It is necessary to talk about the dangers of plastic before even addressing zero plastic shopping let alone recycling. The Institute for Zero Waste Africa decided to reprint an article in the interests of public health.
It is from Paul Göttlich and entitled Get Plastic Out Of Your Diet. It is a well researched article written by an environmentalist who worked with the public in Berkeley for many years, and I retell it largely in my own words, so do not hold the author accountable for my errors.
The article outlines what is problematic about plastic with regard to human health, and encourages the use of alternatives like glass, wood or metal. There is no such a thing as a “safe” plastic for your food or your children. In addition, plastic made from fossil fuels has a non renewable source.
The author goes on to explain. Plastic is made during a process called polymerization in which small molecules or monomers, combine to form big molecules or polymers, under great heat and pressure. There are many kinds of
plastic. Its properties can be altered with additives, for example, it can be made flexible with plasticizers, which bind imperfectly with the body of the polymer. Each manufacturer uses different recipes with different ingredients and additives. Heavy metals are common additives. Countless toxins are added without our consent or knowledge.
The great dangers of plastic are in the migration of toxic additives as well as plastic molecules due to incomplete polymerization, into all substances plastic makes contact with. That migration occurs is an assumption of the FDA (Dr Pauli, associate director). The use of plastics continues because the migration is considered negligible by the producers of the plastic, and it is such a useful material because it is shock resistant, cheap, flexible and light. The safety of plastic is based on outdated regulations (circa 1958) in an age of modernist innocence, before longitudinal studies had even shown the adverse effects of many items in our diet. All that needs to happen for a plastic to be considered ‘safe’ is for the manufacturer to prove that migration lies within a range acceptable to the FDA.
A conflict of interest is immediately apparent in allowing the manufacturer to test his own product and declare it safe. However, the FDA commonly accedes to industry in the case of food. We are talking about the USA with its FDA controlled regulation, porous as it is. In South Africa, control is probably more porous, to say nothing of other countries.
In the USA the FDA allows the self regulation of food producers with regard to the safety of plastics, pesticides, growth hormones, irradiation and microwave radiation.
The industry misinforms the authorities and public, as to the true dangers of plastic, claiming that polymerization binds constituents perfectly and results in non toxic materials, but there is always migration because polymerization is never perfect, and the additives are free to migrate. This can be seen in PVC, a common material for food containers, in which the plasticizer weeps out of aging material.
The FDA may allow producers to bend the rules, for example corn genetically engineered to carry a toxic bacillus, is regulated with rules applying to pesticide although its end goal is food.
The manufacturer is not compelled to disclose proprietary information about the nature of the plastic mix or the additives. All plastic manufacturers hide behind these allowable ‘trade secrets’. Hence it is often impossible to determine the plastic recipe of of most plastics without doing your own analysis. The diversity of plastic types and recipes is borne out by my other reading (see plastic classification for recycling).
There is hidden plastic everywhere: lining milk cartons, sprayed onto fruit to preserve its freshness, it is used to irrigate, mulch, wrap and transport organic food ! This food grade plastic meets bare minimal criteria. The worst plastic is PVC or polyvinyl chloride, but there is no ‘best’ plastic, says the author.
The true, but hidden costs of plastic's ‘cheap’ production for the manufacturer, are shifted over onto the shoulders of society at large. The rest of society foots the bill for increased taxes for recycling, landfill space, incineration, health and insurance costs.
Because of corporate financing of the testing, it will take a long time before the truth about the dangers of plastic comes out. In the interim we must protect ourselves. Governments should ban plastics using the precautionary principle, if there is a reasonable suspicion of harm. The burden of proof must be on industry, not consumers. Alternatives must be fully explored before using a new material or technology. Decisions must be democratic and include affected parties.
Some toxins in plastic may actually be more dangerous in low than in high concentrations because of low dose synergy. This undermines the dosage base of the old fashioned FDA regulations. The combination of low dose toxins in plastic combined with toxins in household cleaning agents can have a synergic toxic effect hundreds of times of either of the individual chemicals. It is known that low dosage plastic monomers can interrupt the functioning of the endocrine system, and it is the timing (during rapid development) more than the dose which is dangerous to young children. The synergy of nuclear with chemical toxicants is well documented in gulf war veterans.
The list of chemicals in the products we use is endless, and the number of plastic recipes is likewise large, and the synergic combinations possible are mind boggling. It is impossible to test them all, so the buying public become the lab rats. Neither can the FDA consider all sources of a chemical in an individual’s environment when making their regulations, as different people undergo different occupational and habitual hazards. The FDA only regulates for chemicals in contact with food and not in other uses in the home. They adopt a ‘don’t’ look, don’t see’ approach to the possibility of danger, which is of grave concern, but concealed by a very limited blinkered look at dosages in food.
The body breaks down toxins as they enter it, but these metabolites can be more dangerous. All dental tooth replacement and filling is dangerous.
With the heat of canning and oxidation in ageing plastics, substances like BPA are released from the plastic coatings or containers. An independent test by a consumer agency found BPA in drinking water bottles, and was discredited by industry in a bout of name calling.
BPA is found in many baby’s bottles. It competes with the body’s natural estrogen, and can cause chromasomal abnormality and miscarriage, (also Alzheimers in older people) and affects development, intelligence, memory, learning, behaviour, skeleton, body size, prostate size, and more due to anuploidy syndromes. Because natural estrogen is so much more potent, industry claims it is not harmful, but it can act in synergy with other estrogens from outside the body to produce dangerous levels of estrogen expecially in pregnancy from 20 weeks to 28 days after birth.
The author advises not storing anything in plastic especially baby food and drink and to avoid contact while pregnant.
There is already enough proof for the precautionary principle to halt the manufacture of plastic worldwide. It is clogging the ecosystems of the world.
I will move on from this article on the toxic dangers of plastic to humans, to a famous case of the danger to ecosystems and its effect in the ‘Great North Pacific Garbage Patch’.