Plastic surrounds us. Our telephones, our carpets, and even the fleece we’re wearing all may contain plastic. We store our food in it, drink water from it, and even brush our teeth with it. It’s cheap, convenient, and versatile–but how much do we really know about this wonder material?

Plastic is made from hydrocarbons found in oil and natural gas. It’s created when small molecules, called monomers, are bonded together into chains called polymers. Different monomers, when bonded together, create different kinds of plastic; some are soft and pliable, some hard and durable,and others somewhere in between.

Plastic Fantastic

The benefits of plastics are unmatched by any other material, says the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI). It is light, easily shaped, strong, and inexpensive. Its ability to guard against contamination makes it useful in sterile medical environments such as hospitals.

Plastic kitchenware offers a practical alternative to glass and ceramic dishes. Plastic preserves flavour and freshness when used to store food and beverages. Leak-proof andchild-resistant plastic containers are useful for holding dangerous household products such as bleach, ammonia,and other caustic cleaners.

Plastic packaging withstands the rigors of shipping, and plastic containers provide good storage solutions at homeand in the office. It seems that the benefits of using plasticare boundless–but are they really?

Problems With Plastic

“Our obsession with plastic is loading up the planet with toxic chemicals, and we’re only beginning to understand the serious consequences these substances have on health,” says Lisa Gue, environmental health policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation.

Gue says that chemicals contained in plastic migrate into the environment when the plastic products containing them are discarded. These chemicals are building up in our bodies and in our environment.

But according to the SPI, only 9 percent of waste in landfills is plastic. They say plastic can be an environmentally friendly, low-cost alternative to other products. Think for a moment of plastic grocery bags. They take up one-seventh of the space paper bags do in landfills and don’t produce toxic fumes when incinerated, says the SPI, who also note that incinerated plastic helpsthe waste mix burn more efficiently.

Is It Safe?

When it comes to the impact on public health, the widespread use of plastics is a contentious issue.

“There are some places that plastics just don’t belong,” says Jill Thompson, Citizens for Change coordinator with the BC Chapter of the Sierra Club of Canada. “Our food and water shouldn’t touch plastic, at least not in the way it is currently manufactured.”

The concern is that plastic food-storage containers are leaching chemicals such as bisphenol A into our food. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical used during the manufacturing of certain hard, clear plastics (the kind reusable water bottles, baby bottles, and sippy cups are made from). It mimics the hormone estrogen and disrupts reproductive functions, Gue explains.

Studies have linked bisphenol A to prostate cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects. However, Health Canada says that the level of BPA in these products is low and normal use doesn’t pose a risk to your health.

Also of concern are phthalates (pronounced thay-lates), which give plastic its pliable, flexible properties, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, used as a fire retardant. Studies link both to hormone- and reproductive-system damage.

What Should You Do?

“Plastics can and do make sense in some contexts,” says Thompson, noting that plastic automobile parts have made lighter cars that consume less fossil fuel. “But we aren’t yet doing enough when it comes to plastic recycling,” she says.

Still, like ’em or not, plastics are here to stay. So do your part and become plastic savvy. Familiarize yourself with what plastics can be recycled, and keep reusable plastics out of landfills.

For more detailed info on plastics recycling in Canada, visit cpia.ca/epic. Check out myplasticbags.ca for lists of municipalities and retailers in your area that recycle their own plastic bags.

Plastic Recycled–What Your Common Household Plastics Can Be Recycled Into:

household product: disposable utensils, meat packing
type of plastic: polystyrene
recycled into: CD cases, office accessories

household product: bottles, peanut butter jars
type of plastic: polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE)
recycled into: stuffing for pillows, carpet backing, and even certain types of sweatshirts

household product: shampoo bottles
type of plastic: high-density polyethylene
recycled into: other bottles, plastic lumber

household product: most bottle tops
type of plastic: polypropylene
recycled into: ice scrapers, industrial packing cases

household product: bottles, film for wrapping meat
type of plastic: polyvinyl chloride
recycled into: insulation for cables and drain pipes

household product: bags, grocery bags
type of plastic: low-density polyethylene
recycled into: plastic lumber and compost bins

Tips for Consuming Less Plastic:

  • Make an effort to purchase products with minimal plastic packaging.
  • Use cloth bags for grocery shopping.
  • Reuse plastic containers within your home. For example, plastic grocery bags can be reused for additional trips to the grocery store, as lunch bags, gym bags, and garbage can liners. Yesterday’s yogourt container can become tomorrow’s lunch pail. Old margarine containers can become storage vessels for an assortment of household items.
  • Familiarize yourself with plastic recycling in your community.

BPA and You

What is it?

BPA is a chemical used during the manufacturing of polycarbonate plastic.

What products is it in?

It’s found in baby bottles, sippy cups, and reusable water bottles.

Should you be concerned?

Studies link it to prostate cancer, miscarriages, and certain birth defects, but Health Canada says it does not pose a health risk.

What you can do?

If you’re concerned about the health and environmental risks, avoid reusable plastic water bottles, other hard plastic bottles, and sippy cups.

About the Author

Stephanie R. Kinnon is a Vancouver-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Chatelaine Magazine, Her Sports, Northwest Runner, the Georgia Straight, Business in Vancouver, and IMPACT magazine.