Should we be concerned?
Stephanie R. Kinnon
What's sterile, strong, and everywhere around us? Plastic. Used in everything from food containers to shoe soles, this popular polymer is quickly revealing itself to have adverse health effects. Find out how you can protect yourself from endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and learn proper recycling protocol to minimize impact on the environment.
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.
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 and child-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 home and in the office. It seems that the benefits of using plastic are boundless–but are they really?
“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 helps the waste mix burn more efficiently.
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.
“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.
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
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.