Why are plastics toxic? First of all, all plastic is made from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are in short supply and fossil fuels are nonrenewable. Therefore we need to use less plastic, just as we need to use less gas and oil. Hold on... Nasty Plastics 101 is not yet dismissed, because plastic is also energy-intensive, resource-intensive and toxic to manufacture. And it doesn't biodegrade. Ever.
Author Paul Goettlich stated in his article Get Plastic Out of Your Diet,
When you eat or drink things that are stored in plastic, taste it, smell it, wear it, sit on it, and so on, plastic is incorporated into you. In fact, the plastic gets into the food and food gets into the plastic and you. So, quite literally, you are what you eat. . . drink. . . and breathe — plastic! These plastics are called "Food Contact Substances" by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but until April 2002, they were called "Indirect Food Additives." The new name is cleansed of the implication that plastic gets into your food. In spite of this semantic deception, migration is a key assumption of the FDA. (Read more here)
Plastics are so pervasive in our world and they are a relatively new phenomena in our human history. But here at the Conservation Center, we have a particular distaste for PVC especially after watching a movie called Blue Vinyl about the manufacture and use of PVC, commonly referred to as vinyl. PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride and, when it is labeled, is marked with a #3. PVC is everywhere. Shower curtains, food packaging, floors, children’s toys, water pipes, siding, computers, and many other common household products are made with PVC. It’s all around us.
PVC gets its name “the poison plastic,” because of the life cycle of the plastic, which is toxic from start to finish. The Center for Health, Environment, and Justice calls PVC “one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created,” and with good reason.
The manufacture, use, disposal, and recycling of PVC releases some of the most toxic chemicals we know of. Mercury, lead, dioxins and phthalates are all used or released in the manufacturing of PVC. In fact, PVC manufacturing is the single largest use of industrial chlorine. These compounds cause cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive system harm, immune system damage, and other serious health problems.
PVC is also used in food packaging. PVC is especially prone to leaching phthalates into fatty foods and at higher temperatures. Just think of that “microwave safe” #3 PVC container filled with gooey mac and cheese that’s zapped at high temperatures and filled with fatty goodness! In the past few months on the grocery store shelf, I’ve seen a peanut butter jar and a canola oil bottle made with #3 PVC!
Here’s where it gets really ugly. Because there are no requirements for manufacturers to label food packaging or any other product as PVC, its hard to know what is PVC unless you dig really deep and pay extra attention. Some cling wraps that we use in commercial and home applications to store and re-heat foods are made from PVC!
That smell of a new shower curtain, new mattress cover, or new car is often the smell of potent gasses released from PVC. The EPA states that just one new PVC shower curtain significantly reduce indoor air quality for a month or more in a home.
What about recycling it? There are a few reasons the Summit County Recycling Program doesn’t take #3 PVC to be recycled. One is that there aren’t reliable markets for the product. But perhaps most importantly is that to recycle #3 PVC into a new product you have to introduce significant amounts of virgin PVC (including all those chemicals listed earlier) into the mix, in the end doing more harm than just disposing of it.
For all plastics, recycling is much less toxic than making it from new material, however the plastic recycling process itself is still quite toxic. And plastic, unlike metal or glass, can only be recycled a few times (and most only once) before it must go to the landfill.
Disposing of it is a little scary too, especially if there’s any chance it could be burned in an incinerator (not likely here in the High Country, but possible elsewhere). Significant amounts of dioxins are released when PVC is burned (either on purpose or by accident) and all firefighters are aware of the dangers of burning PVC.
To make the story even worse, we go to the beginning of PVC, where manufacturing plants are disproportionately located in poor communities and where workers and residents around PVC plants have higher rates of testicular cancer, rare forms of liver cancer, and many other severe health problems.
There’s a wee bit of good news in this story: safe alternatives to PVC are everywhere. There’s no reason to put canola oil in a #3 PVC jar when #1 PET plastic is available! The Healthy Building Network lists alternatives to PVC for the building industry. And there are countless options for chlorine-free plastics for toys, bottles and more. See below for a ton of resources and solutions!
More on Toxic Plastics:
Have you been to the Summit
County landfill? On any given day you can see plastic bags
lining the landfill’s fence or dancing in the branches
of surrounding aspens and forests. Not a pretty sight. And it’s a shame to think that plastic bags can only be
In the good words of County Recycling Manager, Kevin Berg,
“Plastic bags aren’t a recycling problem, they
are a consumption problem.” You see, the issue starts at the stores not at the recycling site.
Americans use between 300 and 700 plastic bags in one year
and most of these end up in the landfill. Not only do they
blow out of landfills like they do here in Summit County,
but plastic bags photodegrade or break down into small toxic
pieces when exposed to sunlight. These small bits can seep
into our water and soil.
A plastic bag’s useful life may be counted in minutes
but it can take a plastic bag hundreds or even thousands
of years to break down in a landfill environment.
There are options for recycling plastic bags but it condones
and even encourages single use behavior. People often use
more plastic bags when they know that they can recycle them
later. Sometimes the act of recycling goes without complete
understanding for all that is involved… such as the
use of non-renewable resources in the production phase.
