Most Plastics Leach Hormone-like Chemicals

A worrying new study found that BPA is not the only chemical leaching from common household plastic products that come in contact with food. Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst from the Environmental Working Group said in an NPR story Wednesday:

“We’ve long cautioned consumers to avoid extreme heat and cooling for plastics, to discard scratched and worn plastics and we feel like this (study) validates one of our many concerns,” she says.

According to the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, this is a problem that can be solved.

Plastic Problems – Your Choices

Is it a bag or is it a jellyfish? Sea life eat it to find out.

Is it a bag or is it a jellyfish? Sea life eat it to find out.

Is the logical conclusion to outlaw plastic? Probably not. My quick answer is that a ban would be fine with me, but I understand that we have built areas of our material culture around plastic. We would need a transition period to (and back to) other materials.

It may be that we have finally entered that transition period. I wrote Wednesday about those already saying NO! to plastics. And, plastic news is moving quickly. Even since I wrote Wednesday, Australia has a deal with retailers to phase out BPA (bisphenol-A) from baby bottles and the California Assembly passed a bill also to ban BPA in baby bottles. If you are concerned about the issues and want to be informed of changes, be sure to follow the work of plastic pollution activists.


Quick! What Are the Problems with Plastic?

Toxic
The basic idea: the processing and many of the products are toxic.

Toxins can be found in plastic byproducts, plastic softeners (phthalates), some ingredients (BPA), and some situational instabilities in the materials after production (meaning some plastics will break down in heat or when in contact with certain chemicals). Some of the harm is immediate, and some of the toxins build up over time. The result of “pre-polluted babies” (a phrase used in a report from the U.S. President’s Cancer Panel in May) has alarmed many into action.

Non-renewable
The basic idea: any resource that isn’t replanted (tree, corn) or recycled (water) isn’t sustainable.

Oil and gas as global power isn’t in dispute. The news gives us evidence of this on so many levels. Any business that can’t sustain its supply of raw materials, though, has to evolve or die. This probably explains why so many oil execs have gone into the algae business lately.

We can certainly expect more algae plastic in the future. When I see biodegradable plastic spoons made from corn, I wonder if I’m seeing something that is closer to the structure of rayon (turn bamboo or tree into cellulose goo through chemical treatment then pack it together like a very tight papier mache) than to petro-plastic spoons. If a renewable material is used as feedstock to make plastic, it is still has to be made into the same toxic chemicals with the same issues at each stage in the distilling (fractioning) process. So, making plastic from renewable materials doesn’t make it all nice and greenwashy clean, it just makes it a renewable source of potential toxins.

Peak Oil
The basic idea: since oil is a non-renewable resource, it is finite. We will use it up. Peak oil is the point at which we probably have already passed peak production—think, now. The reality is probably that as there are fewer cheap ways to extract oil we will resort to the more expensive and environmentally damaging ways to squeeze out every drop.

The question of oil and plastic will solve itself over time as we deal with ever-diminishing oil. Eventually, we will deal with diminishing natural gas as well.

Single-use
The basic idea: we put a lot of energy, time, and money into single-use products like straws, bags, and disposable diapers only to toss them away after an hour or so. It makes more sense to put that energy, time, and money into a product that can be reused—unless your profit depends on planned obsolescence.

The issue isn’t just the nonsensical action of throwing away a barely used item but the issue becomes one of economics with the cost of dealing with solid waste (an issue every local solid waste department struggles with), space (same local solid waste departments), and environment (for anyone who prefers beach made of sand rather than plastic bits).

Happiness
The basic idea: does plastic make you more happy?

Bhutan decided to measure what really mattered, so they have a Gross National Happiness measurement rather than Gross National Product. Included in their efforts to boost Gross National Happiness is a ban on plastic bags, which has been in place since 1999 and they are still working to enforce effectively. Recognition is one step; enforcement (or perhaps education so the recognition spreads) is another. What a great measure of what counts, though.


The Answer to Plastic Problems

I don’t claim to have all of the answers or even very good answers, but I do have a sense that we can’t just make minor tweaks around the edges of our plastic-enhanced lifestyles. What is sneaking up on us while our lives are turned to plastic are toxins in pre-polluted babies, oceans of plastic, destruction of land and sea, landfills full of baby feces, and so on.

Small changes won’t save us. We need big changes. Big changes are completely intimidating and tend to shut us down into inaction (yes, I’m speaking for myself). So, we need to inventory our lives and ask where we can make changes. Then DO IT! Once you make a big change, it’s exciting and empowering. You can make more and join with others who are making their own changes. It’s important not to make holier-than-thou judgments if you support others making their own changes (instead of your changes). Each of us will have to figure out where and how to remove plastic from our lives.

Need a place to start? FOOD. Do not use soft plastics to store or cook food. There. Simple. What’s next?

Plastic: Get a plastic bag at the mall
Alternative: Take a reusable bag to the mall
Change: Skip the mall

Plastic: Use a plastic, disposable diaper
Alternative: Use reusable diapers that are “like disposables”
Change: Use a low-impact reusable diaper or elimination communication

Plastic: Buy a shelf-full of single-purpose, plastic games for baby
Alternative: Buy a shelf-full of single-purpose, wooden games for baby
Change: Just buy a few wooden, silk, natural rubber toys for baby that require only imagination to become another game

Plastic: Buy 3 strollers for different purposes
Alternative: Buy one stroller
Change: Skip the stroller and wear the baby

To find the changes that work for you, inventory your house. What are the

  • plastic choices,
  • the alternatives, and
  • the big changes?

Start with one.

Image © Alexey Poprugin | Dreamstime.com

Who Is Saying NO to Plastic?

See plastic bags around the world at Guardian UK.

See plastic bags around the world at Guardian UK.


Shifting Costs Back and Forth

Externalizing costs is a clever strategy. When business off-loads cost of dumping waste or cleaning up the environment or treating medical conditions caused by their toxic stew, they have successfully externalized costs in order to realize greater profit. Nice strategy, eh?

Efforts to encourage lower impact products or just a reduction in stuff altogether are often a recognition that those costs belong with the producers and users rather than with those poor or unfortunate enough to be incidentally dumped on in the process of making and distributing stuff.

Once the costs of stuff like plastic become more clear, we’re more willing to change. Once we find out that babies are born toxic, for example, and we freak out saying, “How could this have happened?” and we find that we are better able to hear our options. We become more willing to consider changes in our collective lifestyles that will either internalize costs (choose a more expensive but less toxic alternative, like buying a hybrid car) or remove the costs altogether (stop doing the thing that requires the stuff choice, like walking, biking, or taking the bus or train instead).

Actually, I think the big changes, the regulated and legislated changes, come when we can show the costs very clearly. That’s when those to whom the costs have been externalized start lobbying for change. The people paying medical bills, the cities paying for waste pick up, the cancer centers tracing clear lines from product to patient, the clean-up crews combing beaches for plastics and the dead birds and sea creatures who eat plastics—these are the effective voices in making changes. When the shock of the costs becomes too much, we push for change justified in terms of measurements and costs. We change in order to save money now and later.

If that’s what it takes, that’s fine by me.


Who is saying NO to plastics?

My lists aren’t meant to be comprehensive. This is a sample to show that the tide is turning against plastics.

Plastic Bottles
Local rejection of plastic bags and plastic bottles is one of the big stories recently. There are a lot of reasons to ban plastic bottles. For some, the issue is molecular migration of BPA and other toxins from container to contents. For others, the issue is single-use bottles in landfill. Still others are more concerned with water privatization and the bottled water dependence that follows.

More from Inside the Bottle, Ban the Bottle, and the Polaris Institute.

Bisphenol-A (BPA)
Both Health Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have declared BPA a chemical of concern. As concern about this toxic plastic ingredient spreads, more cautions and bans follow. A group of 60 scientists urge a worldwide ban on BPA.

Plastic Bags
Plastic bags blow around. They blow into trees, and they blow into the sea, where they look like jellyfish and are eaten by sea creatures. Images of plastic bags are easy to find and difficult to forget.

This should be the easiest of these changes, since the costs are clear both to the consumer and to the environment, and the solution is simple. Plastic bags are so easy to replace, since a cloth bag will do. (Yes, remember to wash your reusable bag, since a study showed that bags can get dirty. Hello! Then WASH it, dear Liza.)

These are steps in helping us move beyond waste. Friday I’ll write more about that big change.

Great organizations doing good work on anti-plastic activism

Beyond the Era of Stuff and Waste

Fake Plastic BabyOnce upon a time, even in my lifetime, plastics were the future—the former and temporary future.

In the film The Graduate, the main character, Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), graduates from college and returns to his parents’ house for a celebration. His parents’ friends are interested in asking him—and telling him—about his future. One of these friends, Mr. McGuire, pulls Ben aside.

“Come on with me for a minute. I want to talk to you.” Once they are alone outside, he leans in close to tell Ben, “I just want to say one word to you, just one word.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Are you listening?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Plastics.”
“Exactly how do you mean?”
“There is a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
“Yes, I will.”

I thought about it.

Plastics were a temporary future, a 20th-century aberration. Plastics are becoming part of our past as the late 20th-century becomes so obvious as a time of excess whose many debts and externalized costs will take a long time to pay off.

We start to pay that debt now.

In reaction to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve heard calls for boycotts. How far would we boycott, though? Are we prepared to go all the way? About 4.6% of U.S. petroleum is used to make plastic. Demand is expected to increase in Canada and in the U.S. for petroleum products.

But, don’t we recycle plastic? Doesn’t that mean we use less of the non-renewable resources? Yes, sort of. Less than 1% of plastic bags are recycled, and about 25% of plastic bottles are recycled. So, yes, some plastics can be recycled, but there is a fairly low expectation that they will be. Most municipal solid waste is still just garbage. We may notice more what goes into landfill, but the biggest garbage dump in the world is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers millions of square miles of plastic bits breaking into smaller and smaller plastic bits just moving with the currents. When the plastics do break down, they leave toxic chemicals that enter the food chain, which eventually leads to us.

Recycling isn’t preventing the massive plastic dump and the toxic stew that follows.


Wait, What about Cleaner Energy Sources

With massive oil spills and smaller oil spills, more people are asking if it is really necessary to take such risks. Some seem almost desperate in their defense of petrochemical products, unwilling to consider that we might have to think beyond oil and gas.

We don’t have to turn to oil, though, right? We can squeeze every drop out of tar sands. Plastics can be made from oil or from gas. It’s all part of the same process. If we are to believe natural gas advertisements and advocates, natural gas is much better for the environment. I think they are referring to a tidily bounded portion of the lifecycle of natural gas, though. What I hear about natural gas as the clean fossil fuel does not fit with the picture I saw as I watched Gasland this past week. This is a heart-breaking documentary about the consequences of natural gas exploration. If you haven’t heard on the news about people across the U.S. setting light to the water out of their faucets, you need to see it to believe it. Devastating costs of petrochemical and mineral extraction have to be internalized in order for us to be honest about the real impacts of our wreckless lifestyles of stuff.

Another issue that will slap us in the face soon enough is that petrochemical resources are finite. We will (or have) hit the peak of oil and gas production, then further extraction will become more difficult and more expensive. We may find that the economics help us to rethink our dependence of plastics and other petrochem products.

Eventually, desperate defense will give way to change.


The End of Plastic

“This is the Petrochemical Age.”

No. I choose to lessen my dependence on oil now. It has been a long process, and it is ongoing, but I won’t give in. Great bloggers like Plastic Manners and Fake Plastic Fish are chronicling their efforts to give up plastic. It may feel overwhelming at first, but it’s possible, and you aren’t alone in your efforts to find another way to live.

The movement against single-use plastic is growing. There are many organizations dedicated exclusively or in part to plastic pollution education, reduction, alternatives, clean up, and so on. They provide guidance on lessening plastic dependence and suggest actions to make bigger change as well.


Beyond the Age of Stuff and Waste

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about all of the great natural and non-toxic products parents can use to replace children’s products that are made out of plastic—natural fiber diapers, wooden cars, natural rubber chew toys, stainless steel straws, and silicone popsicle molds. These are easy changes that don’t interrupt our lifestyles but just replace one product with another.

I think we need interruption, though.

We don’t just need alternatives but a complete change of approach. We need to think beyond the age of stuff and waste.

Image © Bluechrome | Dreamstime.com

Plastic-free Products: Sleeping

Fine cotton baby blanket

When the U.S. CPSIA banned certain phthalates in children’s sleeping products, I think they had in mind primarily sucking products. Pajamas count here, too, since there could conceivably be soft plastics in surface decorations or in the skid-preventing patterns on footie pajamas. Kids can suck those, but they aren’t designed to be sucked. Basically, because very young children put so much in their mouths, everything made for children under 3 becomes a suckable item.

It’s not a bad thing to avoid plastics in pillows, blankets, and all of the other sleep products for kids, but it is just silly to consider that an organic cotton blanket is subject to testing for soft plastics. It is not difficult to see why manufacturers and retailers who are concerned about toxic chemicals in children’s products are still unhappy about the U.S. law.

Still, I’m using the CPSIA as my guide this week for switching from products that contain plastics to plastic-free products for feeding, sleeping, and toys for children.


Easy Plastic-free Changes

As with my plastic-free feeding recommendations, the easiest changes we can make are to switch to plastic-free products that do much the same thing as the plastic products. These are the painless changes.

Vinyl-free bedding

Whatever our blankets and pillows breathe out, we breathe in all night. Because of the sweet, carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting smell of vinyl chloride, it is particularly important to get vinyl out of bedding.

Baby Mattress PadA lot of parents are concerned about leaking diapers and wet beds. There are a couple of ways to approach this problem. Use a diaper that doesn’t leak or use a mattress pad. A vinyl-free mattress pad is a start, but it isn’t necessarily plastic-free, since a lot of waterproof items still have microfibers or polyurethane laminate or both. The truly plastic-free, waterproof mattress pad is wool. A wool changing pad will work if your baby doesn’t move much during the night, or a larger wool blanket can but put under the sheets to prevent leaking into the mattress.

Baby blankets of 100% cotton or 100% soft, merino wool are naturally absorbent. They will keep your baby warm enough while still breathing to avoid the wrapped-in-plastic feeling in the morning.

Pajamas

As with blankets, natural materials are the least toxic choice for your sleeping child. You don’t need soft plastic printing or decorations on the pajamas, you don’t need microfiber for absorbency, you don’t need toxic fabric treatments. It isn’t easy to find untreated, natural fiber pajamas, but it is worth the effort.

Sucking

A baby gets more than nutrition from breastfeeding. They suck for comfort. There are plastic breast-substitutes available, but letting a baby suck is the natural, stuff-free way to go. ByNature.ca held off stocking pacifiers for almost 5 years, but customers asked time and time again for an all-natural, non-toxic option they could trust. So, they stocked the Natursutten pacifier in natural rubber, the safest pacifier on the market. NOTE: If you are planning to breastfeed, it is highly recommended that no pacifier or bottle be introduced until you have a strong nursing relationship established.

Diapers

Wool diaper coverNighttime diapering is not mysterious. All it takes is enough absorbency and enough leak protection. Trying to use the same diapers for 8-12 hours that a baby wears during the day for 2-4 hours is asking for an accident, so don’t! It is easy to adjust absorbency of cloth diapers. You will need to adapt to your baby’s needs—how long does she sleep, when does she wet at night and how much. Start with 2-3 organic cotton prefolds and a nice, Canadian-made, 100% wool Aristocrats wool soaker and adjust from there.

That ammonia smell that can become very concentrated in a baby’s diaper by morning may cause chemical reactions in soft plastics. Polyester, polyurethane, and other polymers are broken down in the recycling (depolymerization) process with, among other chemical agents, ammonia. (Feedstock Recycling of Plastic Wastes, José Aguado and David P. Serrano, p55.) So, avoid plastics in diapers and diaper covers in order to avoid this particular science experiment.

Those are a few, simple first steps to take, but this is still a STUFF-oriented approach. After I finish by writing about toys tomorrow, I will follow with further steps at the end of June in our second week of focus on plastic.