of questions need to be asked. The most important question is do we really need disposable plastics?

Biodegradable plastics cannot become an excuse to perpetuate our throwaway habits.

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Maybe you don’t think any of this applies to you.  But, if you consume plastic products, you are consenting to these problems.  Your money allows them to continue. Not only that, large amounts of plastics escape the manufacturing process; so when your Tupperware was made- e.g. could be that thousands of nurdles (pre-production plastic pellets) floating out in the ocean have your name on them.

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Learning all this stuff makes me ill.  Plastic lining in canned food that disrupts reproductive and immune function, toxic-fume emitting shower curtains, and toys that cause cancer and asthma!  But I am heartened by the way that Life Without Plastics closes their depressing notes: “These days, plastic is so omnipresent it can be difficult to imagine life without plastic.  Yet, our ancestors managed just fine without it.  All it takes is a little imagination, determination and discipline.”

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For a quick review of the key messages, please visit the Plastic Pollution Coalition website.  Spread the word!! Also, check out Your Challenge to REFUSE, REFUSE, AND REFUSE.  Let’s end this plastic nonsense.