The drumbeat in the media about ‘disposable’ plastics harming wildlife and filling the oceans is getting louder every day, yet at the same time more products than ever are packaged in convenient plastic zip-bags and other flashy plastic packages. Environmental concern, environmental destruction and plastic use all seem to be increasing. But why is there such a big disconnect between environmental doom-saying and commercial plastic packaging use? In this article, we’ll zoom in on the key features of plastic and then zoom out to get a grasp on plastics confusion and explore options.
The key feature of all plastics isn’t well-known or publicized. It’s that all types of plastics generally are 93% hydrocarbons and 7% synthetic-chemical plasticizers. It’s the plasticizers that give plastic its wonderful properties of durability, softness or hardness, UV resistance, clarity or color. Plasticizers have always been known to be toxic, but when plastics were first developed the thinking was that these chemicals would be bound up with the hydrocarbons and thereby rendered inert. Now with decades of experience we know differently. Toxic plasticizers are leaching into bottled beverages, food, and cosmetics. Essentially, every product that contains water or oils that is packaged in plastic becomes contaminated with plasticizers from its packaging.
Another fact about plastics that is obvious when you think of it, but hasn’t been publicized widely, is that all plastics have only two end-of-life outcomes. Burning or breaking down. Both burning and breaking down will release plasticizers into the environment. Burning directly as poor people are doing in India, waste to energy plants, or burning via hydrolysis, which is a way to turn plastics into fuel, turns plasticizers into even more harmful chemical compounds that are spread through the air until they settle on the ground, water or into people’s lungs. Whether plastic waste is sent to the landfill, left out on the land, or dumped into the world’s oceans, eventually all plastics will give up their plasticizers to the environment at large. In the meantime, until plastics break down into particles smaller than the size of sand, animals of all kinds mistake it as food and alarmingly, many animals are starving with stomachs full of plastic bits. While serious and heartbreaking, the starvation of a few animal species isn’t the greatest concern. It’s the plasticizers entering the food chain and bio-concentrating to the point where seafood, for instance, becomes too toxic for people to eat and entire ecosystems break down. Currently, it is estimated that a billion people depend on seafood as their primary food source every day.
What about the so-called ‘bio-plastics’ such as Poly Lactic Acid (PLA), or corn-starch plastic? Aren’t they more environmentally friendly? Well, no, they aren’t. They just dump their plasticizers into the environment much more quickly than conventional plastic. And yes, fewer animals would starve from not eating bio-plastics, but the plasticizer-toxicity problem remains.
So surely, recycling plastic must be the answer! When local government agencies, state and federal take great efforts to help us sort our plastic to be recycled, it must solve the problem. Let’s put aside for the moment the issue that recycling plastic is uneconomical and Asian countries are refusing to take our plastic trash. Let’s look at what’s involved with recycling plastic. We know that sorted and cleaned plastic is ground up into bits, then melted to be formed into new plastic objects. What we don’t hear about is that to make this process happen, special chemicals called ‘adjuvants’ are used to catalyze the process. Adjuvants are far more toxic than standard plasticizers and some of them remain in the finished plastic. This is why we see so few, if any, plastic water or soda bottles made from post-consumer recycled plastic. We see plastic bottles downcycled into clothing and other products to avoid product liability from toxic contamination. Chemical studies show that recycled plastic is far more toxic than virgin plastic. But at the end of the day, even recycled plastic, no matter how many times its recycled, will end up either being burned or leaching its plasticizers into the environment. Recycling mainly serves to expose us to even more toxic chemicals on the way to further poisoning the environment.
Let’s zoom out and see what the big effects of recycling plastics have. Recycling plastic enables the plastic industry to make and sell even more virgin plastic than ever. In fact, virgin plastics production is skyrocketing with increasing rates of production and increased recycling awareness. Shockingly, recycling plastic mainly serves to sell more virgin plastic. But we’re only in the beginning stages. When Third World prosperity increases and it embraces plastics as the West has,
plastic use and waste will truly explode. This seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? How can more recycling lead to increasing virgin plastic production? Psychologists call it ‘moral licensing’. For instance, when you take time to sort your plastic trash, it gives you the feeling that you are doing your part for the environment. You’re recycling. So, when you go to the store the next time and buy more products packaged in plastic, you will recycle the packaging and think it will be recycled and won’t starve birds or otherwise harm the environment. Behind the government and trash companies who are doing their best to cope, it’s plastics manufacturers who are lobbying for, advertising and benefiting the most from plastic recycling. It’s just good business. And the strategy is extremely successful. As consumers, we’re getting played.
On an even larger scale, our increasing distribution of plasticizers into the environment not only harms people’s health directly through product contamination but is beginning to change life itself at the cellular level. Microbiological life will adapt to this synthetic chemical change to their environment. The problem is that large species such as ourselves won’t be able to adapt so quickly or as well as the foundation species we depend on. Life could change away from us and leave
What if all this plasticizer toxicity is overblown? After all, we seem to be doing fine. Up until recently, we’ve been living longer and have a lot more cool stuff in our lives. However, we do know that the chemical family known as ‘phthalates’ are hormone disruptors. For instance, frogs living downstream from landfills strangely all become female and as you can imagine, they can’t reproduce properly, and die off. In humans, the effects are dramatic as well. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, people living in the developed world have been increasingly exposed to synthetic chemicals and the average age of menarche – the beginning of puberty in young women – has been decreasing steadily until the 1980’s. From 16.6 years old in the 1860’s to 10.6 years old now. In the early 1980’s when plasticizer contamination became widespread in people, the rate of this trend has increased substantially. Where is it leading? Conservative estimates are that in three more generations – a mere 90 years – the average age of human menarche will be under 6 years old. We should take the likelihood of 6-year-old mothers as a serious wake-up call.
