We live in a plastic world. It’s hard to believe the substance only came on the scene about 150 years ago when Alexander Parkes, an Englishman, mixed collodion, camphor, and ethanol together. He exhibited his invention at the 1862 Great International Exhibit in London. 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 can we rest easy? Probably not. In 1999, the European Union banned all pthalates in childrens’ toys. Pthalates are the chemicals used to soften plastic, and they can leach out of the plastic when chewed or sucked and perhaps cause cancer, mutations, and reproductive damage. The U.S. didn’t follow the EU’s lead in banning pthalates until January 2009, so toys manufactured before that 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.
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 are dismal. Only about 25 percent of all plastic bottles, 12 percent of bottled water containers, and 1 to 3 percent of plastic bags are recycled. The result? Plastic is littering our roadways, filling our landfills, mucking up our waterways, and killing marine life.
There’s a plastic waste dump site in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of the continental United States. According to a UN Environmental Program 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 after watching thousands of gallons of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico in the four months after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, 2009. 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 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour according to the Clean Air Council. But quite a few 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 everywhere.
- Bring reusable bags to the store. Keep some in your car or bike saddle bags so you don’t forget them.
- Don’t take plastic produce bags. Put produce in a reusable bag or wire basket.
- Stock up on jars and use them to store food. You can also freeze leftovers, breastmilk, or baby food in them. Just leave a little room at the top and thaw slowly.
- Use cloth bags to store dry food, like bread or grains.
- Buy food from the bulk section when possible. Bring glass jars for syrup, olive oil, nut butters, shampoo, etc. Ask the checkout person to weigh your jars before you fill them and write the tare weight on the lid.
- Cook from scratch.
- Make your own. It’s easy to mix up cleaners and toiletries, like deodorant, bath salts, and even shampoo and conditioner.
- Factor packaging into your decision-making. If you can afford to buy the glass jar of tomato sauce instead of the can, it may be worth a little extra cash.
- Buy products in larger quantities to reduce packaging waste. For instance, get the largest size of detergent.
- Don’t buy plastic toys.
- Consider using cloth diapers and/or reusable menstrual products.
Are you finding ways to use less plastic? I’d love to hear your ideas!