Is Plastic Really Fantastic? by Faith Canter
Plastics have been around since the 1940s. They’re used all over the world and are commonplace in our everyday lives. So what exactly is plastic and where does it come from?
There are actually a few natural plastics, but for the most part, the plastics we use are manmade and most come from crude oil (although some come from coal and natural gases). Plastic, petrol, paraffin, lubricants and petroleum gases are all bi-products of the refining process of crude oil.
Crude oil is non-renewable, which means once it has been used up we cannot replace it. And this means that plastics are unsustainable. The drilling and transportation of crude oil are environmentally hazardous. There have been many cases of drilling platforms and tankers leaking oil into the sea. These leaks can range from small releases to huge-scale environmental disasters. These accidents have killed many millions of sea mammals, birds, and fish, and destroyed whole eco systems along beaches and coastlines.
During the refining process of crude oil monomers are produced and when thousands of these monomers are linked together (by combining another element like carbon, hydrogen, chlorine, fluorine or nitrogen) they create polymers, which is basically just another word for plastic.
Once a plastic is made is will not biodegrade. It releases toxic gases (and uses a lot of energy) if burned, but it can be recycled. It is believed that we recycle as little as 10 – 20 percent of plastics produced every year. This is shockingly low! This means that all of the plastics simply thrown into landfill or dropped on the floor will hang around for ever. In fact it is believed that almost every signal piece of manmade plastic ever produced, except that which has been incinerated, is still on this planet today. And we continue to produce more plastic as a rate of 4.8 billion tons a day, which will mostly go into landfill. At this rate, how long it will be before there is no more land to fill?
Of course not all plastic ends up in landfill. What isn’t incinerated or recycled ends up in our oceans and rivers. Hundreds of thousands of birds, fish, and manuals die every year from being poisoned by plastics or entangled in them. It is said that 90% of the rubbish in our oceans is plastic and that there are an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of ocean. That’s a huge amount of non-biodegradable and environmentally hazardous waste in our beautiful seas.
A lot of these plastics get carried along by our oceans currents and end up in floating garbage patches; the largest one of these is in the north pacific, just off California. This floating garbage patch is twice the size of Texas and garbage outnumbers sea-life 6 to 1.
So why do we use so much plastic if it’s so detrimental to our planet?
It’s cheap to produce, it’s lightweight it helps us preserve our food and is easily moulded into just about any shape.
More and more research is coming to light about the toxic effect plastics have, not just on this planet but on our own health as well. Most people have now heard of BPAs and are trying to avoid plastics with these in. But for those of you that haven’t, BPA’s are chemicals found in many food containers, wrappers and used as sealants round the inside of metal cans and bottles. They are thought to interfere with our endocrine systems and even increase our risk of illnesses like cancer. There are now many BPA free products you can buy to avoid these chemicals and it’s also best to avoid canned food, especially if it’s food stuff like tomatoes, as these are acidic and help the BPA’s leak into the food. Why haven’t these been banned yet? Because research has been completed to suggest BPA’s are safe in small doses. However, with almost all food you buy and consume wrapped in plastic, it doesn’t take long for the levels of BPA’s to rise above the ‘small doses bracket. As such, any reduction in foods packaged in plastic will help to reduce your BPA toxic load.
Unfortunately BPAs aren’t they only chemicals that are toxic to us in plastics. There’s actually a whole host of them, but BPA’s are definitely the worst. Wherever possible, you should reduce plastics around your food and drink. This will reduce your exposure to them.
How can you do this?
- Don’t heat your food up in anything plastic (heating plastic allows the chemicals to leach into your food more easily).
- Start to replace all your plastic storage containers with glass or metal ones.
- Do away with cling film (especially when used with hot food). Use scraps of material to wrap dry food and glass storage containers for wet stuff.
- Purchase a metal or glass water bottle and take this will you and fill it up as you go, rather than purchasing drinks in plastic bottles.
- Take your own thermos cup/mug out with you and ask to have it filled rather than making use of the shop’s takeaway plastic cups.
- Take a metal (or wooden) camping cutlery set with you rather than using throw away plastic ones.
- Join a veg box scheme. Most of their produce comes loose or in paper bags.
- Buy locally. This way your food is less likely to have been sat in plastic wrappings for long periods of time whilst it’s been shipped from wherever it was produced.
- Buy fresh produce or food that comes in cartons for things like tomatoes..
- Take your own jars and containers to health food stores, fast food takeaways, and local farmers markets and asked for these to be filled rather than using their plastic containers.
The above are great ways to reduce your consumption of toxic chemicals from plastics. If you would like to take it a step further and try to reduce you plastic usage in general then the below are some great tips for this.
- Buy or make yourself some reusable shopping bags. If you forget to take your bags into the shop then pop everything back in the trolley loose and take the trolley to the bags in your car. Buy twice as many reusable bags as you need, so that when you forget to put them back in the car after using them, you still have a spare set for the next shop.
- Lose the bin bags! These days almost everyone has kerbside recycling/waste removal or composting facilities so there is no need for wet foods, drinks and produce to be put into your kitchen bin. You no longer need bin bags. Simply empty you bin directly into the main kerbside bin outside and do away with nasty bin bags.
- Replace kitchen roll with a basket of scraps of material that you just reuse and wash. This eliminates all that single use plastic packaging around those single use kitchen roll sheets.
- Either make you own bread (which will also be healthier) or buy it from a bakers, so there’s no plastic packaging.
- Buy any sort of deli food, meats, and cheeses direct from the store, deli counter, or butcher and place them in your own containers.
- Use a natural deodorant like a salt stone as although some of these are packaged in plastic they, last about 18mths, so you’ll be using a lot less of them.
- Make your own natural cleaning products. The ingredients will often still come in plastic but they will last much, much longer so again, you’ll be buying less plastic.
- Make your own natural body products. These will last much longer, so you’ll be buying far less plastic. You’ll also have the added bonus of putting less chemicals on your body.
- Avoid body scrubs/exfoliators that are not made from natural ingredients as they have very small plastic beads in them. These get into our water supply and then our food chain as fish eat them believing them to be food.
- Use bio-gradable dog waste bags (or nappy bio-gradable nappy bags are often cheaper). I’ve even heard of people using newspapers.
- Bulk buy as many items as possible so that there is less plastic packaging produced used.
- Buy (or make your own) bars of soap instead of liquid soaps to reduce the bottles used.
- Keep a box for all the packaging you have received through the post and then reuse this when you post things out yourself.
- Do away with zip lock and sandwich bags. Store food in reusable glass containers or wash out plastic single use containers and use these again. TIP: Microwave rice pouches can be used again for storing wet foods.
- If there’s an option to buy food in glass instead of plastic (like with sauces and other wet foods) then take this option and then reuse the jar afterwards.
One more point: Since implementing all of the above I am actually spending a lot less money, creating less waste, reducing the toxicity levels of my body, home and environment and feeling great about it. In my book that’s a winner!
In July each year there is a worldwide event called Plastic Free July. This is a great time of year to set yourself the challenge of reducing your plastic usage. If you can reduce your use of single use plastics even by half or find new and inventive ways to use plastics, you can have a real impact on the amount of plastics produced and ultimately thrown away on this planet. Why not check out Plastic Free July’s website and get involved in the challenge: http://www.plasticfreejuly.org/
About Faith: Faith’s interests lie in teaching people how to live less toxic lives. This includes anything from meditation through to what we put into our bodies, onto our bodies and use within our homes. By addressing these things we not only live a healthier lifestyle for ourselves and families but we also help the environment by not adding to the toxic load of the planet.