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The 21st Century: The Age of Plastic


By Laurine Brown

When relatives of victims of the sunken Titanic claimed salvaged belongings of loved ones — ivory combs, pocket watches, spectacles and other ordinary things — there was not a plastic item among them.

Now, 100 years later, can you imagine a day without plastic? Look around now and surely you'll eyeball dozens of offspring from barrels of oil (yes, modern plastic is made from petroleum). Plastic has seeped into nearly every aspect of modern life. It's molded into our computers, phones, wires, pens, carpets, flooring, window blinds, water pipes, shower curtains, kitchen gadgets, credit cards, cars, planes and even our clothes. The inventory seems endless.

We define ourselves as the Information Age. But archeologists uncovering our mounds of rubble might better label us the Plastic Age.

A love-hate relationship
Many of us have a love-hate relationship with plastic. On one hand, we're addicted to the affordable and unbreakable luxuries that plastic offers. Tupperware® alone transformed the face of leftovers by offering the busy housewife an idiot-proof, child-proof alternative to glass and ceramic. Now we can do things in a jiffy — we can even be mindless in our tasks without reprimand from a broken glass.

Could we be flying, launching satellites or walking on the moon without plastic? And how would we mend our broken joints, valves or limbs?

On the other hand, plastic is symbolic of everything that's fake and wrong with the modern material world. Unlike natural heirlooms that age with grace, there's nothing sentimental about worn, cracked plastic. We toss it without the least attachment, except perhaps the hope that it will go away.

Here to stay
And that's the problem. Like it or not, petroleum-derived plastics are designed not to biodegrade. And they don't. A notice to New York campers on decomposition times of typical camping litter notes:

Plastic container: 50-80 years
Plastic foam: never

So like it or not, plastic is here to stay. And so are the pollutants that are unfortunate consequences of our Plastic Age.

Vinyl or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is the worst offender. Its manufacture marries petroleum with the poisonous gas chlorine, unintentionally releasing dioxin. Dioxin is an exotic and extremely persistent chemical accused of causing cancer, immune suppression, hormone disruption and infertility. When vinyl or PVC is burned (fires in a home, building or garbage), dioxin is also released.

Adding fuel to the pollutant pile, the additives used to make plastic pliable (like phthalates) or firm (like bisphenol A or p-nonylphenol) may also be wreaking havoc with our hormones, especially estrogen. For example, some evidence is linking the early puberty in girls with these plasticizers. They easily "slip off" the plastic, entering the food they hold, our bodies and our environment.

Some scientists claim it is time to phase out vinyl chloride. Happily, instead of petroleum, we can craft plastic and plasticizers out of plants like soybeans that are more natural to our biology (and thus more biodegradable).

It's impossible to eliminate most plastic from daily life, but it's prudent for our health and that of our environment (which are intricately interconnected) to curb the use of some. At least avoid contact with certain plastics and food. In particular, try to avoid heating food in plastic because heating speeds leaching of additives into foods, especially fatty ones. You may find you need to be more mindful of your tasks as you handle more earthly elements like glass. And frankly, that can be a good thing.

Why to avoid plastics

• They're made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource.

• Their production releases toxic chemicals into the environment.

• Hormone-disrupting chemicals can migrate from some plastics into food, water, air and our mouths.
How to avoid plastics

How to avoid plastics

• Microwave in ovenproof glass or ceramic. Never let plastic wrap touch heated food.

• Replace plastic travel mugs with stainless steel for hot beverages.

• Store food in glass, ceramic or stainless steel.

• For wrapped foods, best choices are butcher or waxed paper, or wood-based cellulose bags (available from Seventh Generation).

• Avoid plastic cutlery, dinnerware and styrofoam cups. Invest in reusable metal utensils and enamel picnicware or look for recycled paper products.

• Bring your own take-out container to salad bars, delis — wherever they serve with plastic.

• Bring your own cloth totes (or reuse plastic bags) when shopping.

• Buy in bulk. Avoid singe-use disposable packaging.
Choose safer, sounder plastics

• When you can’t avoid plastic, check container bottoms for recycling codes (in triangle with chasing arrows). Choose those easily recycled in your area, usually: #1 (PETE) and #2 (HDPE).

• Choose non-PVC cling wrap (GLAD® and HandiWrap™)
Avoid the worst plastics

• Avoid PVC vinyl; its manufacture and incineration releases toxic dioxins into the food chain.

• Avoid plastics that leach hormone-disrupting chemicals, including #3 (PVC), #6 (PS) and #7 ("Other", often polycarbonate).

• Avoid plastics that are not very recylable: #3 (PVC), #4 (LDPE), #5 (PP), #6 (PS), #7 (Other).

Source: Lundquist, P. "Reduce the Use of Plastics," The Green Guide, 2001.

References: Fenichell, S, "Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century," 2000; Brown, L, "Things You Can Do… to reduce your toxic exposures and protect your health," September 2000; Lundquist, P.

© Laurine Brown


Laurine Brown holds a Ph.D. in nutrition from Tufts University and a master’s in public health from Boston University. For more than 20 years, Dr. Brown has worked with community health and nutrition programs in the United States and Asia. She is currently co-director of LIVING Upstream, a local not-for-profit environmental citizen group, and has a private nutritional counseling practice. Contact her at [email protected]

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