Health Implications: The plastic we use can harm us
Disposal of Plastics: What happens if we burn or bury it?
Plastic litter in the environment does not go away
Recycling plastics may be better than wasting, but can be toxic, too
Efforts to phase out PVC, “The Poison Plastic”
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More about plastics on our website
The thing that makes plastic so attractive to manufacturers and consumers alike is the limitless ways you can use it. You can make plastic in any size, shape, texture, and color. It can be flexible or hard. It can be light (like foam) or heavy. You can even give it a scent. However, these properties are also what makes plastic so harmful to our health and the environment.
Why? Each plastic thing starts with a resin (or two or many) made from petroleum that is combined with any number of chemicals, like plasticizers, lubricants, pigments, and stabilizers, to give that thing its unique characteristics.
Thousands upon thousands of items—bottles, toys, to-go containers, Frisbees, medical supplies, car bumpers, foam, and more—all with their unique recipe. And all this plastic has been created faster than we are able to learn about how exactly it affects our environment and bodies.
Plastics are made with many chemicals that cause harm to our environment and our health. Each kind of plastic consists of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of different chemicals that are relatively untested.
There are over 82,000 synthetic chemicals registered for use in commerce. The vast majority of these chemicals are untested.
Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the law that regulates industrial chemicals in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required safety testing on only 200 of these chemicals, and of those, only five have been banned from manufacturing (including asbestos and dioxin).
This does not mean that other chemicals or other plastics are entirely safe…they just haven’t been studied. To compound matters, current testing typically involves one chemical at a time, but many problems occur only when different chemicals interact in the manufacturing process, the product, or our bodies.
In 2011, the Safe Chemicals Act was introduced in Congress to overhaul this legislation. In Minnesota, there has been legislation passed to remove some toxic chemicals from products--like banning Bisphenol-A (BPA) from baby bottles and sippy cups.
BPA and phthalates are just two substances that have been getting a lot of attention because of their now known harmful effects.
BPA is a common synthetic chemical found in plastics, food can linings, beverage can linings, and other consumer products, which interferes with human hormones. We know that phthalates, a class of chemicals used to soften plastics, to carry fragrance and scent, and used in other everyday products, have been linked to birth defects and are harmful to reproductive systems.
Today it is BPA, but tomorrow we could discover the toxic effects of any of those 82,000 chemicals in products we use every day.
Some chemicals, like BPA and phthalates, can leach into food and drinks and possibly affect human health. Polycarbonate, PVC, and styrene have also been shown to leach toxic chemicals. Leaching increases when plastic comes in contact with oily or fatty foods, if the plastics are heated, and from old or scratched plastic.
But, there are simple, easy steps you can take today to protect you and your family.
When plastics are used, recycled or disposed of, or left in the environment as litter, they break down and release harmful chemicals. These pollutants like heavy metals, such as cadmium and lead, and chemicals such as benzene, dioxins, and other pollutants, release harmful toxins into our air, water, and bodies.
Right now, most plastic is being wasted—sent to landfills or, more likely, incinerators, which has toxic and harmful effects on the environment and our health.
Burning plastic in incinerators releases toxic heavy metals and chemicals. Incinerators produce a variety of toxic discharges to the air, water, and ground that are significant sources of powerful pollutants, including dioxin and other chlorinated organic compounds that are well known for their toxic effects on human health and the environment.
Many of these toxins enter the food supply and concentrate up through the food chain. In addition to air and water emissions, incinerators create toxic ash or slag that must then be landfilled, which contains heavy metals, dioxins, and other pollutants.
In fact, garbage incinerators and medical waste incinerators are two of the largest sources of dioxin identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Dioxin is the common name for a class of 75 chemicals. It is a toxic waste product formed when waste containing chlorine is burned or when products containing chlorine are manufactured. It is a group of the most potent synthetic chemicals ever tested, which cause cancer and harm the immune and reproductive systems even at very low concentrations.
In landfills, leachate is produced when water picks up toxins as it seeps through the trash. This trash includes plastics of all types, even older plastics that have been proven to be toxic that are still in our landfills. Although landfills attempt to collect this toxic leachate, it also leaks into ground and surface water, releasing pollutants into the environment and causing health risks for humans and wildlife.
