Plastic – ah yes, that product that seems to creep into every part of your life and with which many of us who are health conscious, have that unique “love – hate relationship”. You know the one I am talking about, the “you can’t live with it and can’t live without it” kind.
It is no secret that plastics have improved our quality of life in many areas, with the convenience they brought to it, being probably one of its greatest assets. But as the past decades have unfolded, it is also no secret that plastics also pose a huge threat to our health and environment.
Hence in this article, I have conducted a summary of the basic ideas you should know about plastics, arranged for you in quick and practical “what to know” and “how to apply” this information, for the greatest benefit to your life and well-being.
KNOW: What is plastic?
Scientifically, plastic is a name for a group of chemicals that are an example of chemical structures called polymers. Polymers are made up of smaller and many unique pieces called monomers. Okay, now in English, imagine you have a bunch of loose Lego blocks and you take just one block and look at it; that is your monomer. As you look back at the other blocks some are the same as the block you are holding and some are different shapes and colors, such as there are many different kinds of monomers. Now as you take your Lego block and start joining it to other Lego blocks you will build various combinations of Lego blocks and hence have various structures. That is how plastics are made; there are so many different kinds because it all depends on the different building blocks (monomers) they use, in what amounts and in what order.
KNOW: What is plastic made of?
In a one word answer – PETROLEUM. Yes, petroleum, for most this comes as a shock as over 70% of Americans have been found not to know that (see Metabolix study), but that should give you your first indication as to why there are toxic effects to your health and the environment associated with them. Petroleum is also referred to as crude oil or just oil. The building blocks of plastics, the monomers are the original petrochemical derivatives. These monomers are then linked together through various chemical reactions. (For an easy to understand and full explanation see How Stuff Works)
And finally to give plastics various colors, textures and other unique properties, dyes, pigments, stabilizers and many other chemicals are added to them.
KNOW: The History Timeline of Plastic
To us today, it may seem that plastics are a natural part of life. This however is a misconception, as plastics have been around for barely just over 100 years with the main industry production for wide home and work use booming only after 1950! So again with such a new product, we should not be surprised that the tests as to their safety are current and ongoing. In the 1950′s industries were excited to create this marvel and versatile product and the population was excited about such a technologically advanced and convenient product. Not many at that time were thinking about health and environmental safety. Today however the tables have turned, and even though the industries are still trying to maintain their excitement and cram plastics into our lives from any angle they can, the population is no longer as excited as the health risks associated with the use of plastics are starting to add up.
So where did it all start?
- Alexander Parkes invents first man-made plastic, called Parkesine (naturally derived not from petroleum but plant material)
- Leo Baekeland invents first all-synthetic plastic, called Bakelite
Early – Mid 1900′s
- Many scientists/companies continue to invent, refine and produce various plastics including polyvinylchloride, polycarbonate, polypropylene, polyurethane, polystyrene, etc.
- Plastics become more and more widely available in homes and workplaces
- Alternatives to petroleum based plastics are produced such as corn based plastic as health concerns continue to increase over the safety of plastic
- With health, environmental and costs of oil soaring, manufacturers, corporations and citizens are starting to use naturally derived plastics, PLA (polylactic acid), which are corn or sugar cane based and were actually the first types of plastics to be produced back in the late 1800′s
So above, I just listed for you some brief milestones in the timeline of plastics. But for all those history buffs check out American Chemistry for a more detailed history of plastics or About.com for a concise timeline.
APPLY: What do those numbers on plastic containers really mean?
All of us at one time or another have looked underneath a plastic container and discovered a number on the bottom enclosed by a triangle made of arrows. What most of us do not know is what, if anything for us, do those numbers mean? First however, let me start with dispelling some myths associated with those numbers.
MYTH: The Higher the number the more times the plastic has been recycled
FALSE: The numbers do not indicate how many times that plastic has been recycled
MYTH: Any numbers above 5 are safe to use
FALSE: There isn’t a general pattern of above or below a number that indicates it’s safety, each number is used to indicate a different plastic
So what do those numbers really mean?
