We have a complicated relationship with plastic, despite its omnipresence in our consumer culture. Associated with the cheap and mass-produced, plastic is synonymous with disposability. The very qualities that have made it so perfect for mass production—its protean nature and ability to be reliably molded with heat and pressure into an astonishing variety of shapes and sizes—contribute to our perception of the material as utterly synthetic and machine-made. The word plastic is also used to describe someone who is inauthentic.
Plastic, in other words, is the perfect product for a throwaway, consumer-driven culture that values convenience and affordability over almost everything else.
If all of that, coupled with the enormous heaps of trash piling up on our planet, weren’t unsettling enough, we also have cause to be concerned about the health effects of plastics.
The two components that seem to be the most worrisome for human health are bisphenol-A (BPA) and additives called phthalates, or “plasticizers.”
BPA, which is also found in the resin lining of many food and beverage cans, mimics the hormone estrogen (in fact, the substance was conceived in 1891 as a synthetic form of estrogen) and has been linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. There is also concern that BPA may be an endocrine disruptor, which can cause the early onset of sexual maturation (a suspected risk factor for breast cancer) and is most harmful in the early stages of development when, for example, many babies drink from bottles. The FDA, which approved polycarbonate as a food additive in the 1960s, now advises that there is some cause for concern regarding the effect of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate glands of fetuses, infants, and children.
Phthalates, a group of chemicals used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic soft, flexible, and clear, can be found in shower curtains, vinyl flooring, toys (think of teething rings), perfumes, and cosmetics. Phthalates are thought to be endocrine disruptors and are especially of concern with respect to children’s vulnerable, rapidly evolving development and high consumption of food and drink relative to their weight.
The European Union and nine other countries have banned many phthalates from toys, and China, which is responsible for producing about 85 percent of the world’s toys, now has two manufacturing systems: one for the markets that ban phthalates and another for the markets that do not, including the United States.
According to the Virginia-based nonprofit Center for Health, Environment and Justice, early studies suggest that a number of chemicals released by PVC, including dioxin, lead, and mercury, have been linked to or shown to cause learning and developmental disabilities. And as the annual 7 billion pounds of discarded PVC break down in landfills, toxic chemicals leach into groundwater.
How did we come to be wading in this chemical soup? Substantial blame can be assigned to the ineffectual Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which, when it was passed in 1976, declared 62,000 chemicals that were already on the market safe with little or no supporting data.
Fewer than 200 of the chemicals given clearance by the TSCA have been required to be tested and only 5 have been banned or restricted. Since passage of the TSCA, 20,000 more chemicals have been approved. Instead of requiring companies to prove the safety of these chemicals, the law places the burden of proving them unsafe almost entirely on the government. Under TSCA regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not even have the authority to completely ban asbestos, a known carcinogen responsible for at least 10,000 deaths each year.
Many environmental and consumer-health organizations assert that the TSCA favors business over safety: Companies that create the chemicals voluntarily provide the EPA with some data on their product, but the information is not required to be complete or timely. Thousands of chemicals are considered trade secrets and given confidentiality protection.
This free ride appears to be ending. The Kid-Safe Chemicals Act—new legislation introduced by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Representative Bobby Rush (D-Ill.)—is intended to finally reform the antiquated TSCA, give the EPA some enforcement control, require more rigorous testing, and place the burden of proof on chemical manufacturers.
“People need to get out there and talk to family members, talk to friends, and build momentum for supporting a safer, better-regulated chemical industry,” says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. “Calling or writing your congressperson, signing petitions—that all helps. We need people to support the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act in order to bring about real changes.”
While passage of this strengthened act would be a giant step forward, it will still be years before it takes effect and improves lives. What can concerned consumers do in the meantime?
While certain plastics are considered safer than others, all should be kept out of the microwave and dishwasher. Those marked with numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5 are thought to be safer choices because they are manufactured with fewer toxic additives and are nonchlorinated. Plastic products with the numbers 3 (PVC), 6 (polystyrene), and 7 (usually BPAs) are considered less safe. Even the safer plastics remain environmental hazards, though.
Supporting green technology is one solution. IBM researchers recently announced plant-based catalysts to create plastic polymers that can be recycled numerous times in many applications. Conventional plastics typically can be recycled only once. Scientists at the Imperial College of London have developed a novel plastic from sugars found in fast-growing trees and grasses; it biodegrades completely in a compost heap in months. Forward-thinking entrepreneurs are developing replacements for plastic, using corn, potatoes, tapioca, and even algae as consumer demand grows.
Other solutions include progressive environmental initiatives such as the five-cent plastic and paper bag tax in Washington, D.C., which has already reduced the number of bags given out from 22.5 million to 3 million since it was adopted in January. The tax has also generated revenue: $150,000 will be used for cleaning up the Anacostia River.
Ireland has cut plastic bag use by more than 90 percent with its 15-cent tax. China banned plastic bags in 2008 and now saves 37 million barrels of oil a year. San Francisco was the first large U.S. city to ban plastic bags, and others are following suit.
Find out what’s going on in your community and see if there are any plastic-bag initiatives you can support. A good place to start is by contacting local environmental organizations.
Last, and most powerfully, the personal is the political. Go through your home to determine how you can cut back on wasteful packaging. For example, making your own natural cleaning products not only cuts down on household costs and chemicals but also reduces waste of plastic bottles. Cooking minimally processed foods means eating more healthfully and reducing use of cans and plastic-wrapped boxes.
Take reusable bags when you go shopping. Many varieties are designed to be carried in a purse, a commuter bag, or even a pocket. Keep them handy in your car or on your bike. The habit will quickly become ingrained if you make it easy for yourself. Most grocery stores allow shoppers to bring in their own containers, like glass jars, for bulk foods. Make a habit of taking a reusable water bottle with you; take a mug to your coffee shop. Once you commit to making these changes, they will become second nature.
While breaking free of plastic entirely may not yet be possible, we can minimize its effects on our health and the environment when we are committed to change and mindful of our consumption habits.
Excerpted from the San Francisco–based VegNews (July-Aug. 2010), a refreshingly smart, stylish, and informative take on the vegetarian/vegan lifestyle.www.vegnews.com