It has only really occured to me recently that although there is plenty of information out there about many green issues, for instance trying not to use plastic carrier bags in preference of reusable and changing ideals about what goes in our shopping baskets – there are still lots of things which tend to be overlooked but to me seem an integral part of being “green”. Choosing to have a conscience about the impact we have on the planet and its inhabitants is more than just choosing a free-range chicken or buying Ecover washing-up liquid, it’s about every aspect of how we consume and consquently how much of an impact we have.
One of my bug-bears is plastic. It drives me loopy just how much people use in their daily lives and take it for granted. Not only is it so incredibly inefficient, using a fair amount of our crude oil supplies, but it has to be intensively manufactured (more energy lost) and then transported (energy again) before it ends up in our homes in everything from electricity cables to your washing-up liquid and your sanitary products (that is, if you don’t use Natracare!). Just to be used the once and thrown into landfill, where the average plastic container will take 300 years to rot down – into carbon dioxide, sometimes dioxins and other pollutants.
It seems that we all take plastic for granted, and that because plastic’s so widely used and trusted, it’s safe. Unfortunately there are so many aspects to plastics and in most cases cost-efficiency comes first in the manufacturing process, rather than safety. So like I’ve done before on cosmetics and food, I decided to educate myself – and therefore you lot who read the blog – about plastics. How they’re used, what resources they take up, what they’re made of and whether they really could be dangerous to us.
My first exposure to the posibility that plastics could be dangerous was when I read a magazine article about a plastic additive, added to polycarbonate plastics, called Bisphenol-A. It’s the so-called building block of the polycarbonates-group and is an integral part of their structure. However, it is well published that Bisphenol-A works as an endocrine disruptor, in particular an estrogen receptor agonist, meaning it causes changes in the body as if you were being exposed to estrogen. This means that a males in utero, male infants and children who are exposed to this can have feminisation of their bodies at relatively low exposures. In lab animals (mice), when given the relatively small dose of 0.025 µg/kg/day suffered permanent changes to their genital tract¹. It’s not science-fiction, it’s science-truth, and even worse, most baby bottles are made of polycarbonate with the Bisphenol-A monomer included. The difference between a breast-fed baby and those using polycarbonate bottles to feed in relation to amounts of Bisphenol-A they receive is quite marked.
Polycarbonates are the plastics used in CDs (doesn’t it make MP3s sound so much better?), and many shatterproof, clear plastics (some picnic plastic glasses, for instance). They are hard-wearing and are very clear, allowing them to be used in anything from babies’ bottles to medical equipment and iPod cases to spectacle lenses. In short we come into contact with them on a fairly regular basis, and whilst the chance of them leaching Bisphenol-A into the atmosphere is slim, when they are used in a close setting (food and medical applications) then there is some cause for concern.
In the EU we are pretty lucky when it comes to identifying plastics, usually for recycling purposes, we are given the Mobius Loop with a number inside it. These are called Resin Identifiers. The number tells us which plastic we’re dealing with, and is a useful resource as it’s on almost all plastics. Armed with this knowledge we can make a lot of decisions on which plastics we allow in our homes (however there are issues with this which I’ll detail later).
So let’s talk about what sorts of plastics are good, which are bad, and which you should evict from your home ASAP.
The main plastic groups are actually very easy to tell apart from one another, though there are a few exceptions, each type usually have defined characteristics, be it texture or maleability, thus helping you to make quick and easy decisions when it comes to buying plastic products.
Plastics marked with the above symbol are PET or PETE, which stands for polyethylene terephthalate. Despite the ominous “pthalate” bit at the end I can’t seem to find anything “bad” about this plastic (from strenuous research, I can’t find anything anywhere that says it actually contains a pthalate), other than it is a plastic, and therefore unsustainable. A chemical used in its processing, antimony trioxide has been proven to leach out, however it is a low-toxicity chemical, with little effect at low doses, and is well-below WHO targets for maximum daily intake. However if you go around your house and look at anything from water bottles to plastic food containers, shampoo bottles and plant pots, you are most likely going to find PET or PETE. This plastic is readily recyclable, meaning that when you’re done with it, there are potential future uses as long as you do recycle it. It is also used in the manufacture of polyester clothing. PET and PETE are usually clear, though they can be opaque, and they can come as any colour under the sun. They are pliable (bendy) but not as much as HDPE and LDPE.
