What is Plastic? NOTE: The following information came from the World Book, which accepted contributions from the Polymer Processing Institute at Steven Institute of Technology. The information amounts to more of a large commercial for plastics than a balanced report. It made no mention of the harmful health effects of plastics use, manufacturing, plastics incineration (See Waste&Toxics-Plastics & Incineration). Plastics are made from synthetic resins, which come primarily
from petroleum. Resin manufacturers make polymers in plastic by
combining chemical compounds, including ammonia and benzene. The
polymers are made up of small molecules call monomers, which can
be composed of chlorine, fluorine, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen,
oxygen, or sulfur atoms. Most plastics do not readily break down. Scientists designed
biodegradable and photodegradable plastics to decompose more
quickly, but even these leave behind a plastic residue. The
additives used to enable plastics to degrade also make the
plastics unfit for recycling. Source: World Book, contributed by The Polymer Institute at
Steven Institute of Technology.
Photo: CHEMICAL LEACHING: When exposed to hot water, plastic bottles--including baby bottles--leach a chemical that is known to mimic estrogens in the body. COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CINCINNATI
More from this In-Depth Report
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a ubiquitous compound in plastics. First synthesized in 1891, the chemical has become a key building block of plastics from polycarbonate to polyester; in the U.S. alone more than 2.3 billion pounds (1.04 million metric tons) of the stuff is manufactured annually.
Since at least 1936 it has been known that BPA mimics estrogens, binding to the same receptors throughout the human body as natural female hormones. And tests have shown that the chemical can promote human breast cancer cell growth as well as decrease sperm count in rats, among other effects. These findings have raised questions about the potential health risks of BPA, especially in the wake of hosts of studies showing that it leaches from plastics and resins when they are exposed to hard use or high temperatures (as in microwaves or dishwashers).
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found traces of BPA in nearly all of the urine samples it collected in 2004 as part of an effort to gauge the prevalence of various chemicals in the human body. It appeared at levels ranging from 33 to 80 nanograms (a nanogram is one billionth of a gram) per kilogram of body weight in any given day, levels 1,000 times lower than the 50 micrograms (one millionth of a gram) per kilogram of bodyweight per day considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Union's (E.U.) European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Studies suggest that BPA does not linger in the body for more than a few days because, once ingested, it is broken down into glucuronide, a waste product that is easily excreted. Yet, the CDC found glucuronide in most urine samples, suggesting constant exposure to it. "There is low-level exposure but regular low-level exposure," says chemist Steven Hentges, executive director of the polycarbonate / BPA global group of the American Chemistry Council. "It presumably is in our diet."
BPA is routinely used to line cans to prevent corrosion and food contamination; it also makes plastic cups and baby and other bottles transparent and shatterproof. When the polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins made from the chemical are exposed to hot liquids, BPA leaches out 55 times faster than it does under normal conditions, according to a new study by Scott Belcher, an endocrine biologist at the University of Cincinnati. "When we added boiling water [to bottles made from polycarbonate] and allowed it to cool, the rate [of leakage] was greatly increased," he says, to a level as high as 32 nanograms per hour.
A recent report in the journal Reproductive Toxicology found that humans must be exposed to levels of BPA at least 10 times what the EPA has deemed safe because of the amount of the chemical detected in tissue and blood samples. "If, as some evidence indicates, humans metabolize BPA more rapidly than rodents," wrote study author Laura Vandenberg, a developmental biologist at Tufts University in Boston, "then human daily exposure would have to be even higher to be sufficient to produce the levels observed in human serum."
The CDC data shows that 93 percent of 2,157 people between the ages of six and 85 tested had detectable levels of BPA's by-product in their urine. "Children had higher levels than adolescents and adolescents had higher levels than adults," says endocrinologist Retha Newbold of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, who found that BPA impairs fertility in female mice. "In animals, BPA can cause permanent effects after very short periods of exposure. It doesn't have to remain in the body to have an effect."
But experts are split on the potential health hazards to humans. The Food and Drug Administration has approved its use and the EPA does not consider it cause for concern. One U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) panel agreed, but another team of government scientists last year found that the amount of BPA present in humans exceeds levels that have caused ill effects in animals. They also found that adults' ability to tolerate it does not preclude damaging effects in infants and children.
