All plastics are equal, but some plastics are more equal than others

Plastics-both useful and diverse, are here to stay. Their application in medical implants and devices alone have created huge forward strides in modern medicine. It is, however, impossible to ignore the darker, more harmful impact of plastics on the environment. Before you read on, just know that I am no scientist. In fact, as soon as I was able to give science up for more artistic pursuits I smashed my test tubes, waved adieu to the Bunsen burners and hot-footed it out of the lab. However, having done some research, it is simply astounding the extent to which the average consumer is driven to purchasing plastic products to the detriment of the environment and their personal health. Information that should be accessible and transparent to all of us is clothed in cyphers, abbreviations and symbols.

When you begin to delve into the world of green products, a host of codes come to the fore, some of which may mean something to you, others, you’ll have no idea of their significance; BPA for example. I know that BPA free is something I should be looking for in a drinks bottle or a reusable plastic container, but neither have I known what BPA is, nor why it should concern me…until now.

Brace yourselves, here comes the science bit. BPA or bisphenol A is an industrial chemical used to make certain plastics and resins. It’s been used since the 1960’s and is found in many polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. A number of reusable food storage systems and drinks bottles are made from these polycarbonate plastics. Epoxy resins are used to bind a whole host of everyday products from handbags and costume jewelry to eyeglass frames and synthetic clothing. Whilst the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S.) has declared BPA to be safe at low levels, BPA has been linked to adverse effects on the brain and prostate glands of fetuses, infants and children as well as potential links to increased blood pressure. Perhaps one of the most worrying aspects of BPA is that it is used so widely it is not always clear to the consumer when they may be at risk. It’s one thing to avoid plastic bottles containing BPA but most cans and tins are lined with BPA containing resin.

The real kicker comes when polycarbonate plastics are heated to fairly high temperatures (e.g. placed in a dishwasher or used in a microwave). In this case, the plastic may break down over time and allow BPA to leach into food.

So perhaps it’s safer to use cling film/food wrap? Not if PVC has anything to do with it!

PVC or Polyvinal Chloride is a plastic so widely used that it is (almost) impossible to avoid. It really is the plastic that keeps on giving from conception to disposal. From the moment of production PVC begins to release dioxins, a highly toxic by-product created from a host of industrial processes. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), dioxins belong to the so-called “dirty dozen” – a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). They can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, interfere with hormones and cause cancer. WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has categorically confirmed that PVC is a known and recognised human carcinogen. Phthalates, used as plasticizers to increase flexibility, transparency, durability and longevity (primarily employed to soften PVC) are thought to have potentially detrimental effects on the reproductive system, as well as disrupting the larger endocrine system.

According to the European Commission, PVC has been at the centre of a controversial debate during much of the last two decades. “A number of diverging scientific, technical and economic opinions have been expressed on the question of PVC and its effects on human health and the environment. Some Member States have recommended or adopted measures related to specific aspects of the PVC life cycle. However, these measures vary widely.”

Despite efforts by the global environmental community to introduce measures relating to PVC production, China, the largest producer of PVC, remains relatively unregulated. Disposal of PVC as stated on the website pvc.org is safe!

In reality, whilst some PVC can be and is recycled, much of it either ends up in landfill, being incinerated, or being dumped illegally.

Information gathered by an independent evaluation contracted by the European Commission in 2000 to cover the following 20 years, noted that post-consumer PVC waste accounted for 88% of all PVC waste. At the time of the report, 82% of PVC waste product ended up in landfill, with 15% destined for incineration, the remainder accounting for illegal disposal and recycling. The issues with landfill disposal and incineration are similar; the hazardous, toxic chemicals contained within PVC are likely to be released/leach into the environment, leaving a harmful and long-lasting legacy.

So with all this information swimming around in our heads, what next?

There are a number of non-plastic, zero waste options available which won’t cost the earth. Glass, stainless steel and porcelain are all sensible and useful alternatives that you may already have knocking around your kitchen. Remember, if you have an abundance of plastic containers, rethink their usage before disposing of them. Use them for containers in the shed. They make great paint mixing pots for messy craft days with the kids. Perhaps they could be used to store old coinage, bits of wire or keys for that god-awful drawer we all have (don’t even pretend you don’t have one)! When it does come to their disposal, the best approach is to go to your local recycling centre and find out how and where they will be treated. It isn’t always ideal but it may save them adding to landfill. If you would like to investigate some alternatives, I would love to share some of the products that I’m currently using to solve some of the most common ‘plastics’ issues:

If you follow the link to my Featured Products page, you will find a number of useful items. Perhaps the best advice I can share is to ‘be prepared’. It is relatively easy to make your home an environmental haven, but it isn’t so easy when you’re out and about, especially if you have kids in tow. It takes no time at all to slip a couple of stainless steel straws into your bag, along with a reusable cup and some bamboo cutlery. Yes, you feel like a bit of a pack horse but I cannot convey to you the satisfaction I experience when I can politely refuse the dirty, plastic alternative. The bonus is that some of the alternative products are not only useful but beautiful. The design and aesthetics of many eco-friendly products are almost as important as the practical application. See for yourselves…

For more information on how to decode recycling symbols, please visit my eco-glossary.