Our second plastic is HDPE or High Density Polyethylene. HDPE is the cloudy plastic used in carrier bags, modern plastic milk bottles, tupperware, water pipes and compost bins. It is, like PET, pretty much everywhere around us, and as far as I can tell it’s a fairly “safe plastic”, though it’s used an awful lot in plastic bags, which have to be the worst invention to ever have graced the planet. Especially when fabric bags look so much nicer! HDPE items are very recyclable, too, which means that they can be used again and again, saving the planet some landfill space!
Our next plastic is one to watch out for. I’m sure you’ll all be very familiar with PVC or polyvinyl chloride. This plastic is particularly used around children and babies, in wipeable bibs, rain protectors for prams, washable toys and many other uses. It can take on many different forms, from clear, easily formed sheets (rain protectors) to typical “soft” plastic toys, such as rubber-duckies for the bath. You’re also likely to find it in non-food bottles, cling film, plastic fencing, covering electric wires and many medical appliances like IV bags, tubing and oxygen-masks. PVC is made malleable (or easy to bend) and non-brittle by the use of a plasticiser called a pthalate (thal-ate), there are lots of different pthalates like DEHP (diethylhexyl phthalate), DINP (diisononyl pthalate) and more.
I think what worries me the most about PVC is its use in so many products around the home. I’ve managed to just about elminiate individual instances of it from our home, but don’t forget if you’ve got uPVC windows (we do), then not only do they contain pthalates (to stop the PVC from becoming brittle), they also secrete dioxins into the air when manufactured and when burnt. You know, even the gorgeous Cath Kidston oilcloths contain PVC-coated fabric, which is why as much as it pains me to do it, I won’t buy any (I just had official confirmation from their head-office).
Though PVC isn’t just used in children’s toys. There was a big scandal by Greenpeace when they showed that there is an alarming pthalate leach risk from sex toys. Yep, your best bedtime friend may be doing you no favours. Though I think the scariest thing for me is cling-film. Go to any deli counter (or kitchen) up and down the country and you can find cheeses wrapped in the stuff, cooked meats, just about anything covered in it. What often isn’t known is that PVC leaches pthalates at high concentrations when in contact with oils or fats, i.e. it is very oil-soluble. And what is cheese if not a big piece of fat? It is possible to buy non-PVC clingfilm, however this is as yet not in wide use. I always cover everything with either recycled foil or baking parchment, and I suggest you do too.
But what do pthalates actually do? Well they have a very similar effect to that of Bisphenol-A, in that they are endocrine disruptors and can change sexual characteristics, particularly of the testes³. That bit is pretty certain, and what is also certain is that those people who have worked with PVC for any amount of time have a significantly increased risk of developing cancer (rare cancers, seldom seen in the normal population)5. There was also a Danish-Swedish study² that found a statistical association between concentrations of DEHP and BBzP in the air and asthma in children. There is an American group of hospitals who are removing PVC from its IV bags and tubing, and this report4 shows it’s probably a good thing.
On the upside, the pthalates DEHP, BBP and DBP are restricted (restricted, not banned) for all toys, however the pthalates DINP, DIDP, and DNOP can still be used in any toy not specifically designed to go into the mouth (try telling that to your gummy, exploring 8-month-old).
