Today I’d like to focus on why the Zero Waste movement is particularly concerned about plastics. Of course, the goal is to reduce waste of all sorts, including food waste and packaging in general, but you’re right if you’ve noticed a focus on plastic.
Plastics are toxic
I always take a science-based perspective, and don’t believe that everything synthetic is inherently evil and everything natural is always healthy. That being said, there are some very real documented negative health effects of plastics.
Here are some examples:
- Polycarbonate (aka BPA/BPS; often #7 plastic). Bisphenol-A was all over the news about a decade ago for its hormone-disrupting and potentially cancer-causing effects. Studies at the time showed that 95% of Canadians had measurable amounts of BPA in their urine. It has since been removed from baby bottles and many reusable plastic water bottles, but can still be found in thermal paper (receipts), many canned goods, jar lids, eyeglasses, and CDs/DVDs. But wait! New research is showing that its substitutes (including BPS) are equally toxic.
- Phthalates. This is a group of chemicals used to make plastics soft. They can be found in plastic wrap and soft toys such as rubber ducks, but they’re often also added to fragrance, nail polish, and cosmetics (and PVC plastic–see below). Phthalates are known to be reproductive toxins.
- PVC (aka Polyvinyl chloride; #3 plastic). This typically includes soft plastics such as shower curtains, rain gear, children’s toys, and school supplies. As a result, PVC is a source of phthalates.
- PS (aka Polystyrene; #6 plastic). Basically, foam. This includes Styrofoam takeout containers and cups, as well as packing materials in boxes. PS can leach styrene, which is toxic. (As a side note, it’s also notoriously difficult to recycle effectively and efficiently.)
- PETE/PET (aka Polyethylene terephthalate; #1 plastic). This plastic is known for its widespread use and comparative recyclability. It’s often the type used for water and pop bottles. The plastic can leach a suspected carcinogen called antimony, especially at high temperatures. (For this reason, adhere to the expiry dates on plastic water bottles and never store them in hot cars.)
But here’s the thing: these are just some of the worst plastics. Recent research tells that most plastics leach estrogenic chemicals. Yikes! Some plastics are better than others, but no perfect plastic exists.
The American Academy of Paediatrics recently released a statement advising parents and caregivers to wash children’s plastic dishes by hand, and keep them out of the microwave, as these extremely hot environments can increase chemical leaching.
Plastics are (mostly) non-renewable
The vast majority of plastics are made from non-renewable fossil fuels: a source that we need to move away from. There are some bio-based plastics that are considered biodegradable, but there are problems with these plastics. They can only break down in very specific conditions: not in landfills, but also, typically not in the ocean. Furthermore, many experts argue that using food crops for plastics is immoral, considering food security issues.
Plastics are harmful to wildlife and the environment
This year, a young whale washed up on shore, dead from dehydration and starvation, with 88 pounds of plastics in its digestive system. Albatrosses’ stomachs are filled with plastic. Turtles mistake plastic bags for tasty jellyfish. Those are just some examples of how our plastics are killing wildlife. Birds, turtles, fish, and just about any other animal you can think of can get tangled in, suffocate in, or consume, plastic.
This doesn’t include microplastic pollution: the tiny pieces of plastic that we don’t see, that enter our waterways through our clothing, tires, and skincare products. This plastic makes its way into our drinking water, as well as through the food chain–to us.
And then there’s the toxicity of the materials themselves. Microplastic acts as magnets for toxins, absorbing chemicals such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—harmful chemicals that stay in the environment without breaking down. That means that not only are animals ingesting plastic that clogs their digestive system, but these plastic pieces are also toxic.
Plastics don’t go away
We know that plastic doesn’t decompose on its own, but it’s hard to truly comprehend what this means. Every plastic toothbrush you’ve ever used still exists–and will exist, for at least the next 400 or 500 years. Moreover, we know that plastics can’t truly be recycled. That means that every tiny piece of microplastic, every polyester t-shirt, every polystyrene foam cup, will always exist in some form, in the world.
Wait, are all plastics bad?
I don’t believe that all plastics can be avoided. As far as I understand it, plastic has some very important uses in industry and the medical field. What Zero Waste people are concerned with, mainly, is single-use plastic and packaging: the plastic that is used once, and then discarded. This includes takeout containers, water bottles, cups and lids, straws, stir sticks, cutlery, bags, food packaging, skincare/cosmetics packaging, diapers, and disposable period products. This is the most notorious and most pervasive plastic.