It is becoming much more widely-known that plastics can be harmful to the environment, our own health, and the health of other animals. But what exactly is it about plastic that can be so harmful? What damage has already been done, and what will the future look like if we don’t reduce our use of plastic? That’s what I would like to share a bit about in this post.
I hope that these reminders will be a daily motivation for all of us to start avoiding plastic, especially single-use plastic, wherever we can.
A bit of science
It is hard to imagine a world without plastic. One of the first man-made plastics was invented in 1862 by a man named Alexander Parkes. The material he produced was derived from cellulose and could be molded through heat, and once cooled down would retain its shape. In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, which was the very first fully synthetic plastic.
The word plastic was formerly used to describe a “pliable and easily shaped” material. Only recently, plastic became the term to describe “polymers,” which means “of many parts.” Polymers are made up of long chains of molecules which over the last century have been produced almost entirely through carbon atoms provided by petroleum and other fossil fuels. The use of fossil fuels in their production is one of the environmental harms that excessive use of plastic contributes to. But since plastic (polymers) is essentially made up of long chains of molecules arranged in repeating patterns – much longer than materials found in nature – it is not merely stronger, more lightweight and flexible than natural materials, it is nearly impossible to break down. This is what we mean when we say that plastic is non-biodegradable.
To improve plastic, chemical additives began to be added. We now recognize these additives as toxic and thus harmful for our own health and environment. Such harmful and substances and their effects include lead, cadmium, and mercury, which are directly toxic, causing endocrine disruption, birth defects, immune system suppression and developmental problems in children. Another chemical additive is diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), which is a carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substance.
Some of the most common plastics that are linked to these harmful effects are:
- Polyvinyl chloride – can be found in flooring, windows and door frames and shutters, water and waste pipes, electrical applications such as cable and wire insulation materials, architectural glazing systems, wallpaper, etc. PVC has been widely used for surgery, pharmaceuticals, drug delivery and medical packaging.
- Phthalates – found in hundreds of products, such as toys, vinyl flooring and wall covering, detergents, lubricating oils, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, blood bags and tubing, and personal care products, such as nail polish, hair sprays, aftershave lotions, soaps, shampoos and perfumes.
- Polycarbonate- found in drinking bottles, glasses and food containers and toys
- Polystyrene – Solid and film polystyrene isused in rigid foodservice containers, CD cases, appliance housings, envelope windows and many other products. Polystyrene foam is used in food service products and building insulation.
The rise of plastic
Plastic came into wide use in the 1950’s, and since that time it is estimated that nearly 8.3 million tons of plastic have been produced, creating about 6.3 billion tons of waste. Of that waste, only 9% is recycled; everything else either ends up in landfills or contaminating the natural environment.
How far does that contamination reach? Well, to give just one example, plastic trash was found on Henderson Island, a small uninhabited coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and one the most remote places on Earth.
is predicted that by 2050 the amount of plastic found in the oceans will exceed the amount of all animals that live in them.
There have been a lot of efforts to produce “healthier” options of plastic, from plastic without added toxins to the many attempts of producing biodegradable options. I will have more to say about this in another post.
Breakdown versus biodegrading
But, one might ask, don’t plastics end up returning to the material of the Earth over time, breaking down into their component parts and thus not causing harm? No; that’s closer to what we call “biodegrading.” What exactly is the difference between breaking down, which most plastic does, and biodegrading? Breaking down plastic essentially means that a big piece of plastic is reduced to lots of small pieces. But, these small pieces still have essentially the same composition as the bigger plastic pieces, so it is still plastic waste that gets consumed by small animals that are unable to digest it.
On the other hand, biodegradable plastic can be composted, which means it can be converted into organic matter that can feed other living things, especially plants. Some biodegradable plastic can be composted along with food scraps in home compost bins, but some can only be composted by industrial or municipal facilities.
It’s important to know which plastics are recyclable, which are compostable, and which will have to go into a landfill. This can be a very confusing and dauting, and as a result a lot of trash ends up in the wrong places. Again, in another post I will write about how we can know the difference and better ensure that as little plastic as possible ends up being wasted.
Some good news
Plastics are a huge part of our lives, and many are impossible to avoid or to find alternatives for, such as the plastics used in hospitals, or those used to build computers, smart phones or vacuum cleaners. However, many of the plastics that we use on a regular basis, especially the single-use items, are not necessary in our daily lives. They are also the ones that create the most problems, so those are the types of plastics that I will be focusing on trying to eliminate and finding better and healthier alternatives for.
The good news is that there are many intelligent minds out there and lots of great companies working on ways to reuse already existing plastic into other items, which is one way of reducing the impact plastic has on our climate. So, let’s hope that the research in those areas will continue to improve.
But mostly, I am confident that we can all find ways to contribute and reduce the amount of plastic we use.
Now that we have learned a bit about the history and the impact of plastic, let’s move on to find good ways to reduce single use plastic. I am happy to be sharing my personal attempts with you and introduce you to affordable ways and products that can make our life healthier, better and have a positive effect on our world.
Let’s stay hopeful!
Introducing the five R’s
One of the best ways to reorient our use of plastic is by following the 5 R’s. You may have heard about the 5 R’s, and you may be already following them. Thumbs up if you are! If not, here is a short introduction.
- Refuse – say no to plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic cutlery and plastic water bottles
- Reduce – purchase less and only what you really need
- Reuse – replace disposable items with reusables
- Recycle – separate your trash so recyclables will for certain be recycled
- Rot – safe your food scraps and other compostables, and start or contribute to a compost
The 5 R’s help me to think twice about what I purchase and what I throw away. Following these principles will be a guide and will help you drastically reduce your plastic use. But one step at a time. If this already sounds overwhelming to you, don’t worry. You don’t have to do it all at once! I will get into all these steps into detail, little by little.
It’s all about simplifying
Our world is complicated and our lives are complicated. I truly believe that reducing plastic can make our life less complicated, less cluttered and help us save money in the long run. That is a fact that I find very exciting. So, truly, there are no reasons not to try, and take one step towards a better future.