Number 4 is LDPE, cousin to HDPE it stands for Low Density Polyethylene and is found in many of the same applications from milk bottles, carrier bags, lots of bottles and boxes, food containers and tubing. As far as I can tell there is no particularly bad press about this plastic, other than it’s in use alost constantly, especially in the nature-devastating plastic rings around multipacks of canned drinks. This is a typical “reduce, reuse, recycle” plastic, where it is better to reduce your consumption and reuse bottles wherever possible.
Our fifth plastic is PP or Polypropylene. It is the jack-of-all-trades in the plastic world, it is many things, from bottle tops (being slightly more rigid than HDPE/LDPE) to packaging, stationary, textiles, plastic cutlery and reusable containers. Again not a particularly worrying plastic, there are no pthalates or bisphenol-A, however the sheer amount it is used in packaging is enough to be worrying.
Plastic number six is not a toxic plastic per se, but it is considered an outlaw in our household. It is the dreaded PS or polystyrene (or if you’re going to be all American about it, styrofoam). You know when you get something sent to you in a huge box, it’s stuffed with those little nuggets which your 3 year-old stuffs in their ear? That’s polystyrene (and I was the 3 year-old who stuffed it in her ear).
It can come in two main guises, as very cheap, thin, clear plastic used to make disposable drinks glasses and a puffy, opaque material used to make insulated drinks containers and those horrid little packaging nuggets. Like any plastic it takes ages to decompose, giving off carbon dioxide as it does, and dioxins if it’s incinerated. Either way, it’s such a waste, when you can use old newspapers to line a box, or even popcorn. Both compostable alternatives!
Number 7 is the one marked “other”. It is for all the plastics which aren’t those mentioned above. It can mean literally anything from acrylics to ABS plastic, polycarbonates (the ones mentioned above, with bisphenol-A), nylon, PLA or Polylactic Acid (a biodegradable plastic made from corn-starch) and many others.
The more I research plastic use in the modern world, the more it angers me. Already we’re trying to do away with as much of the plastic as possible – for more than a year we’ve done all of our shopping using only fabric bags, we avoid buying drinks in plastic bottles where possible, and if we do buy them we find an alternate use for them (plant waterers!) when they’re finished-with. But when I go to a supermarket I see more plastic than ever, still in use. Ready-meals in lots of plastic packaging destined for a bin, whole aisles head-to-toe full of PET drink bottles and the dreaded plastic bags.
Plastics don’t just have a negative impact on the land and us, they are devastating our seas, too. Those little plastic nuggets used in plastics manufacturing (the official term is “nurdle“) are finding their way into the stomachs of sea-creatures (48% more plastic than plankton in parts of the Pacific ocean), thinking they’re food. This is a long-known-about phenomena. Polluting our seas with what are known as “mermaid’s tears“, tiny pieces of plastic, which are not only leaching pthalates if it’s PVC or Bisphenol-A if it’s polycarbonate, but are literally killing our seas and the creatures that inhabit them.
Without knowledge change won’t happen, and without change we’re effectively letting big business decide what’s best for us, without getting a say in it. Anyone else for paper bags and glass bottles again?
¹^ Markey CM, Wadia PR, Rubin BS, Sonnenschein C, Soto AM (2005). “Long-term effects of fetal exposure to low doses of the xenoestrogen bisphenol-A in the female mouse genital tract“.
²^ Bornehag et al. (2004). “The Association Between Asthma and Allergic Symptoms in Children and Phthalates in House Dust: A Nested Case-Control Study“. Environmental Health Perspectives 112 (14): 1393–1397.
³^ Salazar-Martinez E, Romano-Riquer P, Yanez-Marquez E, Longnecker MP, Hernandez-Avila M (2004). “Anogenital distance in human male and female newborns: a descriptive, cross-sectional study“. Environ Health 3 (1): 8. doi:10.1186/1476-069X-3-8. PMID 15363098. PMC:521084.
4 ^ Safety Assessment ofDi(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP)Released from PVC Medical Devices.
5 Clinical and morphologic features of hepatic angiosarcoma in vinyl chloride workers. Makk, Delmore, Creech et al.