“Plastic… waste is not just a national problem in the US, it’s a national disgrace… America faces a growing mountain of plastic… waste with all of the resulting social and environmental consequences.” -Pat Franklin, Executive Director of the Container Recycling Institute in Washington, DC.
Every year, about 300 billion pounds of plastic is produced around the world, and only a fraction is recycled. Despite the convenience and durability plastics afford our lives on-the-go, its overall impact on our health and the planet are far too dangerous to ignore any longer. Research has found that specific kinds of plastics (petroleum-based) leach dangerous chemicals into foods they comes into contact with and the manufacturing and disposal of these products are laying waste to our communities, health and planet.
In this article you’ll find information on:
American Annual Plastics Statistics
Plastics Most-Wanted List
Most Dangerous Plastic Marked #7
Plastic Health Risks
Do you know what your plastic cutlery is made of?
Plastic Environmental Impacts
The Skinny on Bioplastics
Alternatives and Solutions
Do you know about the North Pacific Garbage Patch?
All plastics that are put in curbside recycling bins are recycled. This is not necessarily true because not all municipalities have the same recycling laws and many plastics are “downcycled” – meaning they are recycled into another product that itself can never be recycled – products such as textiles, parking lot bumpers and plastic lumber for decks and general construction.
A chasing arrows symbol means a plastic container is recyclable. While the arrows mean very little, it’s the numbers inside of the arrows that are the most important indicator of the plastic’s recyclability. The use of the arrows and numbers on plastics was developed in 1988 by the U.S.-based Society of the Plastics Industry to facilitate the recycling of post-consumer plastics, and use of the symbols is voluntary for plastic manufacturers. The number provides information about the content of the plastic, therefore informing recycling facilities which can be recycled or not and which can be recycled together in batches. Many kinds of plastics cannot be recycled together, and because our recycling systems are not perfect, some batches are easily contaminated and create a new kind of “residue” and a new category of waste – adding more waste to our landfills.
Plastic packaging is made of industrial waste, a recycled material. Plastics are generally made of virgin, non-renewable resources, primarily petroleum.
Plastic bags are recycled to make another plastic bag. Unfortunately, it costs less to make a new plastic bag that it does to recycle a used bag to make another. Plastic bags cost grocery stores less than 2 cents per bag, while paper goes for 4 to 6 cents and compostable bags 9 to 14 cents per bag. The most economical option would be for grocery stores to encourage customers to bring their own bags, thereby saving the grocery stores money and lessening the demand for the environmentally destructive plastic bags.
Plastic manufacturers pay for recycling ads to market their business. In fact, it’s virgin-material plastic manufacturers that pay for the majority of these ads. They do this to convince the public of the ease and convenience of plastic recycling in order to offset the true and negative perception of plastics as toxic to our health and environment.
Plastic’s environmental footprint is less than alternative materials. The manufacturing of plastics is resource intensive and emits far more toxic pollutants during this process than any other material. And although plastic containers weigh less than, say glass or stainless steel, their lighter transportation footprint does not cancel out the environmental damages they incur during the manufacturing and waste stages of their life – not to mention that they will be around for centuries after you and I are gone.
The only option we have is to recycle plastics. Every single day we tell manufacturers what we want using our dollars. We have the choice to move those dollars in directions that have thus far proven to leave a lighter footprint on the Earth and ensure our health when using them. As consumers we have the power to demand these healthier alternatives – and they are out there and waiting to be used!!
*Many of these misconceptions were provided by Children’s Health Environmental Coalition and Campaign Against the Plastic Plague
REMEMBER: PETROLEUM BASED PLASTICS NEVER BIODEGRADE
Their resistance to breakdown lends to their durability, and that’s why we like them so much. But we must remember that instead of fully breaking down, they photodegrade (partial breakdown due to exposure to light) into small pieces and persist in the environment by contaminating water, soil and our food chain.
Your grandchildren’s great grandchildren will still be dealing with the mess we’ve made so far of plastic waste filling up our landfills and oceans. We must find and choose the alternatives over toxic plastics.
American Annual Plastics Statistics
The Surfrfider Foundation found that the US produces more than 24 billion pounds of plastic packaging every year. Most of that waste is from single-use items – meaning it’s plastic that is created specifically for one use, to be thrown away immediately afterward.
A study done by the EPA found that there is a 1 in 1000 chance of contracting cancer from dioxin exposure through a typical American diet – dioxin is found most commonly in plastic food wrapping.
The total amount of plastic in the municipal solid waste stream in 2006 was almost 30 million tons or nearly 60 billion pounds.
In 2006, only 7% of plastic waste produced in the U.S. was recycled.
Most common items found in beach trash surveys: plastic drinking straws, plastic beverage bottles, and plastic bags.
Enough waste is produced to fill the entire Empire State Building 2 ½ times per year from the manufacturing of plastic bags.
The total number of plastic bags used by Americans each year is 110,000,000,000. Of those bags, only 2% were recycled in 2006.
The Surfrider Foundation found that with the creation or purchase of one reusable bag, 400 plastic bags are prevented from being used and eventually finding it’s way into our oceans or landfills.
A recent study of plastic bag manufacturing and use found that inks and colorants most often used on plastic bags contain lead – alarming, especially given that more often than not, we are carrying our food in these bags.
Just imagine: every time you use a petroleum-based plastic bag for a single use, say to bring a single item home from the grocery store, and throw it in the trash. Now multiple that by the millions of Americans who also do this – that’s equivalent to throwing away 12 million barrels of oil! 
267 marine species are impacted by plastic trash in the oceans every year (many mistake the small plastic debris for food and ingest it – which, remember, in some cases ends up on your dinner table eventually).
According to the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, more than a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year from eating or getting entangled in plastic.
Why would you want to drink bottled water, when research has actually found that 24% of the bottled water on the market is tap water repackaged by Coke and Pepsi.
Plastics Most Wanted List
Adipates, phthalates and other dangerous chemicals are used as a softener in some plastic materials which can leach into foods that come into contact with them due to scratching and heating. Fatty or oily foods most easily absorb these leached chemicals.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of the most dangerous chemicals in plastics. It is used to give hardness and durability to plastic products. It is most commonly found in baby bottles, some reusable water bottles, and in the lining of aluminum food cans.
Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) has been found to leach from plastic food wraps during storage. This chemical has been shown to be carcinogenic and be one of the causes of liver and kidney abnormalities. Many children’s toys are made with this material.
Perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, are used water, grease and stain repellents and are most commonly known as Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster and Gore-Tex. They stick around in the environment and our bodies for many years. They are used in carpets, clothes, fast food wrappers and the lining of pet food bags.
Polyethylene terephalate, identified as PET or PETE, leaches antimony trioxide which has been shown to cause respiratory and skin irritation in workers with long-term exposure and specifically female workers have experienced increased menstrual complications and miscarriage rates. Children exposed to PET in the womb have been shown to experience decreased development in their first year of life. PET, both high and low density, is most commonly used in plastic containers for sodas, juice, water, milk, water, beer, mouthwash, peanut butter, salad dressing, shampoo, yogurt, butter, honey and mustard. It’s also found in garbage bags, cereal box liners, grocery store bags, dry cleaning bags, bread and frozen food bags, plastic wrap, detergent and cleaners.
Polypropylene, often labeled as PP or #5, is popular because of it’s high melting point, used for holding hot liquids and foods. It often contains BPA and it’s associated risks, although now there is an alternative version that contains no BPA. It is most often found in items such as containers for yogurt, margarine, takeout meals, and deli foods, medicine bottles, bottle caps, syrup bottles, straws, Rubbermaid and other opaque plastic containers, including baby bottles.
Polystyrene, commonly called Styrofoam (PS or plastic #6) has been associated with skin, eye and respiratory irritation, depression, fatigue, decreased kidney function and central nervous system damage. PS is found most commonly in styrofoam takeout food containers and drink cups, egg cartons and plastic cutlery, but can also be found in secondhand cigarette smoke, off-gassing of building materials, auto exhaust fumes and drinking water.
Polyvinyl chloride, popularly referred to as PVC or vinyl, is the most dangerous of plastics and is found in very common items like children’s toys, plumbing and building materials and medical devices. Exposure to PVC can lead to lead contamination, as lead is used to stabilize the PVC during the manufacturing process. PVC is most commonly found in food packaging, including but not limited to plastic trays in boxed cookies and cracker, candy bar wrappers and bottles, cling wraps used to package cheeses and meats. Additionally, PVC can be found in teethers and soft squeeze toys for young children, beach balls, bath toys, dolls, as well as in shower curtains, medical tubing, backpacks, raincoats, and umbrellas.