"It is the unborn baby and children that investigators are most worried about," Newbold says, noting that BPA was linked to increased breast and prostate cancer occurrences, altered menstrual cycles and diabetes in lab mice that were still developing.
Fred vom Saal, a reproductive biologist at the University of Missouri–Columbia, warns that babies likely face the "highest exposure" in human populations, because both baby bottles and infant formula cans likely leach BPA. "In animal studies, the levels that cause harm happen at 10 times below what is common in the U.S." says vom Saal, who also headed the NIH panel that concluded the chemical may pose risks to humans.
Amid growing concern, Rep. John Dingell (D–Mich.) chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has launched an investigation into BPA, sending letters last month to the FDA and seven manufacturers of infant products sold in the U.S. requesting information on any BPA safety tests as well as specific levels in the baby goods. The companies that make Similac, Earth's Best and Good Start have already responded, confirming that they coat the inside of their cans with BPA but that analyses did not detect it in the contents. They also emphasize that FDA has approved BPA for such use.
"Based on the studies reviewed by FDA, adverse effects occur in animals only at levels of BPA that are far higher orders of magnitude than those to which infants or adults are exposed," says FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek. "Therefore, FDA sees no reason to ban or otherwise restrict the uses now authorized at this time."
FDA first approved BPA as a food container in 1963 because no ill effects from its use had been shown. When Congress passed a law—the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976—mandating that the EPA conduct or review safety studies on new chemicals before giving them the nod, compounds like BPA were already on the market. Therefore, they were not subject to the new rules nor required to undergo additional testing unless specific concerns had been raised (such as in the case of PCBs). "The science that exists today supports the safety of BPA," ACC's Hentges says, based largely on research his organization has funded.
But other studies since 1976 have shown that small doses (less than one part per billion) of estrogenlike chemicals, such as BPA, may be damaging. "In fetal mouse prostate you can stimulate receptors with estradiol at about two tenths of a part per trillion, and with BPA at a thousand times higher," vom Saal says. "That's still 10 times lower than what a six-year-old has." In other words, children six years of age were found to have higher levels of BPA's by-product glucuronide in their urine than did mice dosed with the chemical that later developed cancer and other health issues.
Further complicating the issue is the stew of other estrogen-mimicking chemicals to which humans are routinely exposed, from soy to antibacterial ingredients in some soaps. The effects of such chemical mixtures are not known but scientists say they may serve to enhance the ill effects of one another. "The assumption that natural estrogens are somehow immediately good for you and these chemicals are immediately bad," Belcher says, "is probably not a reasonable assumption to make."
The chemical industry argues that unless BPA is proved to have ill effects it should continue to be manufactured and used, because it is cheap, lightweight, shatterproof and offers other features that are hard to match. "There is no alternative for either of those materials [polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins] that would simply drop in where those materials are used," Hentges says.
Not so, says vom Saal, who notes that there are plenty of other materials, such as polyethylene and polypropylene plastics, that would be fine substitutes in at least some applications. "There are a whole variety of different kinds of plastic materials and glass," he says. "They are all more stable than polycarbonate."
Concern over BPA is not confined only to the U.S. Japanese manufacturers began to use natural resin instead of BPA to line cans in 1997 after Japanese scientists showed that it was leaching out of baby bottles. A subsequent study there that measured levels in urine in 1999 found that they had dropped significantly.
A new E.U. law (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical Substances, or REACH), which took effect last year, requires that chemicals, such as BPA, be proved safe. Currently, though, it continues to be used in Europe; the EFSA last year found no reason for alarm based on rodent studies. European scientists cited multigenerational rat studies as reassuring and noted that mouse studies may be flawed because the tiny rodent is more susceptible to estrogens.
For now, U.S. scientists with concerns about BPA recommend that anyone sharing those worries avoid using products made from it: Polycarbonate plastic is clear or colored and typically marked with a number 7 on the bottom, and canned foods such as soups can be purchased in cardboard cartons instead.