If you'd like to see less disposable bag waste in Summit County and aren't sure how to get involved, join the Bag It Committee! The Bag It Committee is a group of concerned citizens that want to see a form of action taken against single-use disposable bags, both plastic and paper. With a small investment of time, you could be part of a big solution. For more information or to get involved, contact Jen Santry..
Results from the 2009 Reusable Bag Challenge:
The results are in and Summit County came in 3rd place for the Reusable Bag Challenge. Nice job Summit! Our community saved 411,680 plastic bags from our landfill in 6 months by bringing our own reusable bags. To put that into single-use perspective, we saved nearly 40 bags per person (based on town populations). Together, all the participating towns eliminated the consumption of an estimated 5.3-million single-use disposable bags. Our collective impact was substantial! If we've saved over 5.3 million plastic bags from a wasteful life in the landfill in only six months, think about what we can do in a year, five years, or a lifetime.
The Reusable Bag Challenge may be over but we have an even bigger environmental challenge ahead of us. So keep BYOBing Summit County.
Some info from
CAST about environmental issues associated with plastic
Currently, the United States uses 100 billion plastics
bags per year at an estimated cost of 4 billion dollars
and 12 million barrels of oil.
Plastic carryout bags are made in a number of different
sizes and thicknesses and are typically manufactured from
either high-density polyethylene (HDPE-recycling symbol
#2) or from low-density polyethylene (LDPE-recycling symbol
#4). The LDPE bags are thicker and are generally used
by department stores and other commercial retail outlets.
The HDPE bags are typically thinner, cheaper and are used
much more widely by supermarkets, pharmacies, and convenience
stores and restaurants. These bags are termed “single-use”
bags because they are intended for one time use for customers
to carry their purchases from the store, followed by disposal
Plastic bags are recyclable, however, very few are
actually recycled. Research conducted by the County of
Los Angeles in 2007 found that this is largely due to
the logistics of sorting, high concentration rates that
reduce the quality of the recycled resin produced, the
low quality of plastic used in the bags, and the lack
of cost efficiency due to lack of a suitable market for
the recycled resin. Various estimates suggest that only
1% of plastic bags are being recycled.
Plastic bags are a significant component of litter in
the environment primarily due to their durability and
lightweight. Even when disposed of properly, plastic bags
are often blown out of trash receptacles and are easily
carried by wind and water to become entangled in vegetation,
clog storm drains and contribute to free floating plastic
debris in the marine environment.
We can live without plastic shopping bags in our lives.
If one person uses one reusable bag for one year, this
individual will reduce the number of plastic shopping
bags used and thrown away in this country by 500-1,000.
Of all of the lifestyle changes we will need to make to
exist in a truly self-sustaining society, this represents
a relatively easy step in the right direction.
BagIT - A documentary
about plastic bags and other plastics...
REEL Thing Productions,
a production company based out of Telluride, CO, is working
on a feature-length documentary—working title BagIT—about
plastic bags and other plastics and their effect on the
environment and on human health.
Here at the Conservation Center, we get a lot of questions about what small proactive steps individuals can take to make the biggest environmental impact. One of the greatest things you can do for the planet is to break single-use habits. The two things that always come to mind are plastic bags and plastic water bottles. This year, I took the pledge to completely eliminate both items from my life. And I have to say, I haven’t missed either one!
The useful life of a plastic water bottle is very similar to that of the plastic bag. They both provide about 15 minutes of convenience (sometimes less, sometimes more) and then we no longer need them or want them. And like the single-use bag habit, our obsession with convenience – a fresh bottle of water available to purchase just about anywhere – has a dramatic negative impact on our environment. Check out Annie Leonard's The Story of Bottled Water to find out more.
According to New American Dream: "Everything we consume has a climate impact, but manufacturing and trucking water bottles to homes with clean tap water seems particularly wasteful. The Beverage Marketing Corporation reports that Americans consumed 31.2 billion liters of water in 2006.
Manufacturing all those bottles requires 900,000 tons of plastic, the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil, and emit more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. Trucking around all those heavy bottles emits even more greenhouse gases. Beyond the climate impact there's the massive waste - 86% of water bottles aren't recycled. Moreover, while the demand for bottled water is up in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency had found that 90 percent of tap water domestically is safe to drink. Furthermore, studies show that at least 40 percent of bottled water is just tap water!"
Here's New American Dream's Top 5 Reasons to Give Up Bottled Water:
1. Disposable plastic water bottles are not meant for multiple uses.The #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is fine for a single use, but reuse can lead to bacterial growth and leaching of dangerous chemicals.
2. Bottled water is full of oil. Making bottles to meet Americans’ demand for bottled water requires more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel some 100,000 cars for a year. To put it another way, the entire energy costs of the lifecycle of a bottle of water is equivalent, on average, to filling up a quarter of each bottle with oil. (Pacific Institute)
3. Bottled water is expensive! Drinking the recommended daily amount of water using bottled water can cost an average of $1,400 per year; drinking the same amount from the tap costs around 49 cents for the year. (NY Times)
4. Your tap water is fine to drink. Tap water is more highly regulated than bottled water and over 90 percent of water systems meet EPA's standards for tap water quality. (If the taste or color is a little off from your tap, your pipes are probably at fault—a simple filtration system should do the trick to take both aesthetic problems away.)
