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Know Your Plastics

by Vinson Valega
  ~~ from the Earth Dialogue Entry on 4/29/07  

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Currently, there are seven different types of plastics on the market (#'s 1-7), each used for different purposes and each having different effects on the environment and the human body - both for the consumer and the worker in the plastics factory. It's hard to keep track of them all, but listed below are some of the issues faced with each one (with links to various sites for more comprehensive information).

In general, only 1 and 2 type plastics are recyclable (although individual communities might recycle some of the others). Also, #3, PVC (see below), is known as the "Poison Plastic" and should be completely avoided:

#1: PETE - Polyethylene terephthalate ethylene, used for soft drink, juice, water, detergent, cleaner and peanut butter containers.

#2: HDPE - High density polyethylene, used in opaque plastic milk and water jugs, bleach, detergent and shampoo bottles and some plastic bags.

#3: PVC or V - Polyvinyl chloride, used for cling wrap, some plastic squeeze bottles, cooking oil and peanut butter jars, detergent and window cleaner bottles.

#4: LDPE - Low density polyethylene, used in grocery store bags, most plastic wraps and some bottles.

#5: PP - Polypropylene, used in most Rubbermaid, deli soup, syrup and yogurt containers, straws and other clouded plastic containers, including baby bottles.

#6: PS - Polystyrene, used in Styrofoam food trays, egg cartons, disposable cups and bowls, carryout containers and opaque plastic cutlery.

#7: OTHER - Usually polycarbonate, used in most plastic baby bottles, 5-gallon water bottles, “sport” water bottles, metal food can liners, clear plastic “sippy” cups and some clear plastic cutlery. New bio-based plastics may also be labeled #7.

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PVC - The toxic plastic, Polyvinyl chloride, also known as vinyl or PVC, poses risks to both the environment and human health. PVC is also the least recyclable plastic.

* Vinyl chloride workers face elevated risk of liver cancer.
* Vinyl chloride manufacturing creates air and water pollution near the factories, often located in low-income neighborhoods. Communities surrounding vinyl chloride facilities suffer from groundwater and air pollution.
* PVC needs additives and stabilizers to make it useable. For example, lead is often added for strength, while plasticizers are added for flexibility. These toxic additives contribute to further pollution and human exposure.
* Dioxin in air emissions from PVC manufacturing and disposal or from incineration of PVC products settles on grasslands and accumulates in meat and dairy products and ultimately in human tissue. Dioxin is a known carcinogen. Low-level exposures are associated with decreased birth weight, learning and behavioral problems in children, suppressed immune function and disruption of hormones in the body.

Read more about PVC at BeSafeNet.com, such as safe alternatives to PVC.

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It's best to avoid using all plastics with your food, although types 1, 2, 4 & 5 are safer than 3, 6 & 7. Also, microwavable plastics still leach plastics, and with fatty foods, the leaching effect is greater. Beware of cling wraps, especially for microwaving. Use wax paper or paper towels instead.

This .pdf from HealthObservatory.org details these issues clearly. KNOW YOUR PLASTICS!

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Green Chemistry: Bio-based Plastics

Did you know that before the chemical revolution, our society was based on materials made from plants, such as corn, soy and sugar beets? Plants, not oil, used to be the primary raw material used to produce chemicals, paints, construction materials, clothing, and other household materials. In fact, the first plastic ever developed was a "plant based plastic," a cotton-derived product designed to replace ivory. Henry Ford was a proponent of plant based plastics and he developed a demonstration vehicle in 1941 whose seat covers, dashboard, wheel, and tires were made from plant based materials. Unfortunately, this all changed when the chemical industry hijacked the plastics market and introduced low-cost toxic plastics made from oil.
The emergence of the bio-based plastic industry holds great potential to eliminate many of the current concerns about petroleum-based plastic production, use and disposal. Although bio-plastics may not meet all product specifications, they are now used in food and beverage containers. For example, Natureworks, owned by Cargill, manufactures polylactic acid, or PLA, a corn-based plastic used in a variety of products from containers to bottles to cutlery. They can produce 300 million pounds a year of PLA that is made from corn grown in Nebraska and Iowa. Starch from the corn is extracted and converted into dextrose (sugar) and then into lactic acid by fermentation. The lactic acid is further refined into pellets that can be made into different end-products.
Sales of NatureWorks' plastics have taken off in the past year, with large manufacturers and retailers increasingly using them in their packaging and products. Companies like Newman's Own and Wal-Mart are using bioplastics in their packaging and products. The end plastic products, indistinguishable from those derived from petrochemicals, are used to create food packaging, disposable cups and forks, water bottles, auto parts, carpeting, compact discs, bedding materials, and other consumer products.

Other examples of products currently using Bio-Plastics include:

Plastic bags - BioBag
Water bottles - Biota Water
Disposable forks and knives - Cereplast
Wall carpets - Interface
Cups for smoothies - Mrs. Fields Brands
Electronics packaging and products - Sony
Car floormats - Toyota
Produce packaging - Wal-Mart
Deli containers - Wild Oats

In general, look for the "NatureWorks" insignia generally found on the underside of PLA packaging such as food cups and the "compostable" logo signifying a product is compostable.

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