They indicate the type of plastic the container is made of. They were first inscribed into plastics mainly for the recycling companies to use, as they sort the plastics based on their numbers to make it more efficient and profitable for the manufacturing of recycled goods.
The following is a list I think all of us should be familiar with as to the numbers on plastics:
#1 – PETE or PET, polyethlyene terephthalate
SOME USES: Clear plastic, store bought drink and water bottles, some food packaging
- suspected of leaching DEHA (potentially carcinogenic) and phthalates (carcinogenic) [however these studies have not been proven to date]
- have risk of high bacterial contamination
- water in these bottles has been found to contain high levels of antimony (See the Green Guide Product Report)
#2 – HDPE, high-density polyethylene
SOME USES: Cloudy milk jugs, water bottles and food containers
- no current negative health reports (safe choice)
#3 – PVC, polyvinyl chloride
SOME USES: Cling wrap, soft bottles
- leaches DEHP (suspected human carcinogen) See The Green Guide Product Report
#4 – LDPE, low-density polyethylene
SOME USES: food storage bags, soft bottles
- no current negative health reports (safe choice)
#5 – PP, polypropylene
SOME USES: Rigid containers, Tupperware, baby bottles, reusable bottles
- no current negative health reports (safe choice)
#6 – PS/PS-E, polystyrene / expanded polystyrene
SOME USES: Styrofoam based take out trays, meat and bakery trays
- unsafe for food use (based on benzene a carcinogen) considered unsafe by the World Health Organization
- some styrene compounds leaching from food containers are estrogenic (meaning they can disrupt normal hormonal functioning) See Environmental Health Perspectives
#7 – OTHER, resins or multi-materials (usually PC – polycarbonates)
SOME USES: Clear, hard plastic (almost glass like), Nalgene water bottles, Baby bottles, 5-Gallon water bottles, metal can liners, food utensils
- found to leach bisphenol-A (an estrogen mimicking, female hormone disruptor) See The Green Guide Product Report
APPLY: How do I use plastics?
If you are going to use plastic, here are the top 5 safety guidelines to follow for best results from the product and lowest risks to your health:
Never burn plastics
Burning plastics readily releases carcinogenic (cancer causing) chemicals such as dioxins as well as many other gases that pollute the environment and contribute to global warming and other health problems
Never heat plastics
(Try not to freeze)
Extreme temperature changes speed up the leaching of chemicals from plastics and are the fastest way to disfigure your container
Do not microwave food in plastics
Microwaves have been found to also induce the leaching effect of chemicals from plastics
Do not put hot liquids into plastic containers
For the same reason as number 2 above
Use alternatives to plastics whenever possible
Glass containers or stainless steel for food and drink storage have not been linked to any negative health effects and for the most part are not temperature sensitive
APPLY: How do I dispose of plastics?
MYTH: Plastics are biodegradable, i.e. they eventually break down in the environment
FALSE: Plastics that are petroleum derived do not have the ability to break down in the environment, as far as we know AT ALL!
The number one way to dispose of plastics is to recycle them NOT throw them in the garbage. Studies show that American citizens estimate that over a third of plastic is recycled, where in reality only about 6% is (see Metabolix Study). Almost every plastic today can be recycled including plastic bags, ties, etc. However you have to check with your local municipal recycling facilities for exact details as some municipalities may or may not accept some plastic items.
No matter what never burn plastics as the fumes are highly carcinogenic. Ask any fireman who has had to fight a chemical blaze where plastics are involved, it is one of their worst nightmares.
Remember, plastics do not biodegrade in the environment and as they sit on our Earth loosely or in landfills, due to the extreme heat of the sun, freezing winter temperatures and exposure to other chemicals, they leach harmful substances into our soils, water and air, which directly or indirectly all comes back to us!
To decrease negative effects on your health and our environment reduce buying plastics as much as possible and use other alternatives such as glass and stainless steel!
And by all means contact any companies that sell what you need to buy in plastics and let them know your thoughts, such as them changing to corn based plastics or using non-plastic based packaging period! Remember, ultimately it is the consumer that drives demand, so in alliance together, we can make a big, positive difference for us and the generations to come.
FOR MORE RESOURCES ON PLASTICS VISIT THE FOLLOWING: