Plastic is pervasive in our lives. Some of us have made efforts to avoid plastic because of a sense that natural materials are better for our families and better for our babies. Let’s add some concrete reasons to our avoidance of plastics.
We need to face the costs of plastics at both ends of the chain: in oil and gas exploration and in the toxic effects on our lives.
What Is Plastic Made Of?
Chart my husband learned from in schoolPlastic is made from oil and gas. Crude oil is distilled and separated into fractions, or simpler mixtures of the materials. Plastic can be made either from crude oil after it has been fractionated into gases or from natural gas. These resources require extensive exploration, negotiation, regulation, and defense. There is a limited amount of oil and gas available, so the world is constantly working to find new sources or to harvest the resources where it was not profitable enough to do so before. Every story you hear about oil and gas has to be related to plastics as well as to gasoline and other petroleum products.
The news is full of heartbreaking stories about the consequences of oil and gas exploration and production. Since the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I see more headlines about “our addiction to oil.” We need to expand that. When we talk about breaking the addiction to oil, we have to talk about plastics. Oil should not be mistaken as just an issue of gasoline and transportation. Our dependence on plastics for everyday household products are a huge part of our need to push to find new sources of oil and gas without adequate safety nets.
When we see photos of tar balls on beaches and oil slicks covering hundreds of miles, we need to consider how we are working to lessen our dependence of petroleum products. When we see costs of seafood go up dramatically, we need to consider whether the alleged convenience of throwaway plastics has been worth those externalized costs.
I’ve just been shocked and almost overwhelmed to see the consequences of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. We all need to make the connection between petrochemical products, including plastics, and the devastation that we are seeing on the news.
What Is So Bad About Plastic?
Beyond the oil in the Gulf of Mexico, if we can even come close to beyond that, are health and environmental issues that follow from exposure to some plastics.
There are two approaches to the safety of plastics, the cautious approach that says it’s important to prove safety before use and the more common approach that it’s important to prove risk before removal from use. In general, safety advocates and environmentalists are taking the cautious approach and business and regulators are taking the risky approach. More and more, though, the cautious approach is becoming the mainstream approach.
In just the past two weeks, I have seen several major efforts by mainstream news to document toxic plastics. 60 Minutes ran a story on phthalates, the plastic softeners that make flexible plastic flexible (“Phthalates: Are They Safe?”); The New Yorker ran a story on BPA (bisphenol A) and other toxic plastics (“The Plastic Panic”); and yesterday I noticed that CNN is running a special on plastics (“Toxic America”). Once the story has hit these news outlets, people are aware and the approach tips far more toward the cautious approach. I’m even starting to hear more people in the mainstream calling for banning the more suspicious plastics from use.
Oil & gas and plastic industry lobbyists in these documentaries say that either the materials are safe because it hasn’t been proven otherwise or the regulations allow use of the materials so they’re just fine. They imply that there is no proof of risk or harm, but the scientific evidence showing risk and harm is building. The U.S. President’s Cancer Panel, for example, issued a report recommending strengthening U.S. federal chemical laws, increasing funding for research, and stepping up enforcement. The frank approach of the study is alarming, as it should be.
The Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread. One such ubiquitous chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), is still found in many consumer products and remains unregulated in the United States, despite the growing link between BPA and several diseases, including various cancers. “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now,” p5.
Parents should understand that the burden of environmental toxins, including plastics, is not shared equally. “[C]hildren are far more vulnerable to environmental toxins and radiation than adults” because of their smaller body mass and their rapid development. “To a disturbing extent,” the panel writes, “babies are born ‘pre-polluted.’” This pre-pollution is causing alarming changes, particularly in boys as soft plastics (phthalates) mimic some human hormones and have been shown to disrupt normal development, feminizing some males. (Of the recent stories, the 60 Minutes pieces goes into this in the most detail.)
Our use of plastics in so many products has been a giant experiment on the human race and on the earth. The data from that experiment are coming in, and the results are not good for us.
Plastic may be pervasive in our lives, but WE make the choices. In most cases (I’m excepting many medical situations—for now), we can use alternatives that don’t carry as many risks.
Special thanks to Taina of Plastic Manners. She is blogging her efforts to give up plastics for a year. She doesn’t have children, but she gets a lot of comments on her blog from parents. She encouraged us to cover the effort to eliminate plastics from babies’ and children’s lives.