As you settle in to read this article, chances are you will find several plastic items within your reach—your computer or phone, a pen, maybe an old food container lingering somewhere on your desk. Today, plastic is everywhere in our lives. Light and durable, it has become an icon of convenience culture; a symbol of the on-the-go mentality that dominates modern existence. And yet for a substance that we interact with daily, we know surprisingly little about it. Even now, with the flurry of BPA-free plastic products hitting the market, there are many concerns about plastic that have remained unaddressed.
Getting to Know Your Plastics
The term “plastic” refers broadly to any material that can be shaped or molded into a specific form. Before synthetic plastics were created, glass and clay were considered the primary "plastics," alongside a few other naturally occurring substances like tree-gums and rubber. Around 1907 however, a Belgian chemist by the name of Dr Leo Baekeland, introduced a unique substance called “Bakelite.” It was the first entirely man-made plastic material and it was created with phenol, an acid derived from coal tar. This new material was lightweight, strong, heat-resistant and all-the-rage of the time. Soon telephones, radios, kitchenwares, jewelry and children’s toys were all being manufactured using this newfangled substance.
Between the years of 1929 and 1935, a slew of different synthetic-plastics were developed for use in industry. This list includes familiar substances such as polyester, PVC and nylon, which are now used in merchandise as diverse as clothing and parts for plumbing. Production of these compounds was vastly accelerated by mid-century war efforts, where quick-to-manufacture plastics were helpful for replacing other materials such as natural rubber, which was in short supply. When demand for plastic tapered at the war’s end in 1945, companies scrambled to find other uses for their plastic surplus. Tupperware—the beloved food storage containers—were among the first all-plastic goods to hit the mass-consumer market with their release in 1948. 1
Today, plastic has become the main packing material when it comes to food and product storage. There are many more types of plastic available now, all of which are produced in unique ways to fill assorted purposes. A classification system has been developed to identify the most common types of plastic used in household products. You may recognize this system as the tiny number and recycling symbol imprinted on the bottom of almost any plastic item you pick up at the store.
Below are some of the most common plastics currently used:
- #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) - Products: Soft drink bottles, water bottles, condiments
- #2 high density polyethylene (HDPE) - Products: Milk and water jugs, detergent, shampoo, grocery bags, cereal box liners
- #3 polyvinyl chloride (V or PVC) - Products: Piping, shower curtains, plastic toys, table cloths, medication blister packs, wrapping films
- #4 low density polyethylene (LDPE) - Products: Wrapping films, grocery bags, paper milk cartons, hot/cold beverage cups
- #5 polypropylene (PP) - Products: Yogurt cups, food packaging, take-out containers, bottle caps
- #6 polystyrene (PS or Styrofoam) - Products: Single-use cups, plates, bowls, take-out containers, meat trays
- #7 other (can include polycarbonate or others like compostable plastics) - Products: Utensils, food storage containers
Top Health Concerns
I think it is fair to say that synthetic plastics were created with a focus on industry, not on health. Over the past 50 years of plastic use, evidence has accumulated to suggest that some of the chemicals used in its manufacturing are problematic.
BPA and Alternatives
It has been well-documented that certain chemicals create hormone imbalances which produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects in humans. One of the most famous substances of this kind is Bisphenol A or BPA. Research has linked long-term BPA exposure to serious conditions including birth defects and cancer. After years of campaigning, BPA is finally being removed from many plastic items. Unfortunately, recent studies are showing that the the chemicals being used to replace it are no better. Substitutes Bisphenol S and F (known as BPS and BPF) have remarkably similar structures and potencies. One study concentrating on BPA-free plastic baby bottles and water bottles found that each item studied released detectable amounts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Some even had more dangerous activity than products containing BPA itself. 2, 3
This group of chemicals, another class of endocrine disruptors, is used to increase the flexibility of certain plastics such as PVC. One specific compound, known as Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate or DEHP, is listed as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" in the Thirteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program. Furthermore, high levels of exposure to this di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate through the use of medical tubing and other plastic devices for feeding and medicating newborn infants has been predicted to affect the development of the male reproductive system, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Manufacturers began to remove DEHP from consumer plastics about 10 years ago, but new research is suggesting that the two stand-in chemicals, DINP and DIDP, are just as harmful. 4, 5
The health of the environment is closely intertwined with our own health. As the use of plastic has increased, so has its burden on the environment.Global plastic production has doubled every 11 years since the 1950s and currently hovers around 300 million tons per year. Processing plastic uses a significant amount of resources including electricity and fossil fuels. Moreover, unlike naturally-derived products, synthetic plastics do not biodegrade. This means that once plastic items are flung down a conveyor belt and churned out into the world they remain there, unless recycled or incinerated. Improper disposal of solid plastic waste through techniques like incineration can lead to the release of dioxins. These highly toxic chemicals have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system and the formation of cancer. The World Health Organization has advocated for strict control over industrial and waste management processes to reduce dioxin formation. 6, 7
What Can You Do?
As impactful as it would be, it is probably not realistic to say that everyone should get rid of all plastic items immediately and forever. The transition towards greener manufacturing materials will likely take time. What we can do however, is start with some simple steps to reduce the negative consequences that plastic has on the health of our families and communities. As smart consumers we can help drive the change.
Opt for reusable alternatives.
A big part of the solution is limiting the amount of plastic you bring into your home. Glass water bottles and food storage containers are a great alternative as they do not leach questionable chemicals. Reusable stainless steel items such as plates, bowls, and containers are also non-reactive, and are 100% recyclable, light and inexpensive. Try making your own personal care items and store in mason jars or violet glassware rather than purchasing varieties that come in disposable packaging.
If you must use plastic, source safer types and be sure to always recycle.
Check to see what types of plastic are accepted for recycling in your community. #1 PET and #2 HDPE are known for high levels of recyclability. #4 LDPE and #5 PP plastics, although not as widely recycled, are thought to leach fewer chemicals than some other varieties. Discard any scratched and worn-out plastics and never heat food in plastic containers as this increases the likelihood of chemical release.
What do you do to reduce the use of plastic in your home?
Image courtesy of Flickr