If canned goods or clear plastic bottles are a must, such containers should never be microwaved, used to store heated liquids or foods, or washed in hot water (either by hand or in much hotter dishwashers). "These are fantastic products and they work well … [but] based on my knowledge of the scientific data, there is reason for caution," Belcher says. "I have made a decision for myself not to use them."
ScienceDaily (Feb. 4, 2008) — When it comes to Bisphenol A (BPA) exposure from polycarbonate plastic bottles, it's not whether the container is new or old but the liquid's temperature that has the most impact on how much BPA is released, according to University of Cincinnati (UC) scientists.
Scott Belcher, PhD, and his team found when the same new and used polycarbonate drinking bottles were exposed to boiling hot water, BPA, an environmental estrogen, was released 55 times more rapidly than before exposure to hot water.
"Previous studies have shown that if you repeatedly scrub, dish-wash and boil polycarbonate baby bottles, they release BPA. That tells us that BPA can migrate from various polycarbonate plastics," explains Belcher, UC associate professor of pharmacology and cell biophysics and corresponding study author. "But we wanted to know if 'normal' use caused increased release from something that we all use, and to identify what was the most important factor that impacts release."
"Inspired by questions from the climbing community, we went directly to tests based on how consumers use these plastic water bottles and showed that the only big difference in exposure levels revolved around liquid temperature: Bottles used for up to nine years released the same amount of BPA as new bottles."
BPA is one of many man-made chemicals classified as endocrine disruptors, which alter the function of the endocrine system by mimicking the role of the body's natural hormones. Hormones are secreted through endocrine glands and serve different functions throughout the body.
The chemical--which is widely used in products such as reusable water bottles, food can linings, water pipes and dental sealants--has been shown to affect reproduction and brain development in animal studies.
"There is a large body of scientific evidence demonstrating the harmful effects of very small amounts of BPA in laboratory and animal studies, but little clinical evidence related to humans," explains Belcher. "There is a very strong suspicion in the scientific community, however, that this chemical has harmful effects on humans."
Belcher's team analyzed used polycarbonate water bottles from a local climbing gym and purchased new bottles of the same brand from an outdoor retail supplier.
All bottles were subjected to seven days of testing designed to simulate normal usage during backpacking, mountaineering and other outdoor adventure activities.
The UC researchers found that the amount of BPA released from new and used polycarbonate drinking bottles was the same -- both in quantity and speed of release -- into cool or temperate water.
However, drastically higher levels of BPA were released once the bottles were briefly exposed to boiling water.
"Compared to the rate of release from the same bottle, the speed of release was 15 to 55 times faster," explains Belcher.
Prior to boiling water exposure, the rate of release from individual bottles ranged from 0.2 to 0.8 nanograms per hour. After exposure, rates increased to 8 to 32 nanograms per hour.
Belcher stresses that it is still unclear what level of BPA is harmful to humans. He urges consumers to think about how cumulative environmental exposures might harm their health.
"BPA is just one of many estrogen-like chemicals people are exposed to, and scientists are still trying to figure out how these endocrine disruptors--including natural phyto-estrogens from soy which are often considered healthy--collectively impact human health," he says. "But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests it might be at the cost of your health."
The UC team reports its findings in the Jan. 30, 2008 issue of the journal Toxicology Letters. UC graduate student Hoa Le and summer undergraduate research fellows Emily Carlson and Jason Chua also participated in this study, which was funded by a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences grant.
USA Today April 14, 2005 : Are You Drinking Water from a Plastic Bottle? Do You Know the Risks?
Are You Drinking Water from a Plastic Bottle? Do You Know the Risks?
Ronald Grisanti D.C., D.A.B.C.O., M.S.
