If you stop to take a look around you right now, there’s a very good chance you’ll find more than a dozen items made from plastic. If you’re reading on your computer then your hands are more likely on plastic. Pens, water bottles, mobile cases, bags, and even clothing are all made from plastic.
For more than a century we’ve had a love affair with plastic. We make everything from the material. From cars to electronics and even furniture, we live with plastic around us. Why do we love plastic so much? There are three primary reasons why plastic has invaded the world.
Three Reasons Why We Love Plastic So Much
Plastic is inexpensive
All plastics are polymers, which mean that they’re long chains of molecules. These synthetic, i.e. man-made, elements are relatively cheap to produce – much cheaper than the alternative.
For example, if you’re making a desk from wood and metal, the metal has to be forged and shaped. The wood needs to be harvested from a tree and formed into a desktop.
Both materials are natural materials that need to be acquired before they’re made into a desk. A plastic desk simply needs to be poured into a mold and then shaped. The elements that make up plastic don’t need to be harvested; they are made and the production process can be automated. A person can make fifty plastic desks in the time it takes to make one metal and wood one.
Plastic is lightweight, flexible and malleable
Plastic can be bent and molded into just about any shape. Think about the difference between a plastic straw and your television which is mostly plastic. The bumper on your car is probably plastic, as are the shampoo bottles in your shower. Plastic is also flexible. You can bend, squeeze, and twist many plastic items and they bounce right back into shape.
It’s also inexpensive to ship plastic products because they’re much more lightweight than the alternatives. Compare a plastic cooking pan with a ceramic or a cast iron pan and you’ll immediately see the difference in weight.
Plastic is durable
While plastic certainly isn’t as durable as metal or wood, it is durable enough compared to the cost. A plastic desk can last for decades. Depending on the type of plastic, it is relatively non-breakable. Think about some of the plastic items that you have – your cellphone case for example. It’s pretty durable.
We love plastic because it’s easy. Unfortunately, the reasons that we love plastic are the same reasons that it’s destroying the environment. The durable and inexpensive polymers aren’t natural and they’re abundant in the environment. It’s causing problems with our health and it’s killing wildlife. Plastic bags and bottles seem to be one of the largest problems.
Let’s take a look at the dangers of these two common products. In fact, you probably have a plastic bag and bottle in your home right now. Most people do.
The Danger of Plastic Bags and Bottles
Every time you go to the supermarket you probably come home with a plastic bag. We’re not just talking about the bags that your groceries are loaded into when you’re checking out. What about the bags that you put your produce in? Buy a half dozen apples and you put them into a plastic bag to keep them from rolling around, right?
Plastic bottles are almost as popular as plastic grocery bags. Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year. However, only about 23 percent were recycled. That means that 38 billion water bottles find their way into landfills and oceans.
Californians use over 19 billion plastic grocery bags each year. That averages to 552 bags per person. It creates 147,038 tons of waste in the landfills and oceans.
The Effect on Your Health and the Environment
The vast amount of garbage created from plastic bags and bottles is bad enough. Unfortunately, scientists are learning that the dangers of plastic lie far beyond overfull landfills. In fact, it can be quite harmful to our health.
Chemicals added to plastics are absorbed by human bodies. You’ve probably heard of bisphenol A or BPA, which has been shown to alter hormones in the human body and has other negative effects on human health as well.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 93 percent of people had detectable levels of BPA in their urine. The report also noted that the high exposure of premature infants in neonatal intensive care units to both BPA and phthalates is of “great concern.” We’ll come back to BPA in the next section.
Phthalates are used in vinyl flooring and wall coverings, food packaging and medical devices. Eight out of every ten babies, and nearly all adults, have measurable levels of phthalates in their bodies. Plastic buried deep in landfills leaches harmful chemicals that spread into our groundwater.
It’s harming animals, too. Plastic debris is often ingested by marine animals. Scientists have found that plankton, the bottom of the food chain, are feeding on microscopic plastic fragments that have worked their way down and are polluting deep ocean sediments.
