We live in a plastic world. It’s hard to believe the substance only came on the scene about 155 years ago when Alexander Parkes, an Englishman, mixed collodion, camphor, and ethanol together in 1862. Then in 1907 Leo Baekeland created an entirely synthetic plastic from phenol and formaldahyde and coined it Bakelite. Its chemical name is harder to pronounce: polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride.
Imagine how novel this cheap, light, colorful material was to people accustomed to glass, clay, and cast iron, and it’s easy to appreciate the zeal for plastic in the last century. Think of sixties housewives furnishing their homes with fiberglass tables and chairs, donning polyester dresses, and hosting Tupperware parties on the weekends. Plastic wasn’t just for adornment either. It brought real progress – film, vinyl records, cassette tapes, compact discs, computers, artificial heart valves, prosthetic body parts, contact lenses, and more.
Recently, however, the fervor for plastic has given way to anxiety. Why?
People began questioning what’s in the long chains of unpronounceable chemicals filling our homes. What are our babies sucking on when we hand them a pacifier, bottle, or teething ring?
Bisphenol A, a chemical used in polycarbonate plastics – including pipes, dental fillings, water bottles, canned food, and many food wrappers – has come under fire. Bisphenol A is a “xenoestrogen” – a known endocrine disruptor. Numerous animal studies have found effects on fetuses and newborns exposed to it. Nearly everyone in the U.S. is exposed to it because polycarbonate plastic breaks down over time and leaches BPA into our bodies. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) found detectable levels of BPA in the urine of 93% of people they tested.
In 2007, 38 experts agreed that the average levels of BPA in people are above those known to cause harm to animals. A panel convened by the U.S. National Institutes of Health stated there’s “some concern” about BPA’s effects on fetal and infant brain development.
Manufacturers rushed to take BPA out of water and baby bottles. But in 2013, scientists discovered Bisphenol S (BPS) and Bisphenol F (BPF), the substances manufacturers used to replace BPA in products, also break down, leach into the body, and may damage human cells. BPS was found in 81 percent of random urine samples.
And those aren’t the only chemicals known to be toxic. In 1999, the European Union banned all pthalates, chemicals used to soften plastic, in childrens’ toys because they can leach out of plastic when chewed or sucked and may cause cancer, mutations, and reproductive damage. The U.S. didn’t follow the EU’s lead in banning pthalates in children’s toys until 2017, so pacifiers and teething rings manufactured before then may contain them.
Even if we stop eating off or chewing on plastic, the plastic manufacturing process has health implications. When Formosa Plastics Corp. built a factory in southeast Texas, ranchers noticed their steers losing weight, cows miscarrying more frequently, and calves being born with birth defects or stillborn. Texas A & M researchers discovered DNA damage in the cows living near the factory. The cattle downwind had the most damage.
Planetary Waste Crisis
Every time someone eats a tub of salsa, drinks a Styrofoam cup of coffee, sips on a bottle of Aquafina, or says yes to a plastic bag at the supermarket, a plastic container gets dumped. Plastic recycling rates have been dismal and stand to get much worse. Until 2017, only about nine percent of the plastic consumed in the U.S. was recycled, including about 23 percent of all plastic bottles, 12 percent of bottled water containers, and 1 to 3 percent of plastic bags.
To make things worse, in 2017, China announced it would no longer accept most of the U.S.’s recycled plastic because of public health concerns. The U.S. was exporting a third of its recycled plastics to other countries for processing, and half of that was shipped to China. China’s announcement led many U.S. municipalities to halt plastics recycling, forcing consumers to throw plastic waste in the garbage.
Scientists estimate it will take between 400 and a million years for most plastic products to biodegrade. Plastic is littering our roadways, filling our landfills, mucking up our waterways, and killing marine life.
A huge soup of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean is estimated to be somewhere between the size of Texas to twice the size of the continental United States. According to one estimate, over a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals die every year from ingesting plastic debris.
A non-renewable resource
Plastic is a petroleum by-product, and more Americans are looking critically at our reliance on petroleum products. We had a devastating look at the downsides of petroleum extraction and distribution when thousands of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in 2009.
And it’s not just massive oil spills that pollute our environment. Minor petroleum leaks and spills contaminate soils or wash into storm drains and pollute waterways.
Petroleum extraction is also responsible for a myriad of social and political troubles around the world.
Is it time to part with polymers?
Americans throw away 60 million plastic bottles every day according to the Clean Air Council, and many of us are looking for ways to generate less waste.
Here are 12 easy ways to use less plastic:
- Carry a stainless steel coffee mug or water bottle.
- Factor packaging into your decision-making. If you can afford to buy the glass jar of tomato sauce instead of a can or plastic bottle, consider whether it’s worth a little extra cash to you. (Cans are lined with plastic, and 40 percent still contain BPA.)
- Bring reusable bags to the store. Keep some in your car or bike basket so you don’t forget them. Transport produce in reusable bags or a basket.
- Just say no to straws. Americans throw away 500 million straws per day.
- Buy food from the bulk section when possible. Refill glass jars with syrup, cooking oil, nut butters, shampoo, etc at a local health food store. Ask the checkout person to weigh your jars before you fill them and write the tare weight on the lid.
- Store food in jars or cloth bags. You can freeze leftovers, breast milk, or baby food in jars if you leave a little room at the top and thaw them slowly.
- Cook from scratch. Processed food, take-out containers, and to-go beverages are usually packaged in plastic, styrofoam, or plastic-lined materials.
- Use cloth diapers and/or reusable menstrual products.
- Use a Bento lunchbox.
- Make your own detergents, cleaners, and toiletries, such as deodorant, bath salts, and shampoo and conditioner.
- Buy products in larger quantities to reduce packaging waste. For instance, get the largest sizes of detergent and bath tissue.
- Avoid buying flimsy plastic toys and trinkets that you’ll throw away quickly. Keep plastic away from babies or toddlers who will chew on it.
Depressed about throwing plastic in the garbage? Check out these 12 Easy Ways to Use Less Plastic.Click To Tweet
Reduce and Reuse
Scientists, governments, and consumers are just beginning to reckon with the planetary crisis of plastics pollution. We need large-scale solutions to address the problem. However, in the meantime, it’s up to all of us to use less plastic.
[Editor’s note: This is an updated and revamped version of a blog post originally published on June 19, 2009.]
Are you finding ways to use less plastic? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!
If you liked this post, you may like these related posts:
- Local, Seasonal Foods are Superfoods
- 3 Powerful Ways to Plant Flowers
- Become the Solution
- Redefining Wealth
- Making Economic Exchange a Loving Human Interaction
- How to Plant Geeks Grew a Permaculture Oasis in an Ordinary Backyard
- Why the Most Powerful Thing in the World is a Seed