A wealth of medical research has revealed that a chemical used to make hard, clear plastics called bisphenol A (BPA), such as those found in baby bottles, food-storage containers and the lining of soda cans, has reached epidemic proportions in America. Each year, over 6 billion tons of BPA are used to make plastics. The problem occurs when the plastic is heated causing the chemical bonds that BPA forms to unravel contaminating the water or food it is held in. In addition, washing or exposing plastic to acidic foods can cause the BPA to leach out into the food... Plastic Industry in State of Denial And while the plastic industry fails to see the need for alarm regarding the health impact of this chemical, researcher with no ties to the industry beg to differ. Research Findings: Scientist studying BPA have found that BPA imitates the sex hormone estradiol (estrogen). It is well accepted that even small amounts of estrogen can induce profound changes in the body. This has raised a red flag and caused concern among the scientific community that even the lowest levels of BPA could have a negative impact on oneĀ’s health. There is growing evidence (among mice and rats) that low doses of BPA can cause:
v Early puberty
v Increased fat formation
v Abnormal sexual behavior
v Disrupted reproductive cycles
v Structural damage to the brain
Who is telling the Truth? You Be the Judge. Of the 115 published studies researchers reviewed on the low-dose effects of BPA, 94 of them reported harmful effects on mice and rats; 21 did not. Coincidentally, none of the 11 studies funded by chemical companies found harmful effects caused by BPA, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported is detected in 95 percent of all patients tested. On the other hand, more than 90 percent of the studies conducted by scientists not associated with the chemical industry [text in blue] discovered negative consequences.
Don't buy plastics!
Ellen & Paul Connett / Waste Not #362 Summer 1996
The Reporter for Rational Resource Management
At every step in the production of plastics, hazardous substances are used and hazardous wastes are produced. When plastics are disposed of in incinerators, more hazardous wastes are produced. If we are truly concerned about limiting our exposure to hazardous and toxic wastes, then we must take on the plastics industry. For the plastics industry is a major, if not the largest, source of the hazardous wastes entering our environment. The promise of recycling plastics keeps this hazardous waste industry alive. PVC can't be recycled economically. Many other plastics can't be recycled., and even when they can, the one sure product being recycled is hazardous waste. It has been difficult to confront the plastics issue because of several factors, some of which are listed below.
(1) Citizens have worked hard to bring the message home on the necessity to recycle materials. It has been an extraordinarily successful campaign. Millions of Americans have responded, in an overwhelmingly positive way.
(2) In our effort to bring the message home, the plastic industry waylaid concerns when they said they would and could recycle plastics. At that time, the fundamental question of what we were recycling was put on hold.
(3) Greenpeace has persisted in educating us on the dangers of one plastic: PVC. They've done a great job, produced great reports, and it is generally accepted in environmental circles that we must do whatever we can to stop PVC production.
(4) Since the successful battles against McDonald's use of Styrofoam, what major environmental group is campaigning against any other plastic?
(5) Millions of tons of plastics are being dumped in third-world countries while the plastic industry is pumping millions of dollars into `let's feel good about plastics' ads.
(6) The issue of endocrine disruptors hit us all in the ecological solar plexis. We learned that many substances, that are known endocrine disrupters, are used as additions to plastics and that they leach out from them. In fact, just one of these substances, Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate “is principally used [95%] as a plasticizer in the production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and vinyl chloride resins.” (Ref: Toxicological Profile for Di (2-Etheylhexyl) Phthalate, April 1993, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.]
(7) Plastics are used for practically everything - packaging for food; furniture; construction; medical supplies; toys, etc. They have replaced many safer materials. In fact, we are losing, at an exponential rate, our ability to manufacture safe materials
(8) If, in the saving of life, plastics must be used, so be it. We will not argue against really critical use; but wherever possible we must campaign for alternative materials that produce less hazardous wastes and are genuinely conservative of finite resources.
(9) Those who work in the production of the chemicals necessary to produce plastics have been the hardest hit. They are exposed, almost unconscionably, to toxic and hazardous chemicals. Many have had their health impaired; many suffer illness and cancer; too many have died. Similarly, people who live in the communities where these chemicals and plastics are produced; who live near the incinerators and cement kilns where they are burned; who live next to hazardous waste landfills; and the firefighters who brave toxic fires, are also put at grave risk for cancers, illness and death. Shouldn't we be asking: “Are plastic food wraps, plastic packaging, plastic furniture, plastic construction materials, and plastic toys worth the cancers, illness and deaths their production, manufacture and disposal cause?”
