by Jude Deane
From the Bakelite beginnings in the fifties to the technological trappings of the 2000s, plastics now permeate every aspect of our lives and devastatingly pollute our environments and threaten our very existence.
They are in every nook and cranny of our homes, phones, containers, cosmetics, clothes, cars, our toys, in every consumed convenience you can imagine, even in cigarette butts. They now constitute ninety percent of our consumables. They are both an eyesore and an unseen. Their toxic soup of chemicals both within and those created in their manufacture, leach into our soils, our waterways, we ingest them, inhale them and absorb them.
Plastics don’t breakdown they break up into miniscule particles that can last over a thousand years and reduce to a sludge or powder near impossible to clean up. They take up residence in all our environments. They lie on the land, fly with the wind, nest in our trees, they fester in landfills and leach into our soils only to be absorbed into plants and be mistaken for food by wildlife. They get carried through waterways and on reaching the sea are carried by currents into sea dump sites called ocean gyres. It’s estimated some 8 million tons of plastic pose a serious threat being said to be ingested by 31 species of marine mammals and more than 100 species of sea birds and at this current rate experts predict there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050. Every living thing is exposed, flora and fauna, our earth and us.
Studies suggest that between them, that up to 60% of this waste comes from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Countries experiencing rapid economic growth, endeavouring to reduce poverty and improve their quality of life, who do not yet have the budgets and waste-management infrastructures to tackle their excess waste. Projections suggest that plastic consumption in Asia will rise to some 80% and exceed 200 million tons by 2025. Asian waste washes up on scarcely populated northern Australian shores brought in by the currents, where it is difficult to access and costs us millions of tax dollars to clean up. These studies conclude,interventions in these five countries alone could reduce global plastic-waste leakage by approximately 45% over the next 10 years.
Plastics impact on human life is becoming evident as the most harmful chemicals known in plastics are essentially endocrine disruptors. These endocrine disruptors mimic the hormone oestrogen and disrupt hormonal balance. They are thought to effect fertility, development and sexuality in both men and women. By interfering with testosterone in utero, they disrupt normal sexual development, causing early puberty in girls, diminishing sperm counts in males and feminizing men. They are also thought to be responsible for the rise in breast and uterine cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. There has been an observed correlation between the rise in cancers in general, severe mood swings, the hyperactivity, autism in children, obesity and the propensity to type two diabetes over the last fifty years that mirrors the rise of plastic consumption and whilst not considered the only cause, its significance cannot be ignored.
In the manufacturing process different combinations of resins and polymers create plastics with different properties, and different types of plastic present different health hazards. Numerous toxic chemicals are released, many known to be carcinogenic and neurotoxic. These include vinyl chloride, from PVC; dioxins and benzene, from polystyrene; and formaldehyde, from polycarbonates.
The application of heat, repeated washing, changes in acidity and alkalinity cause plastics to leach a number of chemicals into the environment from the manufacturing process right through to the consumption and maintenance of plastic products. Climate change challenges of increasing temperatures and acidity both on land and sea, rising incidences of excessive winds, bushfires and storm surges could exacerbate the situation on numerous levels, too many to mention.
The worst offender, widely used in food and beverage packaging is bisphenol A, or BPA. An American centre for disease study found it in 95% of urine samples it tested, it has been measured in our blood, amniotic fluid and breast milk. Whilst its Food and Drug administration maintains its BPA levels are safe, they did ban its use in babies bottles, however a common substitute, Biphenol S (BPS), itself an endocrine disruptor, has been observed to cause many of the same problems as BPA. Further studies concluded that BPA leaches into water at room temperature, and when exposed to boiling water, leaches 55 times more rapidly. This begs the question as to why it is used in so many of the products we consume. That café cup of coffee and convenient take away might need to be considered a health hazard.
Polycarbonate water bottles are a major source of human BPA exposure (some formaldehyde perhaps-yum) and yet the self-interested, multinational corporations producing them are contemptuously increasing their production. Them and other powerful allied industries and corporations are prepared to spend billions of dollars to misinform consumers, debase expert analysis, lobby governments, to repeal bans and litigate to dissuade and dismantle any legislation likely to affect ‘business as usual’. For an embarrassing number of companies its cash before consumers, profits before protection, share-holders before shame. However, there is a growing number of predominately small businesses developing a conscience and embracing change and we need to praise and support them.
Another health problem referred to as outgassing is where chemically volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) in the form of gases are evaporated into the air then inhaled or absorbed into other things including our bodies. They can be detected by odour, that nice new car smell or the assault on the senses of walking into a two dollar shop. VOCs are prevalent in households and can cause what is referred to as “sick building syndrome” and cause occupants to report symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, allergies, skin/eye/nose/throat irritations and asthma. Long term exposure, can include cancer and heart disease. These VOCs include aldehydes, alcohols, plasticizers, and alkanes. PVC is probably the worst outgassing offender of them. Heat can exacerbate outgassing occurrences and poor ventilation concentrate them in containing it.