5. At least 40 percent of bottled water is tap water anyway. That’s right: you are paying a huge premium on water that you could have just gotten from your tap in the first place. (Natural Resources Defense Council) You probably like tap water more than bottled water, too!
"I pledge to Break the Bottled Water Habit by Thinking Outside the Bottle and using a reusable water bottle instead of buying bottled water. I also pledge to support the efforts of local officials to stop spending public funds on bottled water and prioritize strong public water systems over bottled water profits." Take the pledge online here.
And take these proactive steps: Use your own (plastic-free) water bottle and make the decision to cut single-use water bottles out of your life. I guarantee this life recipe will have you well on your way to saving the planet.
There is a plastic something
growing in the Pacific. Scientists have described it as
a plastic “soup” and some even call it a plastic
It was discovered over
a decade ago as floating plastic garbage between the coasts
of California and Japan. At the time, sailors and researchers
sized the Pacific garbage patch as larger than the state
of Texas. Since then, biologists have dedicated their lives
to studying the plastic mass. A few years ago it was reported
to have grown to double the size of Texas. Now, this plastic
sea monster is double the size of the United States!
known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the Pacific
Garbage Vortex, this diagram shows how trash (yellow dots)
entering the sea from land along the Pacific coast is caught
by the gyre. On its way, the trash is conentrated and eventually
ends up in one of the two shown gyres. As a consequence,
in these areas, the surface water contains six times more
plastic than plankton.
You may have seen the gloomy
photos of sea turtles gagging on plastic bags or sea birds
nesting in beach landfills. However, it is difficult to
relate to such tragedies when Summit County is over a thousand
miles away from the Pacific coast. Plastics still have a
substantial affect on our mountain community as well as
other ecosystems. In fact, the majority of the ocean’s
litter originates on land.
Yes, nearly 80 percent of the sea’s garbage started
its journey inland. Think about it. Here in Summit County,
not only do plastic bags and bits blow into our forests
and trees, they find their way into our water systems including
pristine rivers. In the city, plastics sneak into storm
drains. From Lego blocks to barbie dolls, these petroleum-based
plastics are eventually carried out to sea. So in reality,
all of us, in the mountains or on the coast are responsible.
ocean is a vast being and you can start to see why some
people have got away with throwing debris, chemicals, cars,
dead bodies… into its seemingly bottomless pits. Once
garbage is dumped, the ocean gobbles it up and the garbage
magically goes away. In the past, trash would break down
in a fairly short time with the help of marine microorganisms.
Once plastics were introduced into the stream, everything
Instead, we created a massive
plastic sea monster. Once again we’ve thrown manmade
materials into nature and now have to reap the consequences.
Unfortunately, we’ve out-smarted and somewhat defeated
natural bacteria needed for biodegradation.
Plastics photodegrade or
break down with the help of sunlight into tiny toxic bits
that microorganisms refuse to digest. Even more frightening
is that these small plastic polymers are sponges for pesticides,
electronic wastes, and other pollutants. Not only has man
created indestructible plastic particles that will out-survive
even the hardiest cockroach, we have doused the particles
in dangerous toxins and pollutants. And all of this is free-floating
in our oceans?
Once these toxic plastic
fragments are released into the ecosystem, they accumulate
in underwater currents known as gyres. In this plastic garbage
whirlpool, scientists have found everything from syringes
and cigarette lighters to toothbrushes. Marine biologists
have even found natural zooplankton and other small sea
creatures mixed in with thousands of colored plastic crumbs
referred to as a “plastic-plankton soup.” Other
items such as drums full of hazardous chemicals, barnacle-covered
volleyballs, and plastic coat hangers have also been discovered
in this whirlpool waste.
Researchers have recently discovered that there are six
pounds of plastics for every pound of naturally occurring
zooplankton in the ocean. The problem is that zooplankton
and plastic bits are ingested by fish and other sea creatures.
Poisons then pass into our food web! I don’t know
about you but I rather not eat from the plastic-plankton
Now you are aware of the issue; and to some of you it may
seem like the ocean is a faraway place and somebody else’s
problem. But it is everyone’s problem! Until we stop
relying on plastics as a way of life and we change our consumption
behaviors, plastics will continue to be produced, used once
or twice, and discarded. Why risk the plastic bottle or
bag you use becoming a part of the floating plastic dump?
Become a part of the solution! Remember your reusable bags
at the store. Stop the waste of plastic water bottles. Buy foods that aren’t wrapped in plastics. And speak out against needless plastics. Every step you
take to decrease unnecessary plastics in your life makes
Want to know more? The Los Angeles Times put
together an excellent online presentation called Altered
Oceans: A five-part series on the crises of the seas with
part four of the series focusing on the hazards of plastic
ocean debris. Check it out here.
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