The food chain means that, eventually, we’re consuming fish that have consumed plankton and we’re consuming plastic. And the vast amount of plastic garbage found in the ocean is literally choking and killing marine wildlife. In addition, all of the floating plastic waste now serves as little boats for invasive species, who are now able to float to new habitats and wreak havoc.
We breathe, eat, and drink plastic residue and the problems are only going to get worse. The solution is to begin eliminating plastic from our lives and to find better materials to use. Next, we’ll take a closer look at one of the most problematic elements in plastic – bisphenol A.
Plastic and Your Health – Bisphenol A
One of the ingredients often found in many common plastics is bisphenol A, mentioned above. You may have heard about this chemical but don’t know exactly what it is and how it causes health problems. Let’s take a closer look.
BPA is a chemical that’s used to harden plastics. So you’ll find it in hard product plastics like medical devices, dental sealants, water bottles, the lining of canned foods and many other products – including baby bottles and sippy cups for children.
Most of the BPA in our bodies comes from eating foods that are packaged in containers with BPA, as it leeches from the plastic and into the food. However, you can get it from the air and from water too.
The Risks of BPA
While the FDA originally claimed that BPA was safe, they’ve changed their stance on the chemical. Today they express “some concern” about the effects of BPA.
BPA has been shown to act as a hormone disruptor. This means that it changes your body’s production of and reaction to hormones. One of the hormones that is specifically under closer scrutiny is estrogen. It’s believed that BPA can behave like a hormone in your body.
When you produce more of a hormone, or your body believes you’re producing more of it, other hormone levels are impacted. Your body establishes a new set-point. This may seem like a small thing, having too much estrogen. However, estrogen is responsible for more than sex characteristics.
It’s responsible for:
- Fat burning
- Maintaining blood vessels and skin
- Reducing bone resorption and formation
- Protein synthesis
- Blood coagulation
- Cholesterol levels
- Fluid balance
- Regulating stress hormones
And that’s just the beginning of what estrogen is responsible for. If BPA interrupts hormone levels, the human body is in a lot of trouble. BPA has also been linked to brain and behavior problems.
In fact, the National Toxicology Program at the FDA is concerned about the effects on infants and young children. Some studies have shown a link between BPA exposure and cancer, heart problems, and other conditions including obesity, diabetes, and ADHD.
The bottom line is that BPA needs to be removed from the plastic manufacturing process. However, BPA free plastics are still far from safe. The ultimate solution is to get plastic out of your home and your life. Let’s take a look at the places where plastic waste is most common.
Places Where Plastic Waste Is Most Common
The world’s annual consumption of plastic materials has increased from around 5 million tonnes in the 1950s to nearly 100 million tonnes today. (WRAP). The amount of plastic waste generated annually in the UK is estimated to be nearly 5 million tonnes. 13 billion plastic carrier bags are used in the UK each year. Shoppers worldwide are using approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags per year. 75% of post consumer plastic waste is sent to landfill.
Recycling Is a Small Solution
Roughly 29.2 million tons ended up in landfills and 2.7 tons were incinerated. Incineration results in the release of carbon dioxide, and other air pollutants, including carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxins.
Now extrapolate that information to the following data – on average, 300 million tons of plastic are produced around the globe each year.
Where Does All This Waste Come From?
50% of disposable products like packaging come from plastics. Plastics make up 85% of medical equipment, and 25% of hospital waste is plastic.
If consumers can change their habits, they could eliminate 50% of the plastics in the world. The future of the environment and your family’s health begin with eliminating plastics. But, before we talk about how to cut back on your consumption of plastics, let’s take a look at the environmental impact in our oceans and with our wildlife.
What Are Plastics Doing to the Ocean?
One of the biggest problems with plastic is that it just doesn’t break down. Remember earlier when we talked about why plastic is so wonderful? We mentioned that it’s durable. This durability is a problem as well as a benefit.
