21. The problem with plastics

Last week, my uncle asked me, “What’s the problem with plastics?” Well, there are many…

The major problems include:

1. They will be around a lot longer than we will, but no one is really sure how long plastics will take to break down (and they’ll never fully biodegrade) since the first plastic was only invented in 1855, with mass production only within the last century.

2. Recycling plastic isn’t as simple as recycling glass or aluminum, as the various polymers tend to separate out like oil and water when melted. There’s a good explanation of this in wikipedia, but it’s pretty technical. Biodegradable plastics exacerbate the issue because if they’re mixed in with other plastics, the recycled plastic will be damaged and have reduced value. The Green Guide has (had, in 2007) an article on #3 PVC plastic and how it’s pretty much impossible to recycle, along with all of the other problems with it.

3. Plastic production is non-renewable resource intensive and uses “potentially harmful chemicals, which are added as stabilisers or colorants. Many of these have not undergone environmental risk assessment.” (from Action for Sustainable Living)

These are all big issues, but as a mom, the third one is huge for me. Dioxins are released in the manufacture and incineration of plastics. The following, to varying degrees and from various types of plastic, can leach into food and drink: phthalates (many problems, including being an estrogen mimic), Bisphenol A (BPA, a hormone disruptor), and antimony (antimony poisoning is like arsenic poisoning). As for manufacturing, The Green Guide’s product report (2011 update: they’re no longer doing product reports) says “producing a 16-oz. PET bottle generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions to air and water than making the same size bottle out of glass.” Yes, PET is lighter and costs less to transport, but at that cost (plus the recycling issue)? No thanks.

I can’t remember where I read it and consequently have no referring link (update Aug 22/07: it could have been this from EWG) but I read earlier today that the biggest leachy culprit is cans, which are lined with a plastic (epoxy). Great… now I have to start canning my own tomatoes (the beans I can deal with – you just need to plan for them the night before. And we don’t do canned soup so the biggie for us is tomatoes).

So, what does this mean for me personally? Earlier this week I picked up 4 stainless steel Klean Kanteens, 1 for each member of the family. They have an adapter that will fit Avent sippy cup lids which works out well since that’s the pump I own (small miracles: neither of my boys took to bottle feeding, but we’re still trying with #2) and Avent Baby Bottles are on the AVOID list (2011: no longer online) from The Green Guide (a good list to look at – it includes good and bad plastics and plastic alternatives).

I’ve also been slowly replacing all of my plastic tupperware (and similar) containers with Corningware and Anchor Hocking glassware. My mom asked me what I’m going to do with all those plastic containers (because many aren’t recyclable and I don’t just want to create more landfill). I’m repurposing them to non food uses. Once the boys are a bit older, they’ll be excellent for crafty bits. For now I’m finding odd uses for them around the house.

I’m also getting rid of all of the plastic infant toys we have (1 was bought by me, the rest were gifts or hand-me-downs. We’re more of a wooden toy sort of family…) but more on that another day.

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