Conventional plastics made from non-renewable petroleum and natural gas resources threaten the environment and human health, and are recycled at a paltry level. Today plastics are widely used in building and construction, electronics, transportation, and packaging industries. While we value the durable qualities of plastics that give longevity to products, single-use disposable plastics cause serious problems.
Plastics Impact Oceans and Ocean Life
Research reveals that parts of the Pacific Ocean have six times more plastic particles than plankton, the source of life. One major problem with fossil-fuel based plastics is that they are non-biodegradable. While plastics can break down into minute pieces, they may not completely degrade for a 1,000 years, and are mistaken for food by the tiniest of species, as well as larger marine animals.
Plastics Impact Human Health
Production of all fossil-fuel-based products is associated with widely recognized health hazards and environmental impacts. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polystyrene are among the worst polymers and are associated with hazards throughout their lifecycle of production, use, and disposal. Production and disposal of PVC releases persistent pollutants into the environment that are known to cause cancer, disrupt the endocrine system, impair reproduction, cause birth defects, and more. [Joe Thornton, Environmental Impacts of Polyvinyl Chloride Building Materials, Healthy Building Network, 2002.] Polystyrene, a common material for take-out containers and other single-use food-related items, is made from benzene (a known carcinogen) and styrene (a suspected carcinogen and known neurotoxin) [“Are Polystyrene Food and Beverage Containers a Health Hazard?” Facts to Act On, Release #5, ILSR, August 15, 1990; National Institute of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Specialized Information Services Web site; and “Fact Sheet on Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals,” Rachel’s Environment & Health News at http://www.rachel.org].
Three Polymers to Avoid
|Polymer||Common Applications||Health Issues|
|Polycarbonate (PC)||Baby bottles, sports water bottles||Can leach out bisphenol A, a hormone disruptor|
|Polystyrene (PS)||Foam insulation, packaging peanuts, plastic utensils, meat trays, egg cartons, take-out containers, single-use disposable cups||Uses benzene, styrene and 1,3-butadiene. Styrene is a neurotoxin and is known to be toxic to the reproductive system. PS releases toxic chemicals when burned.|
(PVC or vinyl)
|Building pipes, siding, membrane roofing, flooring, and window frame; shower curtains, beach balls, credit cards, cooking oil bottles||Made from the vinyl chloride monomer; high chlorine and additive content. Toxic additives such as phthalate softeners leach out. PVC releases dioxin and other persistent organic pollutants.|
Sources: Healthy Building Network’s Guide to Plastic Lumber (2005),
Creating Safe and Healthy Spaces: Selecting Materials that Support Healing (2006),
Center for Health, Environment and Justice’s PVC – Bad News Comes in 3s (2004)
Plastics Recycling Remains Low
Plastic is one of the fastest growing parts of the waste stream and among the most expensive discarded material to manage. The plastics recycling rate of 6.9% is the lowest of all major materials (compared to 51.6% for paper, 36.3% for metals, and 21.8% for glass). [US Environmental Protection Agency, Municipal Solid Waste in the United States, 2006 Facts and Figures, www.epa.gov/osw.] In 1960, single-use plastic packaging was 0.14% of the waste stream (120,000 tons). In less than one generation, it has grown to 5.7% and 14,230,000 tons per year [US EPA, 2006 data].
Plastics Recycling Low
(percent by weight)
|Total Plastics in MSW|
Source: US EPA, 2007 data
Key: PET = polyethylene terephthalate, HDPE = high density polyethylene, PVC = polyvinyl chloride,
PS = polystyrene, LDPE = low density polyethylene, PP = polypropylene, PS = polystyrene