“Pesticides and plastics have common ingredients and common hazardous waste by-products. The famous Love Canal and Hyde Park toxic dumps (both near Niagara Falls, New York) from Hooker Chemical and Plastics Company came from one-site manufacturing of several chlorinated products. Among these products are DDT (pesticide), Mirex (pesticide), lindane (pesticide), PVC (plastic), and PCBs (plasticizer, fire-retardant, and insulator). These products were made at the one manufacturing site because of many common feedstocks that are necessary for all these products. (Feedstocks are the chemicals needed for the manufacture of these products.)...Most people don't even know that there is a close relationship between plastics and pesticides, or that they are often manufactured on the same site with the same feedstocks.” In the Mouth of the Dragon: Toxic fires in the age of plastics, by Deborah Wallace, 1990, Avery Publishing Group, ISBN 0-89529-440-0.
“In an EPA ranking of the 20 chemicals whose production generates the most total hazardous waste, five of the top six are chemicals commonly used by the plastics industry...These include propylene (ranked first), phenol (third), ethylene (fourth) polystyrene (fifth) benzene (sixth).” Ref: Wrapped in Plastics: the environmental case for reducing plastics packaging, by Jeanne Wirka for the Environmental Action Foundation, 1988.
The following excerpts are from Wrapped in Plastics:
Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE): Principle raw materials: ethylene gas (monomer). Sometimes copolymerized with butene, hexane, octene, or vinyl acetate. Toxic chemicals used in production: benzene, chromium oxide, cumene hydroperoxide, tert-butyl hydroperoxide.
High Density Polyethylene (HDPE): Principle raw materials: ethylene gas (monomer). Also frequently copolymerized with other olefins such as 1-butene, 1-hexane, or propylene. Toxic chemicals used in production: chromium oxide, benzoyl peroxide, hexane, cyclohexane.
Polypropylene (PP): Principal raw materials: propylene (monomer). Toxic chemicals used in production: methanol, 2,6-di-tert-butyl-4-methyl phenol, nickel dibutyl dithiocarbamate.
Polystyrene (PS): Principal raw materials: Styrene (monomer). Most styrene is produced from ethylbenzene, which is itself made from benzene and ethylene. Toxic chemicals used in production: Styrene, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, polyvinyl alcohol, antimony oxide, tert-butyl hydroperoxide, bensoquinone.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): Principal raw materials: terephthalic acid and/or dimethyl terephthalate and ethylene glycol. Toxic chemicals used in production: antimony oxide, diaszomethane, lead oxide.
Acrylonnitrile: Used as a key ingredient in the production of many synthetic fibers. It is also used as a monomer for two styrene resins (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, or ABS, and styrene-acrylonitrile, or SAN). Frequently copolymerized with polyvinyl chloride. Acrylonitrile has been shown to cause cancer and birth defects in laboratory animals and has been linked to an increase in cancer among exposed workers. Antimony Oxide: A crystaline substance used as a catalyst in the polmerization of PET, as a flame retardant in polystyrene, and as a pigment (white). A suspected carcinogen. May cause birth defects.
Benzene: used as a solvent in the production of PVC and LDPE and as a raw material for styrene, the chemical (monomer) used to make polystyrene. A recognized human carcinogen that causes leukemia. Acute exposure to benzene in the workplace depresses the central nervous system, causing headaches, fatigue, insomnia, nervousness, nausea and loss of muscular coordination. p-Benzoquinone: used as a retardant in the polymerization of polystyrene. Extremely toxic on ingestion. A suspected tumoragen and mutagen. t-Butyl Hydroperoxide: used as a radical initiator in the polymerization of polystyrene and linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE). Although the toxic hazard to humans is not know, has produced severe depression, incoordination, cyanosis, and respiratory arrest in laboratory animals. Carbon Tetrachloride: used in the polymerization of PVC and polystyrene and as a solvent for other resins. Causes cancer in laboratory animals. Suspected human carcinogen. Workers subject to prolonged or repeated exposure can develop severe liver and kidney failure. Chromium (VI) Oxide: uses as a catalyst in the polymerization of HDPE and LDPE. Has produced both cancer and mutagenic and teratogenic effects in laboratory animals. Chronic exposures in the workplace have led to severe liver and nervous system damage. Cumene Hydroperoxide: used as a radical initiator in the polymerization of LDPE. Acutely toxic by ingestion, inhalation, and skin absorbtion. A suspected mutagen and terotogen. Diazomethane: used in the polymerization of PET. A known animal carcinogen. 1,2-Dichloroethane: used as a solvent in the production of PVC. Extremely toxic by ingestion or inhalation. A suspected human carcinogen and mutagen. Dimethylphthalate: used as a plasticizer in PVC. Listed as a hazardous waste
Di-N-Butyl Phthalate: used as a plasticizer in PVC. Listed as a hazardous waste. Di-N-Octyl Phthalate: Used as a plasticizer in PVC. Listed as a hazardous waste. Ethylene Oxide: used in the manufacture of ethylene glycol (a raw material for PET) and acrylonitrile. Has caused cancer, changes in genetic material, and reproductive problems in laboratory animals.
