Life of plastic: Time to rethink this ever-present material

25th Oct 2013


By Sarah Marshall

Plastics have become a commonplace aspect of modern life, used in food packaging, toys, toiletries, textiles, electronics, and even cars. Due to the ease of manufacturing, imperviousness to water, and relatively low cost, plastics have taken over, present in almost all manufactured goods. Though, in recent years, the safety of plastics has come into question, because of their potential to leach toxic substances. There is also the issue of waste and disposal, which has led to environmental degradation and adverse effects on marine animals.

One major concern from plastics is Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, an endocrine disruptor that leaches from polycarbonates and is also used in thermal paper and some sealants. According to the Local Hazardous Waste Management Program in King County, Washington, “BPA enters our bodies mainly through food and beverages that have been in contact with polycarbonate” including canned foods via sealant, sports water bottles bought before July 2012, and baby bottles and sippy cups bought before July 2011. Environment and Human Health, Inc. states that the health effects of BPA, “include breast and prostate cancer, regional decline in sperm counts, abnormal penile/urethra development in males, early sexual maturation in females, increasing neurobehavioral problems, increasing prevalence of obesity and type 2 diabetes, and immune system effects.”

These are serious health concerns plaguing millions around the world, yet exposure cannot be pinpointed because of how many products contain BPA that people constantly come in contact with. Checking the label on the underside of plastics may help steer clear of those containing BPA. Plastic containers labelled 1, 2, or 5 do not contain BPA or other plastic chemicals of concern, but those with the number 7 inside the recycling triangle may. One way to avoid BPA altogether is by using containers made of glass or unlined stainless steel.

Plastics do not only pose human health effects, but environmental hazards as well. Widespread pollution can be attributed to the disposal of plastics – garbage being dumped from land as well as cruise ships, though the latter has been outlawed.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up primarily of plastics, and is concentrated between the coasts of California and Hawaii due to ocean currents.

Now even lakes are thought to be at risk. A recent study conducted at Italy’s Lake Garda found that sediment samples contained large concentrations of plastic. Plastic fragments can accumulate in marine animals’ tissue and have the potential to make them sterile by affecting their hormone systems.

Researchers published in the journal Science found that “the global production of plastic materials had increased five-fold between 1976 and 2008, and the amount thrown away in the US has risen four-fold during the past two decades” (BBC, 2010). Plastics last for years on end in bodies of water due to their extremely slow rate of biodegradation.

People handle a variety of plastics each and every day, and have grown accustomed to disposable products made of the material for the sake of convenience and the perception of better hygiene. This has underestimated and disconnected people from the energy it takes to make plastic products; energy that comes from petroleum. According to the US Energy Information Administration, “In 2010, about 191 million barrels of LPG (liquid petroleum gases) and NGL (natural gas liquids) were used in the United States to make plastic products in the plastic materials and resins industry, equal to about 2.7% of total US petroleum consumption.”

With so much controversy over oil, would it not be wiser to recycle and reuse this material that takes so much energy to produce, can be re-formed into new materials, and does immense and continuous damage to our natural environments? If we refuse to stop using plastics, we can at least use them more efficiently. Simple lifestyle changes can save money and reduce plastic consumption. For example, using a stainless steel reusable water bottle instead of buying disposable plastic ones, or remembering reusable bags at the grocery store instead of accepting plastic can make an impact. These small steps allow for cleaner, more conscious living, and may even influence others to jump on the bandwagon and rethink this material we cannot seem to escape.

Sarah Marshall, Bachelor’s Environmental Policy, USF Tampa



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