Disposal of Plastic: What Happens if We Burn or Bury It?
Recycling Plastics May Be Better than Wasting, but Can Be Toxic, Too
Health Implications: The Plastics We Use Can Harm Us
Efforts to Phase Out PVC, "The Poison Plastic"
The Real Answer Is in Redesigning Plastic Products
When plastics are used, recycled, or disposed of, or left in the environment as litter, they break down and release harmful chemicals. These pollutants include heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, and chemicals such as benzene, dioxins, and other pollutants, which all release harmful toxins into our air, water, and bodies.
Right now, most plastic is being wasted—sent to landfills or, more likely, incinerators.
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 become more concentrated as they move up through the food chain. In addition to air and water emissions, incinerators create toxic ash—or slag—which contains heavy metals, dioxins, and other pollutants. This toxic ash must be landfilled, and the pollutants present in the ash can then leach into groundwater.
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. Dioxins are among the most potent synthetic chemicals ever tested, causing cancer and harming our 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 but 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.
It can be frustrating, time-consuming, and overwhelming to deal with so many throwaway plastic products and packaging. It doesn’t seem like a good idea to toss them in the garbage (after all, burning or burying plastics has toxic effects on our environment and our health), but is recycling the right thing to do? What happens to plastic once it is collected?
In the short term, recycling can be better than burning or burying plastics, and it can replace the use of virgin petroleum in making new products. However, even the plastics recycling process is not without harmful effects on human and environmental health. That's why redesigning plastic packaging and products and reducing our use of plastics are the best options for our health and for the environment.
Plastic is melted during the recycling process, which causes it to break down and release the chemicals used to make it. Recycling plastic is associated with skin and respiratory problems resulting from exposure to and inhalation of toxic fumes, especially hydrocarbons and residues released during the recycling process—this is true of some types, like PVC, more than others.
Heating and reheating plastic also degrades it, which is why plastic collected for recycling is so often “downcycled.” 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 collect for recycling in the U.S. is shipped overseas to China, India, and other countries (and much of it is), the work standards for people and emission standards are not always 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.
Now, because of concern about health and environmental impacts, some countries are starting to put real limits on how much of our plastics they will take, making it more difficult for recycling programs collecting all plastics to find a market for their material.
Specifically, in 2013, China began to heavily regulate the importing of “scrap material” (like paper, aluminum, and plastic) from other countries for environmental reasons. China no longer accepts mixed plastic materials from “all-plastics” programs (though a few other countries still do). China’s new policy, known as Operation Green Fence, created a temporary upset in recycling markets as thousands of scrap containers were rejected at China’s ports for having excessive contamination—some of these containers carried as much as 40% non-recyclable plastics and other trash mixed in with the recycling. Over the past year, these changes have inspired improvements in the recycling industry in the U.S.—many recycling facilities have made major investments in quality control, and new plastics markets are developing in the U.S.
Some people believe that educating residents about the realities of plastic recycling is too complicated. While tighter quality control standards at recycling facilities and end markets are an improvement, it is even more important to provide people with good recycling education. Just as it is wasteful to ship materials overseas only to have them thrown away after they arrive, it is also wasteful to collect materials in a recycling truck and then throw them away when they reach the recycling facility.
Eureka Recycling believes that people like you want to know what materials are really made into new products after you carefully place them in your recycling bin. By taking the time to understand what plastics are really recyclable, you can help your community’s recycling program be a success, take action to change your purchasing habits, and even push back on producers—asking them to change the plastics that they use in their products and packaging.
The only reasons Eureka Recycling recycles anything is to protect the environment and our health, while improving our quality of life. When Eureka Recycling collects plastics, or any other material, you can be confident that we know where and how it is recycled.
The things that make plastic so attractive to manufacturers and consumers are the same things that make it so harmful to our health and the environment.
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. Why? Everything made of plastic starts with a resin (or two, or many) made from petroleum that is combined with any number of chemicals that are relatively untested for safety, such as plasticizers, lubricants, pigments, and stabilizers, to give each item its unique characteristics.
Think about the thousands upon thousands of plastic items—bottles, toys, to-go containers, Frisbees®, medical supplies, car bumpers, foam, and more—all with a unique recipe. And all this plastic has been created faster than we are able to learn about how it affects our environment and bodies.
Over 82,000 synthetic chemicals are registered for use in commerce. The vast majority of these chemicals are untested.
Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which regulates industrial chemicals in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required safety testing on only 200 of these chemicals. Of those, only five—including asbestos and dioxin—have been banned from manufacturing.
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. Minnesota has passed legislation to remove some toxic chemicals from products; banning Bisphenol-A (BPA) from baby bottles and sippy cups is one example.
BPA and phthalates are just two substances that have attracted a lot of attention because of their now-known harmful effects.
BPA is a common synthetic chemical found in plastics–food and beverage can linings and other consumer products—that interferes with human hormones. We know that phthalates, a class of chemicals used to soften plastics and to carry fragrance in many everyday products, have been linked to birth defects and are harmful to the reproductive system.
Some chemicals, like BPA and phthalates, can leach into food and drinks to 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, when the plastics are heated, and when plastics get old or scratched.
Here are some simple steps you can take today to protect you and your family.
PVC (#3) or polyvinyl chloride plastic, commonly referred to as vinyl, gets its name “the poison plastic” because its lifecycle 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 generates 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 health concerns, including reproductive abnormalities, damage to the immune and neurological systems, hormone disruption, infertility, and cancer.
We currently face a real dilemma with plastics. We know that burning plastics in our local incinerator has serious impacts on our community, our health, and our environment. However, if we collect this material and send it overseas for “recycling” without knowing what happens to it, we are likely to create serious problems for another community and our environment. Even recycling plastics in local, well-regulated markets has limitations, as most plastic is “down-cycled” into non-recyclable products. What should we do with this tidal-wave of plastic products?
We need to go back to the drawing board, literally, and work with manufacturers to redesign plastic products. We have the technology and intelligence to create useful, durable, non-toxic, recyclable plastic products.
Producers also need to share in the responsibility of dealing with their products at the end of their useful life. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) shifts responsibility for recycling or other safe disposal of products and packaging to those who design, market and profit from them. With this approach, this ever-changing and growing tidal wave of stuff doesn't so unfairly burden residents and communities. Eureka Recycling is a member of the Cradle2 Coalition, a national alliance of public interest organizations working to make products and packaging more sustainable.
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Last Update: February 2014