Lead Chromate: used as a pigment in PET, LDPE, HDPE, PP, PS, PVC, and other plastics. Very toxic and accumulates in the body over time producing anemia, headaches, sterility, miscarriages, kidney and brain damage. Lead Oxide: used as a catalyst in the polymerization of PET and as a colorant. See above for symptoms of Lead Chromate. Methyl Acrylate: used in the preparation of thermoplastic coatings and as a copolymer for PVC. High levels of inhalation may cause lethargy, convulsions, and death from lung damage. Methanol: used as a solvent in the polymerization of PVC and other resins. Also known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol. Swallowing methanol, or breathing high concentrations can cause headaches, weakness, drowsiness, lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, drunkenness, eye irritation, blurred visions, blindness and death. Symptoms may recur without additional exposure and recovery is not always complete. Nickel Dibutyldithrio Carbamate: used as a UV-stabilizer in LDPE, HDPE, and PP. Nickel is a toxic heavy metal. Has been show to be associated with an increased incidence of nose and lung cancer in occupationally exposed workers. Present in the air emissions and ash from incinerators. Phthalic Anhydride: used as a plasticizer in PVC. Toxic. Polyvinyl Alcohol: widely used in the production of textiles, paints and other synthetics. Also used as a suspension stabilizer in the polymerization of PVC, PS, ABS, and other resins. Has produced positive results for carcinogenicity in animal tests. Styrene: used as a monomer in polystyrene. Styrene has been linked with increased levels of chromosomal damage, abnormal pulmonary function, angiosarcoma of the liver, and cancer in workers at styrene or polystyrene plants. Tetrahydrofuran: used as a solvent in the polymerization of PVC. Toxic by in ingestion and inhalation, causing irritation of the eyes, nose, and respiratory tract, headaches, dizziness, and potential damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidneys. Tribasic Lead Sulfate: used as a heat stabilizer in PVC. See “lead chromate” above for information on lead toxicity.
WASTE NOT # 362. A publication of Work on Waste USA, published 48 times a year. Annual rates are: Groups & Non-Profits $50; Students & Seniors $35; Individual $40; Consultants & For-Profits $125; Canadian $US50; Overseas $70.
Editors: Ellen & Paul Connett, 82 Judson Street, Canton, New York 13617. Tel: 315-379-9200. Fax: 315-379-0448.
source: http://www.workonwaste.org/wastenots/wn362.htm 20aug01
Rachel's Hazardous Waste Newsletter (January 15, 1991) #216 - Plastics -- Part 1: Some Hidden Hazards Of A Plastic World, 15-Jan-1991 http://www.rachel.org/en/node/4236
If all goes well for the U.S. plastics industry, annual production will
grow from its present 55 billion pounds per year to 76 billion pounds
per year by the end of this century. However, all may not go so well.
Last year the Society of the Plastics Industry (a trade group) invited
its members, the plastics manufacturers, to a strategic planning
session with a letter that began as follows: "The image of plastics
among consumers is deteriorating at an alarmingly fast pace. Opinion
research experts tell us that it has plummeted so far and so fast, in
fact, that we are approaching a `point of no return.' Public opinion
polls during the '80s show that an increasing percentage of the general
public believes plastics are harmful to health and the environment.