How durable is it? A single plastic bag has a life expectancy of up to 1000 years. That’s pretty darned durable. Plastic bags and bottles are killing our oceans. Much of the landfill waste in the world ends up in the ocean. This may be pretty disgusting to think about but it’s actually worse than you might imagine.
Hundreds of thousands of pounds are cleaned up on the shores of our oceans each year. Much of that waste is plastic bags. In fact, during the 2014 International Coastal Cleanup, volunteers collected 830,581 plastic bags and 940,170 plastic bottles.
They also found 555,007 plastic straws. It’s fair to say that plastic is a problem in the oceans but what does it do to the environment?
In the ocean, plastics break down into small particles. They contain toxins and outnumber plankton six to one. Additionally, marine wildlife often mistake plastic bags for food. Large numbers of animals including whales, dolphins, seals, puffins and turtles have been found with plastic material, usually a plastic bag, blocking their airway or impeding digestion in their stomach.
Animals are dying because of plastic waste in the oceans. It’s estimated that over 1,000,000 seabirds and marine mammals die each year from plastic ingestion of entanglement. In fact, it’s so dangerous to some animals like the turtle that we’re at risk of losing certain species.
For example, 85 percent of all sea turtles will be injured or killed by plastics in their lifetime and the endangered leatherback turtles that summer in Massachusetts Bay before migrating to the tropics to mate are no exception. Plastics are killing this rare turtle.
The Garbage Patch
There’s a span of ocean between Virginia and Cuba that’s called the Great Atlantic Garbage Patch. It’s called this because it’s literally a plastic soup. The water is so contaminated with plastic particles that it barely resembles water anymore. It contains up to up to 26 million plastic particles per square kilometer.
Where does the waste come from? More than 80 percent of plastic material in the ocean comes from land-based waste. The Great Atlantic Garbage patch is created from waste traveling from the east coast of the United States.
Plastics in the ocean aren’t the only problem. Plastics cause a number of health and environmental problems on land too. Let’s take a look at those next.
How Plastic Impacts Wildlife and the Environment Outside of the Oceans
On land, plastic causes environmental problems as well. You might be surprised just how damaging a single plastic bag can be.
You already know that plastic degrades slowly. It takes more than 1000 years for it to degrade in the ocean. In landfills it also takes centuries to degrade. Solar radiation and oxidation causes it to break down.
When it degrades, small molecules which are still plastic polymers enter the air. Plastic waste becomes plastic dust which you, your children, and your pets all inhale.
We’ve talked about the problems that plastic causes in the human body, including causing hormone disruption and a possibility of cancer, diabetes, and even heart disease. Breathing in plastic on a daily basis isn’t helping anyone improve their health.
You might be drinking plastic too. Plastic buried deep in landfills breaks down and leaches harmful chemicals that spread into groundwater. When you turn on the faucet to get a drink of water or to rinse off your vegetables, you’re rinsing them with plastic particles.
Producing plastic causes problems too. About 4 percent of global oil production is used to make plastics. Oil production releases greenhouse gases into the air. A similar amount, 4 percent, is also consumed as energy in the production process.
Manufacturing plastic produces air pollution. Even something as seemingly beneficial as biodegradable plastics cause air pollution. As they’re broken down in the landfills, they release methane which is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Okay, so plastic causes air pollution, water pollution, and soil pollution. It kills animals and it harms human health – we just don’t know how harmful it is yet. Are there solutions? What’s being done?
One avenue that many manufacturers are taking is to produce biodegradable plastics. It’s not the only option; however, it’s one that is growing in popularity. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many benefits to biodegradable plastic as you might hope.
Are Biodegradable Plastics a Realistic Option?
As an attempt to solve the disastrous plastics problem, biodegradable plastics were created. Biodegradable means that the plastic is able to be broken down. It may sound like a good thing, right?
If plastics can be broken down then the accumulation of plastics in landfills and in the ocean will cease. Plastics will instead decompose and everything will be okay. Unfortunately, that’s not the whole story.
