Plastics Primer, Part 1: The Problems with Plastic

>> Wednesday, January 21, 2009


The other day, I was watching Living with Ed, and they had a little montage where Ed was reciting the plastic codes, the type of plastic each corresponds to, and the type of products each is made into. I thought it was funny because I can do that:

#1, PET, soda bottles and water bottles
#2, HDPE, various food containers and bottles
#3, PVC (vinyl), pipes, shower curtains
#4, LDPE, grocery bags, plastic wrap
#5, Polypropolene, yogurt containers, food storage containers
#6, Polystyrene, styrofoam
#7, Polycarbonate aka mystery plastic

Before you decide I'm a total eco-dweeb, let me clarify that I didn't set out to learn the plastic codes. I have a good memory and read a lot of environmental news and blogs, and in the environmental world, plastic is a dirty word. In Garbageland, one environmentalist refers to plastic as "the devil's resin," and I'm constantly seeing other bloggers say things like "I'm trying to avoid plastic."

If you take just one cursory glance around your home, I think it's pretty safe to say that it's impossible to give up plastic. But why would you want to try?

  • Plastic is made from petroleum and natural gas, two non-renewable resources.
  • Creating plastic is an energy and pollution intensive industry. According to the Green Guide, "producing a 16-oz. #1 PET bottle, for instance, generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions to air and water than making the same size bottle out of glass. Major emissions from plastic production processes include sulfur oxides and nitrous oxides (both of which contribute to global warming) and the chemicals styrene, benzene and trichloroethane."
  • Plastic does not biodegrade, it photodegrades, which means it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that will never go away. These tiny pieces are ingested by birds and fish, which we then eat.
  • There's a spot in the Pacific ocean where so much plastic has accumulated, they call it the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It's an island of plastic the size of Texas, where plastic is choking out all the sea life.
  • Plastic is difficult to recycle. It can only be recycled a few times before becoming too weak to recycle anymore, and if you mix resin codes, it becomes even more difficult to recycle. Plus, recycled plastic is not in high demand by manufacturers; it's just cheaper and easier for them to use virgin plastic. Because of that, the yogurt tub you put into your recycling bin is rarely ever made back into a yogurt tub. A yogurt tub becomes a toothbrush which becomes plastic lumber, and plastic lumber is where plastics go to die. This type of recycling is called "downcycling."
  • Recent scientific research has shown plastic as a health issue. Phthalates, a chemical additive that gives some plastics their flexibility, and Bisphenol A (BPA), a component of some plastics, have been found to interfere with hormones and reproductive development. According to Garbageland, "In an EPA ranking of the twenty chemicals whose production generates the most total hazardous waste, five of the top six are chemicals used by the plastics industry."
  • PVC is one of the most widely used forms of plastics, but it may also be the worst. The production of PVC creates dioxins, a known carcinogen and hormone disrupter. Some types of PVC also contain the aformentioned phthalates. Disposal of PVC is also an issue since it is difficult and expensive to recycle, so most PVC ends up in landfills where dioxins, hydrochloric acid, and phthalates leach into the air and water.
This is all I can think of for now, but I'm sure I'm leaving something out. I am no plastic expert; that title goes to the amazing Fake Plastic Fish, and if you're concerned about plastic, I strongly recommend that you peruse her blog.

Plastic is such a big issue that this blog post got really really long, so I'm dividing it into two parts and will discuss the "What You Can Do" factor tomorrow. In the meantime, take a look at the following resources:

The Green Guide: Plastic Containers Buying Guide
Earth 911: Plastic
Plastic Ocean: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Photos from http://algalita.org/

3 comments:

Maren Hansen January 21, 2009 at 11:00 PM  

What a perfect post--and I'm so glad you cited Garbageland. I can honestly say that book has changed my life (for the better). I really like her conclusion: use less! Like you said, so many things downcycle and don't have much karma. Just plain using less and using smarter is the best way to go.

Joyce January 22, 2009 at 10:47 AM  

I loved Garbageland, too! I think that book affected my lifestyle more than almost anything I've read. We all just need to keep posting about this issue and informing people the best we can.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper January 23, 2009 at 7:59 PM  

Maren and Joyce, I agree with both of you - Garbageland was an amazing book!

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