Most Dangerous Plastic Marked #7
This kind of plastic is tricky, because it includes any combination of all the kinds of plastics. It includes polycarbonate, a dangerous plastic, which has been shown to leach Bisphenol A (associated health risks explained above).
Unfortunately, polycarbonates are included in the new, safer plastics made from bio-degradable, bio-based plastics made from things like potatoes, corn and sugar cane. It can be most commonly found in things like baby bottles, clear sippy cups, reusable water bottles, large water storage containers (3-5 gallon), canned food lining, juice and ketchup bottles, cell phones and computers.
Also found in #7 marked plastics is Acrylonitrile Styrene (AS or SAN) and Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), all of which are used to increase the density, rigidity and temperature resistance of plastics. They are most commonly found in mixing bowls, thermos casing, dishes, cutlery, coffee filters, toothbrushes, LEGO toys, pipes and protective head gear.
Plastic Health Risks
In general, plastics have been linked to endocrine disruption in babies, cancers, birth defects, and poor brain/nervous system development.
Specifically, BPA exposure has been shown to impede brain function, increase neurodegenerative diseases, disrupt hormones, stimulate estrogen production. It has also been found to lend itself to development of cancers, diabetes, fertility problems and behavior disorders.
PVCs have been associated with smaller birth weight and size in newborns, high cholesterol, abnormal thyroid hormone levels, inflammation of the liver and compromised immune system.
But it’s not just the use of food related plastic products that has been shown to be detrimental to our health – because of our insatiable consumption of these products, they must be manufactured and it’s the people who make them who are also at risk of dangerous levels of exposure to toxic chemicals. Some studies have shown higher levels of testicular cancer and a rare form of liver cancer in PVC plant workers.
Additionally, the people who live near to plastic manufacturing facilities are exposed to the toxic off gassing that comes with manufacture and incineration of the plastics. According to a study done by Greenpeace, predominately low income, African American communities are impacted by PVC air, water and soil pollution.
One of the most toxic man-made chemicals known, Dioxin, is a chemical created from PVC manufacturing and incineration and is one of the main chemicals in factory air emissions. It settles on the ground, coating grasslands, which are then eaten by cattle – ending up in our dairy and meat products and, ultimately, in our human tissue. It accumulates most readily in fatty tissues, of both animals and humans. Dioxin has been found to lead to decreased birth weight, learning and behavioral problems in children, suppressed immune function and hormone disruption.
Did you know?
Plastic cutlery – that you eat your food with – is made out of medium weight polypropolene or polysterene resin purchased from facilities that process petroleum-based products. Yuck!
Polystyrene, commonly called Styrofoam (PS or plastic #6) has been associated with skin, eye and respiratory irritation, depression, fatigue, decreased kidney function and central nervous system damage.
Polypropolene contains BPA – exposure has been shown to impede brain function, increase neurodegenerative diseases, disrupt hormones, stimulate estrogen production. It has also been found to lend itself to development of cancers, diabetes, fertility problems and behavior disorders
Remember, exposure to heat and moisture cause plastics to leach the dangerous ingredients that make them so durable and convenient. Think twice before you use the plastic cutlery that comes with your to-go food. There are better, more durable, safer alternatives – like To-Go Ware’s bamboo utensil sets.
Plastic Environmental Impacts
Most plastics are made of petroleum-based materials, a non-renewable and dirty resource. Plastics have been proven (studies, researchers, experts) over and over again to be dirty and toxic at every stage of their lifecycle.
To produce 2 lbs of PET plastic (most common plastic used to make plastic water bottles), 38 lbs of water is needed. From this manufacturing process a mixture of hydrocarbons, sulfter oxides, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide is produced and spewed into the air.
PVC can generate dioxin again when it is incinerated as household or medical waste – which predominantly happens in or near to low income communities of color.
Despite the marketing of PVC as a durable, long lasting product, it begins to degrade after only a few “cycles” and releases toxic gases if put through the recycling process too many times.
More than 50% of marine litter (man-made objects) is plastic, including pellets (raw form of plastic), plastic bags and sheeting, monofilament fishing nets, multi-pack soda can holders and lighters. During a 1998 survey, 89% of the trash observed floating in the North Pacific Ocean was plastic. There are large masses of plastic debris floating in the world’s oceans, called gyres, to read more about them please visit our Learn More page.
Plastics absorb hydrophobic pollutants, such as PCBs and pesticides like DDT. This is disturbing when considering how much plastic debris floats in our oceans. Because of their light-weight nature, plastics float to the top of the water, where they are mistaken for food and ingested by numerous fish and marine mammals and bird species, many of which humans ultimately consume.
Some of the most common plastic marine litter – bottles, sheeting and Styrofoam cups – were found on remote Arctic beaches. The world over, researchers have found:
- plastic sheeting in the stomachs of sperm whales, round-toothed dolphins and Curvier beaked whales;
- sea turtles regularly mistake plastic bags for jelly fish (their favorite food);
- According to researchers, nearly every seabird in the world has waste plastic inside it – fulmars in the North Sea, storm petrels in the Antarctic and albatross in Hawaii have all been found to contain plastic waste in their stomachs.
The Skinny on Bioplastics
Although the plastics industry has depended predominantly on petrochemicals for feed stocks throughout most of its history, some early plastics were plant based. Inventor Alexander Parkes created Parkesine, the first human-made polymer, in 1856 out of chloroform and castor oil. Henry Ford unveiled the now legendary “soybean car,” with soy-based plastic body panels, in 1941.
Bioplastics are non-petroleum based plastics, made from things like corn, sugarcane, potatoes, rice or tapioca. Currently bioplastics are being used to manufacture bottles, cutlery, food wrap, plates, bowls, and take out containers.
Bioplastics made from corn and used in things like food packaging, use polymerized lactic acid (PLA) in their production. In the US, this kind of bioplastic food packaging is made by companies like Natureworks – which should be noted, is a company owned by Cargill – one of the leading global producers of genetically modified organisms (which have a proven track record of creating havoc in the environment and are still being tested for the impacts they have on our health).
Some of the bioplastics, those certified compostable, can be composted along with food scraps (you must check with your local composting facility to make certain they are capable of doing this). But many of the bioplastics that are NOT certified compostable cannot be recycled alongside petroleum-based plastics; mainstream US recyclers currently do not have the equipment needed to recycle this new kind of plastic.
Because commercial composting and recycling is still not widely available in the US for this kind of bioplastic, much of the existing bioplastics are being thrown into the landfills or recyling bins. When the bioplastics end up in the landfill, they are unable to degrade properly due to lack of light and heat they need to do so – therefore contributing no significant value to the effort to reduce plastic waste.
Plastics containers made with “green polyethylene,” sourced from sugarcane, has unfortunately been shown to carry some of the same toxicity risks as petroleum-based plastics.
Research is being conducted as to the viability of recycling bioplastics into biofuels.
The manufacture and waste of these new biofuels is being touted as not adding any significant carbon to the atmosphere.
There are many concerns, both environmental and human rights related, about pushing a technology and material that will encourage production of crops normally dedicated to feeding humans, instead toward producing consumer materials. With large parts of the world already struggling to meet daily nutritional needs, directing energy and resources away from food crops will be detrimental for the most food-fragile of the world’s population.
The branding of bioplastics as a safer, more environmentally friendly option is false, given the concerns laid out here, which we fear will convince people to continue to consume plastics at the current rate, which our planet cannot sustain indefinitely. Not matter whether or not they are bio-based plastics, we all need to curb our consumption.
Alternatives and Solutions
The convenience we’ve all been living with because of plastic is a powerful force for ignoring the problem because of feeling overwhelmed with all the facts. But we must all think creatively about the alternatives and mitigate their inconveniences. It’s worth it – for our health and the health of the planet.
Food Packaging, Preparation & Storage
- Avoid non-stick pans and kitchen utensils and use stainless steel or cast iron instead
- Use ceramic dishes instead of disposable plastic/Styrofoam dishes
- Cut back on greasy, plastic-packaged foods, as well as canned foods (plastic inner lining)
- If you must use plastic, use safe plastics (see box below) and avoid putting them in the microwave (heat causes the release of toxic chemicals) or the dishwasher (heat and moisture causes degradation)
- Opt for alternatives like glass, lead-free ceramics and stainless steel
- If you must use a microwave, use glass or ceramic containers and cover foods with butcher or wax paper or paper towels, avoiding plastic cling wrap
- Avoid using plastics that are not identified on food packaging
- According to Popular Science, polycarbonate-based Tupperware products should be avoided, such as the Rock ‘N Serve microwave line, Meals-in-Minutes Microsteamer, “Elegant” Serving Line, TupperCare baby bottle, Pizza Keep’ N Heat container, and the Table Collection (the last three are no longer made but might still be kicking around your kitchen)
- Transfer deli meats and cheeses, and other foods purchased over the counter, out of the plastic wrapping to glass, ceramic or stainless steel storage containers once you get home from the grocery store
Babies & Children
- Be aware of and educate yourself about your children’s toys, including plastic squeeze toys, rattles, bath toys, cribs, teethers, pacifiers, high chairs, sippy cups and baby bottles – many of these are labeled with a “V” or “3”
- If you must use plastic toys, be sure to clean them regularly
- If you can, choose toys made of wood, paper, cloth or metal over those made of plastic
- Instead of plastics, opt for glass baby bottles, stainless steel sippy cups and silicone baby bottle nipples (so far research shows that silicone does not leach carcinogenic nitrosamines typically found in latex)
- If you must use plastic, avoid heating any liquids or foods up in these kinds of containers
Clothing and Household
- Refuse stain treatments on new carpets and furniture
- Avoid clothing treated with stain and water-repellants, including those with Teflon and Scotchgard tags
- When possible, opt for untreated cotton and wool clothing and materials
- Avoid cosmetics and toiletries with PTFE or perfluoro ingredients
- If plastic shows signs of wear – scratched, worn, sticky, cracked or cloudy – discard the container
- Use paper towels or wax paper instead of plastic cling wrap.
- Look for products that state “no phthalates” or “no bisphenol A (BPA).”
- Wash plastic containers by hand with a mild soap, do not use the dishwasher to wash plastics.
- Definitely avoid vinyl and any “Lexan,” #7, #3 or “PVC.”
- If you must use plastic, choose No. 1 PETE, No. 2 HDPE, No. 4 LDPE, or No. 5 PP.
- Guides to help you navigate the tricky waters of safe and unsafe plastics have been produced by Environment California, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and the Environmental Working Group.
- Every time you see litter, pick it up and dispose of it properly.
- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – you’ve heard it before, but now you know what happens when you don’t. Be conscious of all that you buy, and be sure to avoid products with excessive packaging, especially in disposable products.
- Demand more and better recycling facilities in your area.
- Take part in local stream, river and beach cleanups – or organize one yourself. Though these don’t solve the problem, they are very effective at drawing attention to the greater problem offshore.
- Bring your own – take your own reusable food containers, coffee mugs, napkins and utensils when you dine out or travel. If you are well equipped you’ll be less likely to feed the landfill.
- Be very conscious of your ecological footprint. Encourage change though your decisions and do no accept the current paradigm of use and waste.
*Many of these helpful tips were gathered with the help of our friends at Life Without Plastic
Do You Know About the North Pacific Garbage Patch?
The majority of plastic trash ends up in landfills, but some finds its way into our oceans. When plastic reaches our oceans, it eventually breaks down due to the action of the sun, wind, and currents, into small, literally bite sized pieces that wildlife confuse with food. It’s an easy mistake to make.
The North Pacific Garbage Patch, or North Pacific Gyre as it’s widely know, is a trash vortex and one of the most studied areas of plastic accumulation in our oceans. At its maximum the area can reach the size of Texas. It is made up of everything from tiny pieces of plastic debris to large ghost nets lost by the fishing industry.
As trash swirls through the world’s oceans to a handful of vortexes like this, it leaves a trail of destruction along its path. Plastic is often mistaken for food and has been found inside marine life of all sizes, from whales to zooplankton. It has been directly blamed for the death of a wide range of animals including albatrosses and sea turtles. While massive trash like ghost nets can ensnare and trap thousands of creatures, there are concerns that even the smallest pieces of plastic may pose a problem , as plastic often accumulates in the digestive tract, many animals essentially choke on plastic intake. Others starve to death from a lack of nutrition despite a full stomach.
 Popular Science http://www.popsci.com/earthtalk/article/2008-08/how-safe-tupperware)
Research compiled while serving as the Social Mission Coordinator for To-Go Ware.
(C) 2009 By Shannon Laliberte Parks. All Rights Reserved. Please Obtain Permission to Copy.