More immediately, we are seeing plummeting fertility across all human populations in the world. In the US, male sperm counts are about half of what your grandfathers was at the same age. Mothers are giving birth to healthy-looking daughters, but baby’s eggs that were formed during gestation are being adversely affected by mom’s phthalate exposure. At this rate birth control will become unnecessary and medical intervention will be required for pregnancy to occur.
Plastics are here to stay; it’s an important technology that makes many things otherwise impossible, possible. But plastics technology is not cheap and should never be used cheaply. It’s widely recognized among experts and the well-informed that disposable plastics and consumer goods plastic packaging are a careless abuse of an important and dangerous technology. The good news is that relatively inexpensive technology exists to replace disposable plastics and plastic packaging. The bad news is that it is not priced like theft as plastic is.
Plastics packaging exploded into the Developed World’s supermarkets in the 1970’s. By the 1980’s entire product categories of goods could only be purchased in plastic packaging. Now, around fifty years later, it seems that plastic packaging is the only way to protect and deliver products to us. Even paper milk cartons and paper cups have been plasticized with a thin film of plastic on the interior surfaces. Most ‘disposables’, such as plates, utensils, to-go boxes and even straws, have been changed out from non-toxic and relatively sustainable wood, paper and aluminum foil to plastics.
Recently it was publicized that the average American supermarket carries 106 varieties of yogurt, and all of them are packaged in plastic cups or tubs. Most Americans don’t remember that yogurt once was packaged in wax-coated-paper cups and tubs before the 1970’s. Yogurt wasn’t expensive and the paper packaging held up very well. It’s as-if this technology has been completely forgotten.
Currently, a prominent yogurt company is touting on their packaging that they only pour cooled yogurt into their plastic cups to reduce the plastics contamination from their packaging. The implication is that their competitors pour hot yogurt into plastic cups because they don’t care about their customer’s health. If you can sense the confusion and a little willful ignorance, you’re not alone.
It’s important to recognize that the plastics industry is big and profitable. Hundreds of thousands of people make their livings from plastic packaging and disposables, not to mention the business managers and financiers who have huge profits at stake. People don’t give up their wealth or means of living easily. As a matter of self-preservation, they must view concerns of plastic toxicity and environmental damage as being overblown business and livelihood killers. After all, consumers respond very well to low prices and sustainable alternatives cost more, so their position is that consumers are responsible for runaway plastics use. It’s your fault.
It’s not just the plastics industry itself that has a stake in the plastic proliferation status-quo; hundreds of thousands of consumer packaged goods companies depend on low cost plastic packaging and many feel they can’t change. Take the yogurt company mentioned above for instance.
Yet, the public is increasingly concerned. Citizen-activists have promoted laws to wean our society from the most irresponsible uses of plastics. As a result, disposable plastic shopping bags and plastic straws have been banned in several municipalities and states. Won’t this trend just continue? Yes, but remember – the plastic industry is fighting back; they’re responsible to their shareholders. For instance, states that have banned disposable plastic bags allow retailers to sell heavy-weight plastic bags to customers who don’t bring their own shopping bags to the store. Perversely, some of these laws also prohibit grocery retailers from providing paper shopping bags free of charge, but they must sell them for the same price as the heavy plastic bag which encourages a false-equivalence perception.
Influencing legislation, managing information and directing the public narrative are key tools the plastic industry is using to prevent harm to their business. Strategic ad buying and the use of search engine optimization is displacing relevant answers from the first pages of internet search. Industry funded research that is richly promoted easily influences the news cycle.
The high level of concern, willful ignorance, and large economic forces are like the controversies around sugar and rum in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. By purchasing these desirable products, people were indirectly funding the slave trade. By the same token, today, when we purchase all the desirable products we do that are packaged in plastic, we are indirectly funding the destruction of our shared environment which will harm and kill billions of people.
Abolishing irresponsible use of plastic packaging and disposables will be wrenching and difficult, and can be likened to denying addicts their drugs. As a civilization, we must choose between short term benefit or long term harm.
So, how hard will it be? Developing genuinely sustainable packaging and disposables is relatively easy and will be affordable at scale. Most of the technology already exists such as paper yogurt cups. The greatest immediate obstacle is the plastics industry money and the reluctance of brands to adapt to sustainable packaging. Less obvious is consumers coming to grips with frivolous convenience and the disposable way of life which is deeply entrenched. Living more sustainably will cut against the grain of the lifetime of marketing all of us have absorbed and will give us the feeling our way of life is threatened. Responsibility will be made to seem remarkably expensive, difficult and disruptive.
What can we do? How can we help drive the change to sustainable packaging which has the potential of reducing about half of plastics production and use? Consider the entire product, not just the contents. Recognize that every product you consume or put on your body is contaminated by plastic packaging. When there is an alternative, buy the sustainable product. When there are no products in a category of products you buy regularly, be vocal and call out your favorite brands on their selling pollution. Tell them you like their products but don’t want to buy pollution. After all, it is the producers who are responsible for choosing to use plastic for their products. Not you, the buyer. It’s wrong that we are expected to play the recycling charade, as if it was your fault that your favorite brands can’t get their act together and offer products packaged sustainably. Share your continuing education and concerns with everyone you meet.
Online pushback against irresponsible plastic use is cropping up. Take a few moments and add to it whenever possible. It doesn’t take much; just post “I like your product but don’t want to buy your pollution!” When shopping at the store, consider the entire product, not just the contents. Complain to the store managers. Trained from childhood, all of us are excellent price and value estimators. Begin factoring in your personal chemical exposure from product packaging. When you think of it, constant exposure to plasticizers every day of your life is bound to add up to a very high price.