To fully see the reality of plastic pollution in our oceans, it may help to recap how it all begins. Plastic is made from crude oil using a procedure that affects the carbon in the oil, creating long chains of carbon atoms called polymers. It is defined by the organic chemistry of the polymer chain, which contains carbon, oxygen, sulfur or nitrogen, and has different molecular structures which influence the property of the plastic. Plastic also contains other additives, mostly plasticizers, which allows the plastic to be flexible like a food wrapper, or become stronger for electronic products. Fillers are also used to improve the product and reduce production costs. The result, pliable or sturdy plastic, ready for a vast array of uses.
It’s important to note that all plastics are not created equal. Although all plastics hold a certain level of toxicity, some are far more harmful than others. Plastics are categorized and numbered 1-7, each number representing the different properties of the plastic product. Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is arguably one of the most toxic types of plastic in our lives. As a number 3 plastic, when mixed with plasticizers, usually phalates, has been associated with a host of terrible conditions – from cancer to tumors to hormonal imbalances and allergies. PVC is usually found in soft, malleable plastic. It’s in clear food packaging, toys, clothing, personal care products like soaps and shampoos. PVC’s start leaching toxic chemicals, including phalates, into the food and drink containers. The risk of toxic secretion increases when the contain starts wearing out or is heated. When we drink out of that flexible plastic water bottle that has been sitting in the sun all day, we swallow the secreted toxins and introduce them into our bodies. Other plastics, Number 7 plastics, don’t fit into the other categories and are lumped into number 7.
So if all this plastic could potentially be hurting us, I ask, why do we keep using it? Simple, it’s cheap, durable, light weight, and water resistant. Plastic is incredibly versatile, and has allowed for growth into new technology never possible before. Early plastics date back to the 1600 BC when they were derived from materials like egg and blood protein and other organic polymers. However it was not until the 1940‘s that technology allowed for the mass production and variation in plastics. Amazingly enough, every piece of plastic ever created is still in existence today. Plastic does not completely biodegrade. It persists, even after its long been disposed of.
But wait, what about bio-degradable plastics? Although deemed as a once promising plastic alternative, turns out it’s not so encouraging after all. You have to ask yourself, degrade to what? ‘Degradable polyethylenes’, used in most biodegradable plastic bags, actually don’t fully disintegrate back into nature. The hybrid bags do indeed break into fragments much quicker than regular plastic bags, but the fragment still persist for a long time to come. With the presence of microbes and high heat, some bio-degradable plastics reach a more complete level of degradation, but most will end up in landfills where the biomass continues to exist.
To change a habit can be challenging, even at the best of times. There is a heightened level of dedication demanded. When we decide to change something in our life, it helps when done from a mixing of mental and emotional will, and better yet, have a physical benefit as well. Daily habits aren’t always easy to transform, especially when it requires a significant level of sacrifice. But let’s challenge ourselves this week and begin to take notice of the plastic that surrounds us. See if you can avoid the plastic bag at the check out counter or single use plastic straw at your local cafe. What plastic habits are you holding that you could maybe kick?