Questions about the environment weigh heavily on people’s minds these days. Reports of new disasters flood the airwaves. This year the United States had been thrashed by a record 905 tornadoes by May 11, 2008. Statistics reveal the US averaged a total of 1270 tornadoes per year during the past ten years.
The American honeybee is disappearing and predicted to go extinct.
It is not just our external environment that concerns us. Recent published findings of treated waste water revealed contamination of antibiotics, birth control, and chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics.
Meanwhile, health conditions we cannot explain, including ADHD, autism, and fibromyalgia are on the rise. It is natural to ask ourselves if environmental factors are at play here.
A major soft drink manufacturer recently jumped on the “green bandwagon” announcing its line of recycled plastic clothing under the label rPET®. Its merchandise includes T-shirts, tote bags, caps, purses and notebooks made from used plastic bottles that would otherwise be headed to landfills.
“It’s a great use of recycled materials,” touted one company spokesman.
The industry giant is not alone in its offer of eco-friendly products. In 2007, 328 new green products were launched as compared to just five in 2002.
Just how environmentally friendly are recycled plastics?
Timothy J. Krupnik, writing for the Recycling Department of the Berkeley Ecology Center, explained that plastics are made from ethylene, which is a natural gas. Ethylene is released during the process of petroleum refining. In this sense, plastics are directly derived from crude oil, which is a non-renewable resource. The gas is mixed with a number of other additives, many toxic, to produce the product.
PET soda bottles, for example, make use of lead barriers in the bottle structure. Because of the numerous chemicals added to these products, plastic production is an extremely toxic process. Compared to glass, production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) releases 100 times the number of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.
Plastic recycling requires significant amounts of energy, compared to glass. Glass can be reprocessed “as-is” repeatedly from its original form. The same is not true of PET, because of the numerous compounds that go into it.
If the soft drink giant truly wanted to go “green” switching back to glass containers would be a better option.
By now we have all heard about the dangers of heating plastics. Dioxin leeching has been a common subject on talk shows for several years.
But consider plasticizers, a group of chemicals which are used to soften plastic, mold it into form, and to make it less rigid. Plasticizers contain phthalates, a toxic chemical material and known endocrine disrupter. Your endocrine system helps regulate your nervous, reproductive and immune systems.
Phthalates (collectively monoethyl phthalate, monobutyl phthalate, monobenzyl phthalate, diethyl phthalate, dibutyl phthalate, and benzyl butyl phthalate) can be ingested by the body when using plastic products as drinking vessels or for the storage of foods.
Carbonated drinks, fatty foods, and products heated in plastic cause leeching of these chemicals from the packaging into the food or drink product itself. When these chemicals migrate into the endocrine system, they mimic the body’s natural hormones. This confuses the endocrine system and leads to serious health disorders.
The University of North Carolina, Asheville, studied ingestion of phthalates in modeling clay back in 2004. The study found phthalates enter the body both through heating (fumes) and through residue on skin, which should leave you wondering if recycled clothes made from plastics are safe. That same year the European Union banned the use of plastic softeners in all toys and products aimed at children under the age of three.
So far studies on the uptake of these chemicals in the human body have focused on inhalation and consumption. We don’t know if body heat, for example, is sufficient to release harmful chemicals or if phthalates can be absorbed through the skin. We do know the water temperature in a shower is sufficient to release toxins in vinyl shower curtains.
Consider what you don’t know before deciding to wear a product.
Environmental Working Group, a non-profit operating in San Francisco, advises consumers:
o Use personal care products, detergents, cleansers, and other products that do not contain “fragrance” in the ingredient list – “fragrance” commonly includes the phthalate DEP.
o Avoid cooking or microwaving in plastic.
o Use a non-vinyl shower curtain.
o Use paints and other hobby products in well-ventilated areas.
o Give children wooden and other phthalate-free toys, and don’t let children chew on soft plastic toys.
o Health care workers and patients can urge their medical facilities to reduce or eliminate use of products containing phthalates.
o Avoid products made of flexible PVC or vinyl plastic. A few examples of these products include PVC lawn furniture, vinyl raincoats, flexible PVC building materials, vinyl shower curtains, and toys for kids or pets made of PVC.