The most common plastic is polyethylene terephthalate or PET commercially used in most beverage (drink) and condiment containers. Whilst BPA free and considered “a safer plastic” in the presence of heat, exposure to sunshine or extended time on the shelf, leaches a toxic metalloid called antimony likely to cause vomiting, diarrhoea and with long-term exposure, stomach ulcers. This might go towards explaining why conscientious tourists drinking bottled water whilst overseas still experience these holiday hampering symptoms. High-density polyethylene or HDPE commonly used in milk and juice bottles, detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, grocery bags, and cereal box liners has been shown to leach estrogenic chemicals dangerous to foetuses and young children. Polyvinyl chloride or PVC can be flexible or rigid, and is used for plumbing pipes, clear food packaging, shrink wrap, plastic children’s toys, tablecloths, vinyl flooring, children’s play mats, and blister packs. It can contain a phthalate called DEHP, which can cause male traits to become feminized. Whilst banned in many countries it has been replaced in others by a chemical referred to as DiNP which has shown to have simular hormone disruption properties. Low-density poly-ethylene or LDPE is used for dry cleaning bags, bread bags, newspaper bags, produce bags, and garbage bags, as well as “paper” milk cartons and hot/cold beverage cups. Polypropylene or PP is used to make yogurt containers, deli food containers and is the insulating quality in these, clothing and others and because of its high heat tolerance is the least of the plastics to leach when exposed. Polystyrene or PS commonly known as Styrofoam, is commonly seen in convenience packaging in supermarkets and take away shops in the likes of cups, plates, trays for food and take-away containers. Polystyrene is a problem plastic because it’s very difficult to recycle. Coffee and convenience clash again.
Often you’ll find a number embedded in these products to distinguish their chemical components and in order for them to be separated for recycling purposes (only 9% of our plastics are recycled) or more often, down-cycled and made into other plastic products, but ultimately they still end up in landfill and pollute our very existence forever.
Plastic bags are an issue on their own aside from the health and polluting hazards already mentioned they are non-biodegradable, regardless of the ”greening language” you’ll be spun, they do not fully decompose, aerobically or anaerobically. They increase our foreign dependence on oil, using 12 million barrels of it per 100 billion bags to manufacture and let’s not mention our precious water. They are more difficult to recycle as they can damage expensive equipment. Less than 3% of them are recycled, they need to be separated, hence why the need to deposit them in special supermarket bins.
Another stand-alone issue is that of microbeads, measuring less than 5 millimetres they are added to facial scrubs, toothpastes and other personal care products and one product can contain some 350,000 of them. Un biodegradable by products of our obsession with cleanliness and beauty, an estimated 5 trillion of them are flushed down our drains, their minute size allowing them to bypass wastewater treatment filters, they enter our waterways, are eaten by unsuspecting marine life and seabirds, their toxins enter our food-chain and are near impossible to clean up. Whilst natural alternatives like cocoa beans and apricot shells have been successful substitutes there has been continued resistance to remove plastic microbeads. Cosmetic companies prefer to spruik “green innovation” fancy new age terminology for unproven “biodegradable beads. Talk about a dog with a bone.
So what can we do? The common sense solution to avoid the toxicity of plastics is to avoid plastics, easier said than done you say, but not impossible. Have faith. The world is waking up, be it ever so slowly.
Local communities can make a difference, take Coles Bay, Tasmania who in the first year of banning disposable bags in 2003, claimed there were 350,000 fewer bags in the area. The state followed their lead and nationally it spread to bans in SA, NT and the ACT and more recently a bill is being prepared for parliament as both QLD and NSW take up the challenge, better late than never.England has cut its plastic bag use by 85% since applying a surcharge, has used 6 billion fewer bags and managed to donate the funds raised and give the equivalent of 38 million dollars to charity.
Countries that have completely banned plastic bags are Rwanda, China, Taiwan and Macedonia. Earlier this year, the Indian state of Karnataka completely banned the use of plastic across the state. No business can now use or sell plastic carrier bags, plastic plates, plastic cups, plastic spoons, cling film, polystyrene and microbeads, plastics of any sort. Now there’s a challenge for rich first world countries.
As an individual or family unit we can become conscience consumers. We can begin a conversation about conservation and share it with our friends. We can endeavour to read labels and familiarize ourselves with identifying symbols and numbers and recycle them correctly. The six plastics named above represent BPA free plastics, and considered safer, however plastics numbered #3,(phthalates) #6 (styrenes) & #7, represent more toxic chemicals within and should be avoided where possible. Look for “BPA free” labels on food and beverage containers and avoid plastic wrap. Never heat or microwave what you intend to consume in plastic containers of any sort.
Choose crockery, metal, glass, bamboo or wooden utensils or containers and use aluminium foil, wax or parchment paper instead of plastic wraps in your kitchens. When shopping for your consumables, choose alternatives to plastics or transfer products into other containers. Be mindful of what you purchase and potentially bring into your home. Air new plastic products brought into the home outside for a couple of hours to disperse VOC’s. Give up bottled water as it is clearly not pure, refill your own bottles and push your community for water stations. Take your own bags to the supermarket and your own coffee mug to your favourite responsible café. Say no to plastic straws and lids, celebrate yours and your childrens lives without balloons and plastic party favours.
Remember the 4Rs: Reuse, Reduce, Recycle and Refuse. Remember most of all when consumers make choices in a capitalist, monetarily, manipulated market we can mindfully make markets move and drive constructive change. ■
Ref:Larry Schwartz and multiple Ecowatch articles 2016