That percentage rose sharply from 56 percent in 1988 to 72 percent in
1989. At this rate, we will soon reach a point from which it will be
impossible to recover our credibility." The letter was signed by Larry
Thomas, president of the Society of the Plastics Industry. [His phone
is (202) 371-5222.] That the invitation had to be issued at all is a
tribute to the successes of thousands of grass-roots groups across the
country that have worked to discourage unnecessary plastic packaging
and other environmentally damaging doodads like disposable flashlights,
cigarette lighters, and cameras.
The goal of the Society's strategic planning meeting (held January 15,
1990) was "to undertake a major program of unprecedented proportions to
reverse this fast-moving tidal wave of growing negative public
perception.... [and] to demonstrate the critical importance of plastic
products and their contributions to environmental progress. It is
estimated that this effort will cost upwards of $50 million per year
for the next three years," Mr. Thomas wrote.
Now the plastics industry's PR campaign of unprecedented proportions is
under way. Backed by the industry's war chest, plastics are being sold
to the public with aggressive greenwash and a renewed disregard for the
truth. Judy Christrup, writing in Greenpeace Magazine, cites full-page
newspaper ads by the makers of Glad garbage bags--"Team up with Glad
for a safer environment"--and ads by other companies peddling
"degradable" plastics "for a cleaner environment." Christrup points out
that calling plastics "environmentally safe" is simply fraudulent. From
the extraction of raw materials (natural gas and petroleum), through
the production of resins (the building blocks from which particular
plastics are made--propylene, phenol, ethylene, polystyrene, and
benzene), to the manufacture of end products, use, and final disposal
in a dump or incinerator somewhere, plastics are an environmental
A quick litany of environmental ills caused by plastics must include:
Workers in (and people living near) petroleum refineries and some types
of plastic resin factories run an increased risk of getting various
kinds of cancer.
Fires in homes and commercial buildings kill nearly 5000 Americans each
year, many of them because of the toxic smoke created by burning
plastics. This hazard, unique to plastics, has been consistently played
down by the plastics industry (and by those who regulate such matters)
since it first appeared in the 1960s.
More than a million seabirds and approximately 100,000 sea mammals die
each year after ingesting, or becoming entangled in, plastic debris.
Less deadly, but economically damaging to the tourist industry is
plastic litter on beaches. One 3-hour cleanup of a 157-mile stretch of
beach in Texas in 1987 collected 31,773 plastic bags, 30,295 plastic
bottles, 15,631 plastic six-pack rings, 28,540 plastic lids, 1914
disposable diapers, 1040 tampon applicators, and 7460 milk jugs.
A significant percentage of municipal solid waste is plastics: 7% of
garbage by weight, and 18% to 30% by volume, is plastics, which
physically disintegrate very slowly. In an incinerator, burning plastic
releases hydrochloric acid which degrades the incinerator rapidly,
releases chlorine which is then available to form dioxins, and releases
toxic metals that were added to the plastics to give them color or
stiffness or some other desirable characteristic.
Lastly, as we make final preparations to wage allout war to protect our
Saudi oil connection, it seems fitting to reflect on the hidden costs
of our national addiction to petroleum-based plastics, most of which
are unnecessary, and are also more toxic and environmentally
destructive than the natural materials they have replaced.
When faced with arguments why plastics should be phased out, deception
and distortion are the standard modes of communication for the plastics
industry. Depending on who they're talking to, they want to have it
both ways: they say, on the one hand, that plastic liners beneath a
landfill will last forever and will thus protect the environment in
perpetuity against the toxic metals in landfill leachate; on the other
hand, they want us to believe that plastic garbage bags are
"biodegradable" and will break down in the environment and be recycled
by nature until there's nothing left.