Biodegradable plastics require specific conditions to be broken down. Biodegradable plastics can be broken down by microorganisms which include bacteria or fungi. They’re broken down into water, carbon dioxide (CO2) and some bio-material. This process produces methane gas. Methane is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases and a primary cause of global warming.
Biodegradable plastics aren’t necessarily made from plants or bio-material. In fact, many biodegradable plastics are made from oil in the same way as conventional plastics. The manufacturing process requires an abundance of energy and produces the same degree of air pollution.
Where Can You Find Biodegradable Plastics?
There is a lot of confusion about biodegradable plastics and there are some plastics, made from corn for example, that are truly biodegradable and compostable. However, there are also plastics that are called “biodegradable” but aren’t.
You’ll find that most truly biodegradable plastics are used primarily for eating utensils, food containers, and compostable bags. Food packaging that is biodegradable can be composted with the content of the container, making it useful.
Other biodegradable plastics include plastic sheeting for gardens and agriculture. This sheeting can be ploughed into biodegradable mulch. Additionally, absorbable sutures and tiny devices containing medicine are made from biodegradable plastic and can break down inside your body.
While biodegradable plastic isn’t an ideal solution, it is one positive step toward reducing plastics. It’s important to keep in mind that just because it’s biodegradable doesn’t mean that it will completely go away and that the broken-down particles won’t cause environmental damage.
To find truly biodegradable products, look for products with the Biodegradable Products Institute logo. To be certified, a manufacturer has to comply with strict standards.
The Future of Plastic
While bioplastics (plastics made from corn and soy which are compostable and truly biodegradable) are still being developed and may hold a promising future, they represent only a small portion of the plastics being manufactured. More steps need to be taken now to begin to reduce the environmental impact.
Let’s take a look at some possibilities.
Most communities don’t offer recycling and those that do, often don’t recycle many plastics. Plastics are difficult to recycle and there’s little demand for recycled plastic. The most commonly recycled plastics contain PETE.
If you’ve recycled plastic, then these are the containers that are labeled with the number one. Plastics have been coded so that people in communities that offer recycling know what they can recycle and what they have to throw away.
PETE is easy to recycle. There’s also good demand for the recycled materials. Examples of plastics that are in this category include soda and water bottles, medicine containers, and other common consumer product containers.
The recycled material can be used to as fiberfill. It can also be made into rope, car bumpers, tennis ball felt, furniture and other plastic bottles.
Plastic is generally for heavier containers like laundry detergent, shampoo, motor oil and milk. This is a little more difficult to recycle. However, the materials can be made into lumber, rope and even children’s toys.
Plastics are more difficult to recycle and many programs don’t take them. You can often find independent recycling facilities that do take these plastics; however, independent facilities often charge a fee and don’t receive high volume from consumers.
Recycling is one option. However, due to the large number of plastics that municipal programs don’t accept, like plastic grocery bags, there’s still a huge problem. And many communities simply don’t have recycling programs. This puts the burden on the consumer to find a facility and most people just don’t make the effort.
This has caused some communities and states to issue legislation to not only reduce plastics in the environment but also to motivate people to recycle.
Legislation and Community Reduction Efforts
Example of legislation and community efforts includes legislation to charge consumers for their plastic bags. The goal is to motivate consumers to use reusable bags instead of paper or plastic. And other communities have banned water bottles.
Under a law that came into effect on 5 October 2015 retailers in England were required by law to apply a charge of 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags
The number of single-use plastic bags sold by large retailers has dropped by 83% since the carrier bag charge.
At 2B Lady we have got an eco policy and wherever possible avoid plastic altogether or using recyclable plastic and also our packaging used to ship all orders is either 100% recyclable or biodegradable, or both.
The gift wrapping cellophane is made of compostable & Biodegradable plastic (corn starch).
Any skincare plastic bottles are recyclable, so please recycle your empty bottles & packaging.You can recycle, earn rewards and donate to charity if you register at TerraCycle. It’s complete free. With our help, Terracycle are able to divert millions of pounds of waste from landfills and incinerators each month.