Plastic, Plastic Everywhere And In Our Air

BY ON July 31, 2012

Baby holding a plastic water bottle to his mother's mouth

This is a guest post by Beth Terry, author of Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too:

If I asked you to list the problems with plastic, you might think of toxic chemicals like BPA or phthalates. Or the fact that it doesn’t biodegrade. Or that animals ingest it. Or that there is a toxic soup of plastic swirling around in the ocean. Those are the issues I’ve focused on for the past 5 years since deciding to live plastic-free, so when the Moms Clean Air Force asked me to write a blog post for them, I balked. “Clean air is a vitally important environmental issue,” I said, “but focuses on plastic, not air. Plus, I’m behind on my book manuscript and have no time to delve into other subjects.”

Silly me. As I researched my book, I learned about many ways that the life cycle of plastic contributes to air pollution, both indoor and out. So, here are a few reasons why those of us concerned about protecting our air should also care about reducing plastic consumption:

  • Most plastic is made from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, which release toxic emissions when extracted from the earth: chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds that affect the health of everyone within breathing distance.
  • Petrochemical plants pollute communities and harm workers. In addition to the emissions from the extraction process, refining fossil fuels and processing them into plastics can create even more toxic emissions. PVC plants can release carcinogenic dioxins. And even production of supposedly “safe” plastics like PET, the kind used to create clear plastic water bottles, can release unhealthy levels of benzene and other chemicals into the air.
  • Plastics contain additives that can offgas and contaminate the air in our homes and other personal spaces. Phthalates are chemicals added to some plastics to make them soft and flexible. They are known endocrine disruptors and sadly, they are used in a lot of soft vinyl products: shower curtains, floor and wall coverings, children’s toys. That “new car smell” is really phthalates offgasing from the plastic dashboard.
  • Plastics release hazardous emissions when burned. We all hope that our homes and buildings will never catch on fire. But fires do happen. And early this month, the New York Times reported that plastic furniture in homes is causing fires to burn more quickly and to be more dangerous to firefighters. And fires in plastics manufacturing plants and plastics recycling plants are common occurrences, releasing huge toxic plumes of smoke into surrounding neighborhoods.
  • Plastic recycling can be hazardous to communities and workers. We like to think we are helping the environment when we toss our plastic bottles and containers into the recycle bin. But most of our plastic recycling is shipped overseas to China where plastics may be melted and release toxic fumes into the air and water.

What Can We Do?

We need a two-step approach. We need to join and support groups like the Moms Clean Air Force that are pressuring our elected officials to step up and defend the provisions of the Clean Air Act from energy and chemical industry groups that seek to weaken its protections.

And we, as individuals, can take responsibility for our own choices. We can vote with our dollars and reduce our consumption of plastic products and packaging.

Here are my top 5 ways to get the plastic out of your life:

  1. Refuse plastic shopping bags. Get in the habit of carrying a reusable bag with you every time you leave the house. Keep bags in the car. And keep small, compressible bags in your purse so you’re never caught without one.
  2. Drink from the tap. Bottled water is actually less regulated than municipal water, and chemicals from the plastic bottles can leach back into your drink. Carry a stainless steel water bottle or travel mug. A water filter can help if you don’t like the taste of your water.
  3. Skip the plastic produce/bulk bags. Buy larger produce items “naked” and put them directly in your reusable shopping bag. Visit your local farmers market to find local produce with the least plastic, and where you can hand plastic berry baskets back to the vendors to reuse. And bring your own reusable bulk bags and containers to buy unpackaged food from the bulk bins.
  4. Carry reusable food containers and utensils. Send kids to school with reusable lunchboxes or bags and stainless steel containers or washable cloth snack/sandwich baggies. Carry a set of bamboo or other utensils to avoid plastic ones. Bring your own food containers to restaurants for take-out or to pack leftovers.
  5. Practice mindfulness. Before making a purchase, consider what the item is made out of, how it’s packaged, and where it will go at the end of its life. Being aware is half the solution.

Plastic Free Book CoverA Note From Beth Terry:

My book, Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, is a practical guide to reducing plastic from every area of your life. It’s the book I wish I’d had five years ago when I decided to stop acquiring any new plastic. It contains a plethora of plastic-free tips, inspiring stories of plastic-free heroes, helpful checklists, and a ton of resources. I’ll be signing copies at the Mom’s Clean Airforce Booth (#309) at the BlogHer ’12 Conference this weekend and donating a portion of the proceeds MCAF. I’d love to sign a book for you with my refillable fountain pen.

Thank you, Beth!



TOPICS: Pollution, Science