Unfortunately for the environment, both these claims are false. No
plastic--by its very nature--can maintain its structural integrity
forever. As we will see next week, all landfill liners will eventually
come apart spontaneously--even if there are no chemicals working to
degrade them. And yet no plastic--again, because of its fundamental
nature--can be degraded by microorganisms and thus be totally
"biodegraded" and reincorporated into nature. What actually happens to
plastics as time passes is something in between complete preservation
of structure and complete loss of structure. All plastics sooner or
later break down into small pieces, leaving plastic chunks or plastic
dust as a residue. These plastic chunks and dust are not biodegradable;
their molecular structure is too large for microorganisms to consume.
In this fundamental sense no plastics are biodegradable and anyone who
advertises that their plastic is biodegradable is defrauding the
public. (For a scientific discussion of this aspect of plastics, see
the publication by Anita Sadun and others, cited below.) [Continued
Get: Jeanne Wirka, WRAPPED IN PLASTICS; THE ENVIRONMENTAL CASE FOR
REDUCING PLASTICS PACKAGING (Washington, DC: Environmental Action
Foundation [1525 New Hampshire Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20036; (202)
745-4870], 1988). 159 pgs. $10.00. Contains good information about the
plastics manufacturing industry, including, in Appendix B, a list of
toxic materials that are added to plastics for various purposes.
Environmental Action also maintains a computerized database called
State Action on Packaging and Source Reduction, much of it relevant to
antiplastics activists. The database is updated every few months; a
complete printout of the database currently describes 57 pieces of
legislation (some proposed, some already passed, and some already
defeated but nevertheless containing good ideas); the entire printout
usually costs $20.00 but they offer discounts to grassroots groups and
to those who can't afford the full price. Contains short descriptions
of each law, plus names of people to contact who can send you the
entire text of the law and tell you its story.
Anita Glazer Sadun, Thomas F. Webster, and Barry Commoner, BREAKING
DOWN THE DEGRADABLE PLASTICS SCAM (Flushing, NY: Center for the Biology
of Natural Systems, 1990); available from: Greenpeace Action, 1436 U
Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009; phone (202) 462-1177. 97 pgs. They
ask a $5.00 donation from citizen activists and non-profits, $15.00
from businesses, professionals, and public agencies.
Nancy Skinner's relatively new organization, Local Solutions to Global
Pollution, Studio A, 2121 Bonar St., Berkeley, CA 94702; phone (415)
540-8843; fax: (415) 540-4898, can provide you with many useful bundles
of information on plastics and packaging, including model local
ordinances; arguments and tactics of the plastics industry with
rebuttals by environmentalists; testimony for public hearings, and
A stage of plastics manufacturing that creates major amounts of
hazardous waste, but which is often overlooked, is oil and gas
production--the raw materials for making plastics. An important new
coalition has formed to address these specific wastes: National
Citizens' Network on Oil and Gas Wastes; contact Chris Shuey at
Southwest Research and Information Center, P.O. Box 4524, Albuquerque,
NM 87106; phone (505) 262-1862; or Sue Libenson, Alaska Center for the
Environment, 519 West 8th Avenue -#201, Anchorage, AK 99501; phone
An authoritative new book on the dangers of plastics in fires is
Deborah Wallace's, IN THE MOUTH OF THE DRAGON (Garden City Park, NY:
Avery Publishing Group [120 Old Broadway, Garden City Park, NY 11040;
phone (516) 741-2155], 1990). $17.95.
Health Care Without Harm: http://www.noharm.org/all_regions/issues/toxins/pvc_phthalates/
PVC (vinyl plastic) is used throughout health care in a wide variety of applications, from IV bags and disposable gloves, to curtains and flooring. Today it is the most commonly used plastic in medical devices.
However, the use of PVC creates a number of environmental and health risks — including dioxin pollution and patient exposure to hazardous chemicals such as the phthalate DEHP, which leaches from vinyl medical devices.
Several government agencies, including the U.S. FDA, the Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate, the Japanese Ministry of Health and a Health Canada expert panel have warned that certain patients — particularly sick infants — are at risk of harm from phthalate-containing vinyl medical devices.
Due to these concerns, many health care facilities around the world are switching to safer, cost-effective medical devices that do not contain vinyl plastic or phthalates.
For detailed information on this topic, in addition to tools and resources, select your region of the world from the links at the top of this page.