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Plastic — It’s Killing this Planet and Everything On It

Jennifer is a student at Skagit Valley College, Mount Vernon, Wash.

By Jennifer Fenswick 

Here’s the Problem in a Nutshell


First things first; let’s take a look at plastic – what it is, how it’s made, and what it’s made of.  Very simply put, plastic starts out as crude oil.  The oil undergoes a process called “cracking” where the various hydrocarbons in the oil are separated.  Polymers, stabilizers, resins, and a host of other chemicals, including phthalates and Bisphenol-A (BPA), are combined with the hydrocarbons to create the plastics we use every day including polycarbonate, the most common form of plastic used for consumer packaging (water and soda bottles, clear plastic clamshells), polystyrene (StyrofoamTM take-out containers, packing materials), polyethylene (plastic bags), and polypropylene (bottle caps, storage containers).

Plastics pose several major threats to all living things on this planet:

  • Plastic is toxic – many plastics leach toxic chemicals, including a host of known carcinogens, directly into the very foods and beverages they were designed to protect
  • Plastic is everywhere – plastic toxins have permeated and contaminated every corner of our environment.  We now breathe, drink, and ingest plastic virtually every single day
  • Plastic is not recyclable.  Contrary to what we’ve been told, the vast majority of plastic winds up in landfills (or worse, in our environment).  Because manufacturers claim their plastic formulas are proprietary, the specific chemical content of any given plastic product – water bottles for example – remains undisclosed. The dangers of mixing unknown chemicals from various sources renders post-consumer plastic unfit for human use.  What that really means is that we get one use out of each water bottle – they are not recyclable.
  • Plastic can take upwards of 1,000 years to biodegrade.

Health Risks

BPA and phthalates are present in the vast majority of food packaging in the United States.  BPA is particularly dangerous for several reasons; it is an estrogen-mimicking, endocrine-disrupting compound that has been linked to heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, asthma, diabetes, liver problems, and more.  BPA is cumulative in the body, meaning it is not flushed out in the urine.  BPA and other chemicals, which characteristically leach from the plastic linings of food cans and bottled beverages, are especially harmful to pregnant women, infants, and young children.

To date, BPA has been virtually unregulated in the United States.  Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, BPA was one of 62,000 chemicals grandfathered in as presumed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, despite the complete lack of evaluated evidence regarding its safety.  While several states (including Washington) have banned the use of BPA in baby bottles, sippie cups, and other baby products, and a growing list of countries including Canada have banned BPA in part or altogether, there are still many chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics that have not yet undergone any testing to evaluate their safety.  To learn more about endocrine disrupters, visit www.endocrinedisruption.com.

Environmental Risks

The experts agree – plastics kill.  The science is in and so far over 180 species of animals have been documented as ingesting plastics.  How does this happen?  Well, to a sea turtle a plastic bag floating in the water column looks just like delicious jellyfish.  A floating bottle cap resembles hard to find food to a foraging albatross.  To a fish, tiny plastic particles look like food.  As a result, creatures around the globe are virtually starving to death because their gullets are filled with plastic instead of nutritious food. But the disturbing news doesn’t end there.  Nurdles, the small pre-production plastic pellets used as raw material in manufacturing plastic goods, commonly fall out of rail cars or trucks during transport, eventually making their way – in huge numbers – into our waterways and ultimately our marine environment where they now pollute — in high densities — virtually every ocean on the planet.

Another deadly aspect of plastic is its tendency to attract and hold other toxic contaminants, creating an even larger threat to the marine eco system and its inhabitants. The ingestion of contaminated nurdles by phytoplankton — the microscopic creatures that comprise the foundation of the marine food chain — has been identified by governments worldwide as one of the most pressing environmental concerns facing the planet.  The increasing presence of toxic nurdles in our marine environment is particularly alarming when we consider that phytoplankton are eaten by zooplankton, which are eaten by fish, which are eaten by us.

Consumer Product Risks

We are all familiar with that “new car smell,” but what most people don’t realize is that that odor is caused by the breakdown of plasticizers and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the plastic used in the dashboard and other vehicle components. Often referred to as “off-gassing,” the emission of gasses laden with toxins such as phthalates and BPAs occurs all around us.  Be it from our electronics, televisions, furniture, carpets, nail polishes, shoes (including dyed leather), and even our clothing (with the exception of 100% cotton or hemp), off-gassing of toxins from plastics is everywhere.

While not a plastic, it is important for people to be aware of formaldehyde, another dangerous off-gassing chemical.  Classified as a carcinogen (cancer causing agent), formaldehyde is regularly used in and released from products including building materials, carpets, hair spray, fungicides, germicides, and disinfectants.  To learn more about formaldehyde and how to protect yourself from exposure to its toxic effects, click here http://www.epa.gov/iaq/formalde.

The Great Plastic Soup

The term “gyre” refers to a circular ocean surface current, and this is where

The Web site www.5gyres.org provides an at a glance snapshot of where the five major gyres on our planet have amassed insane amounts of highly toxic plastic waste.

What’s the Answer?

Generally speaking, plastic is toxic to produce, toxic to use, and toxic to dispose of.  But there are things we can do to protect ourselves and the environment:

  • Use BPA- and phthalate-free containers such as glass, stainless, ceramic, or porcelain instead of plastic for drinking, eating, and food storage.
  • Never microwave food in plastic; the heat releases endocrine disrupters into food. That goes for polystyrene (StyrofoamTM) and other plastic take-out containers from restaurants, too.
  • Throw out scratched and hazy-looking plastic containers, which are much more likely to leach chemicals.
  • Aluminum food cans are lined with BPA contaminated plastic.  Baby formula and acidic foods such as canned soups, pastas, and tomatoes are particularly susceptible. Buy products that are packaged in glass, which is 100% safe.
  • Repurpose glass jars and bottles by using them to store food or other items.
  • Research the chemical content of toys at www.healthytoys.org.  PVC content is listed (phthalates are not), but toys made with PVC generally include phthalates.
  • The best way to protect yourself is to adopt the mantra, I will not accept any plastic, and try and live by it. You’ll be surprised how easy it can be.

Protect Yourself

The best plastic is no plastic, but that can be difficult to accomplish.  Having an understanding of which plastics are more harmful than others can go a long way in the fight to protect against plastic poisons:

PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate): AVOID – leaching BPAs and phthalates

HDPE (High Density Polyethylene): SAFER

PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride, aka Vinyl): AVOID – leaching BPAs and phthalates, and off-gassing toxins

LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene): SAFER

PP (Polypropylene): SAFER

PS (Polystyrene, aka Styrofoam): AVOID – leaching toxic styrene and estrogenic alkylphenols

Other this is a catch-all category which includes: PC (Polycarbonate): AVOID – leaching BPAs; ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene), SAN (Styrene Acrylonitrile), Acrylic, and Polyamide. PLA (Polylactic Acid) also fall into the #7 category.

Acronym Full name Common Example
PET (PETE) Polyethylene terephthalate soda and water bottles
PES Polyester polyester clothing
PE Polyethylene plastic bags
HDPE High-density polyethylene detergent bottles, milk jugs
PVC Polyvinyl chloride plumbing pipes, condiment bottles cling wrap teething rings, toys shower curtains
PP Polypropylene bottle caps, storage containers, drinking straws
PA Polyamide (aka nylon) toothbrushes, clothing
PS Polystyrene take-out food containers and cups, meat trays

Protect yourself and your loved ones from the harmful toxins contained in food packaging.  For info on how to start, visit any of the following:

http://www.hhs.gov/safety/bpa/ http://olympiccoast.noaa.gov/protect/marinedebris/marinedebris.html




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