We currently face a real dilemma with plastics. We know that burning plastics—some of which are highly toxic when burned, like PVC (#3)—in our local incinerator creates real problems for our community, our health, and our environment.
However, we are equally concerned that if we collect this material and send it overseas without knowing what happens to it, we are likely to create serious problems for another community and our environment. To escape the toxicity of plastics, plastic products need to be redesigned.
Although recycling alone is not a long-term solution to our problems with plastic, it may be better to recycle the plastic we currently have, instead of sending it to a landfill or incinerator.
Of the more than one billion tons of plastics we’ve produced since the 1950s, all of it is still with us somewhere in the environment. Even when we landfill and incinerate our plastic, it does not go away…but much of it is just litter that contaminates our water and marine life.
What’s going on in the ocean with plastics?
Large patches of floating plastic garbage between the coasts of California and Japan (“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and the “Pacific Garbage Vortex”) were discovered over a decade ago. At the time, sailors and researchers sized the Pacific Garbage Patch as larger than the state of Texas.
This giant patch of “plastic soup” swirling in the ocean isn’t necessarily visible to the naked eye because the plastic has broken down into smaller and smaller particles. These small particles are often mistaken for food and ingested by fish, birds, and other marine life. The toxic chemicals from the plastic are absorbed into their bodies and work their way up the food chain and enter our bodies when we eat seafood.
What does the ocean have to do with Minnesota?
Even in landlocked Minnesota, we have a connection to what is happening in the oceans. Not only could we be exposed to toxins by eating fish that have consumed plastic, we are in part responsible for the plastic that gets into the ocean. The majority of the ocean’s litter originates on land. Every bit of plastic that finds its way into our rivers (like the Mississippi River, which empties in to the Gulf of Mexico) or other waterways is carried out to sea.
In the short term, recycling may be better than burning or burning plastics and it can (but often doesn’t) replace the use of virgin petroleum in making new products. However, the plastics recycling process is not without harmful effects on human and environmental health.
Other zero-waste organizations like Eureka Recycling are looking at benefits and challenges with plastics recycling. The Ecology Center in Berkeley, CA and High County Conservation in Summit County, CA are two examples.
In order to recycle plastic, it must be melted by heat, which causes it to break down and release any number of the chemicals used to make the plastic.
Plastic manufacturing workers and the area surrounded by plastic manufacturing facilities are exposed to the hazards of using petroleum-based material—whether it is virgin or recycled.
Recycling of plastic (some types more than others) is associated with skin and respiratory problems, resulting from exposure to and inhalation of toxic fumes, especially hydrocarbons and residues released during the process.
Heating and reheating plastic also degrades it, which is why plastic collected for recycling is so often “downcycled,” meaning plastic bottles, for example, are made into carpet, fleece, plastic lumber, and other products that cannot be recycled again. This also does little to reduce the use of virgin petroleum to make new bottles.
We cannot escape toxins that are released when recycling takes place here, or even overseas, since toxins don't stay local. Once emitted into the environment, dioxins, for example, can travel vast distances via air and ocean currents, which makes them a global contaminant.
When the plastic we recycle in the U.S. is shipped overseas to China, India, and other countries (and much of it is), the work standards and emission standards are not the same as in the United States. More importantly, it is extremely difficult to obtain documentation of how the material is handled in order to find out what is happening to it. The recycling industry’s experience with overseas shipping of other materials like electronics tells us the importance of understanding what happens to materials.
When Eureka Recycling collects plastics, you can be confident that we know where and how that plastic is recycled. We are also committed to exploring and implementing other options beyond wasting or recycling to address plastics.
PVC (#3) or polyvinyl chloride plastic, commonly referred to as vinyl, gets its name “the poison plastic” because of the lifecycle of the plastic, which is toxic from start to finish. It is one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created.
PVC is chlorine-based, so when it is manufactured or burned it results in the generation of dioxin, a known human carcinogen. It also contains many toxic additives such as phthalates, lead and cadmium, which leach out during use.
PVC is used to make products from bottles to shower curtains to children’s toys. The production, use, and disposal of vinyl have been linked to several healthy concerns, including reproductive abnormalities, damage to the immune and neurological systems, hormone disruption, infertility, and cancer.
Please take a few minutes to fill out this short questionnaire about plastics. The responses you provide will help us determine the kind of information about plastic that you want and need.