Get to Know Your Plastics

The Complicated Truth About Plastic

We assume the water bottle containing that pure, natural spring water we drink, the microwave-safe plastic container we prepare our meals in or the Styrofoam cup holding a hot beverage is protecting our food and drinks.

Rather, plastics are actually breaking down in landfills and leaching chemicals into the environment, including endocrine-disrupting plasticizers like BPA or phthalates, flame retardants, and even toxic heavy metals that are ultimately absorbed into our diets and bodies.

Chemicals and microscopic particles from plastics are unfortunately a constant part of our daily lives and diet. The more you know about plastic the better off you will be. This way you can make educated decisions about the food and water you consume and your health.

In case you didn’t realize it, there are literally a millions of uses for plastic and hundreds if not thousands different types of plastic. Plastics are identified by seven resin identification codes that help consumers and recovery facilities identify the main properties of the plastic in hand. The resin code does not mean a particular plastic is recyclable.

MICROSCOPIC DIFFERENCES

Microplastics are defined as any piece of plastic measuring between five millimeters (5 mm) and one micrometer (1 μm) in size. Plastics smaller than that, measuring between one micrometer and 100 nanometers (100 nm), are defined as sub-microplastic. And plastics below 100 nm in size are defined as nanoplastics.
All of these types of minuscule plastic particles are typically formed from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic such as plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic straws or microfiber clothing. Other sources include synthetic fibers used in clothing, carpeting and upholstery, paint dust or chips, tire dust, marine or fishing equipment and microbeads.

SOURCES OF MICROSCOPIC PLASTICS

SYNTHETIC FIBERS

Synthetic Fibers in the Wash: Clothes made from fleece, acrylic and polyester emit microscopic fibers with every wash. Discharged into wastewater, they evade treatment and escape into the environment.

Synthetic Fibers in the Air: Like a dog shedding fur, synthetic clothing emits fibers when exposed to abrasion shedding fibers into the air and ultimately into the environment.

PAINTS

Studies show that paint dust from road markings, ship paint, marine buoys, house paint, contribute to micro plastic that coats the ocean surfaces. Washing paintbrushes used with latex or acrylic paints can send billions of microscopic particles down the drain.

TIRE DUST

Styrene butadiene tire dust is washed into storm sewers which ultimately enter streams, rivers and oceans.

SECONDARY MICROPLASTICS

Mishandled plastic waste washes into the world’s waterways each year. Items such as toothbrushes, plastic bags, straws, bottles and takeout containers break down and fragment into smaller pieces that reach marine and human food chains.

MICROBEADS

While microbeads are banned in facial cleansers and some cosmetics in the U.S. and Canada, microbeads still exist in the environment.

PLASTICS 101

RESIN CODE - NO. 1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) (Recycling Indicator #1)

PET is the most abundant and durable plastic used to bottle water, juice, soda and one of the safest plastic used for food storage and is easily recycled. Studies have shown that PET can leach toxic mineral antimony in amounts that exceed U.S. safety guidelines when exposed to high temperatures such as in a car or the summer sun. This process is accelerated when PET products are heated in a microwave.

RESIN CODE - NO. 2: High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) (Recycling Indicator #2)

This packaging is an industry workhorse used for milk, juice, water, cleaning supplies, shampoos. HDPE has been shown to leach estrogenic chemicals (man-made compounds that mimic the hormone estrogen) when exposed to heat, boiling water and sunlight. Estrogenic chemicals are linked to breast cancer, endometriosis, altered sex ratios, testicular cancer, poor semen quality, early puberty and malformations of the reproductive tract.

RESIN CODE – NO. 3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) (Recycling Indicator #3)

PVC is used to wrap meats and sandwiches and in the form of bath toy floats. It also is used for household plumbing and stylish jackets. Plasticized PVC leaches toxic chemicals when in contact with water. Four chemical softeners used with PVC known as phthalates are linked to improper development of reproductive organs in fetuses and other health issues such as endocrine disruptors.

RESIN CODE – NO. 4: Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) (Recycling Indicator #4)

LDPE is used in shrink wrap, milk cartons, take-out coffee cups and to package slice breads, newspapers, and dry cleaning. LDPE is considered a “low hazard plastic”.

RESIN CODE – NO. 5: Polypropylene (PP) (Recycling Indicator #5)

Polypropylene is used to make containers for yogurt, takeout lunches, medicine, syrups and more. Polypropylene fibers are woven into cold weather clothing and found in automotive components, carpet fibers, lab equipment and even paper currency. It is considered a fairly safe plastic.

RESIN CODE – NO. 6: Polystyrene (PS) (Recycling Indicator #6)

Expanded Polystyrene Foam is widely used for takeout food containers and in the fishing industry. Polystyrene is found in takeout coffee lids, juice bottles, cutlery and other similar containers. The U.S. government scientists say Styrene is anticipated to be a human carcinogen that can leach polystyrene from contact with hot beverages. It is widely used for hot coffee cups and lids.

RESIN CODE – NO. 7: Other (Recycling Indicator #7)

This designation is for plastic resins different from numbers one to six, or made from a combination of resins. Three and five-gallon bottles of drinking water, some orange juice containers and other kinds of packaging fall into this category. What many of these plastics have in common is their use of the hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA). BPA has been linked to hormonal changes, reproductive problems, asthma and obesity. This includes polycarbonate plastic which is used to make baby bottles in many countries.

Since the plastic problem was created by human beings, it can be solved by human beings by paying attention to it. In the long term, consumers should be conscious of ways to reduce the amount of plastic waste that’s entering our ecosystem and waterways. Filtering and purifying water, avoiding single-use plastic products, selecting biodegradable and compostable products, choosing to recycle and converting to reusable containers for food and drinks and are great ways to keep microplastics out of our drinking water.

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