WHAT IS PLASTIC AND WHY IS IT AN ISSUE?
Plastic is all around us. It forms much of the packaging for our food and drink. For many of us, it is throughout our home, our workplace, our car, the bus we take to and from work. It can be in our clothing, eyeglasses, teeth, toothbrush, computers, phones, dishes, utensils, toys. The list goes on.
Plastic is versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, durable, strong and relatively inexpensive. It can be chemical resistant, clear or opaque, and practically unbreakable. These are wonderful useful qualities, and plastic plays many important roles in life on Earth, but the widespread use of plastic is also causing unprecedented environmental problems, and harbours serious health risks – especially for children. Plastic should be used wisely, with caution and only when suitable alternatives do not exist or are not available. For more details, see the following pages of our website: Why is plastic a problem? and Plastic Types.
The term 'plastic' derives from the Greek 'plastikos', meaning fit for molding, and 'plastos', meaning molded. In line with this root etymology, and in the broadest sense, a plastic is a material that at some stage in its manufacture is able to be shaped by flow such that it can be extruded, molded, cast, spun, or applied as a coating.
Plastics are synthetic materials created by linking together into polymers - i.e., polymerizing - molecules of monomer raw material derived from petroleum, natural gas or coal. Polymers alone rarely have the physical qualities to be of practical value, so most plastics contain various chemical additives to facilitate the manufacturing process or produce a particular desirable property, such as flexibility or toughness.
Of the thousands of chemical additives, one type commonly added to plastics are 'plasticizers', which are softening agents making it easier for the polymer chains to move and be flexible. For example, the commonly used plastic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can contain up to 55% plasticizing additives by weight. These are generally phthalate chemicals. Phthalates are known to disrupt the endocrine system, have been linked to numerous health conditions including cancers, and some have been banned in Europe and the U.S. for use in certain products, such as toys. As such, additives are a key contributor to the negative health and environmental effects associated with plastics.
Another common plastic is polycarbonate, the primary constituent of which is bisphenol A (BPA). BPA itself is the concern in this case, as it too is an endocrine disruptor with links to numerous ailments. Peer-reviewed scientific studies have linked BPA to health problems that include chromosomal and reproductive system abnormalities, impaired brain and neurological functions, cancer, cardiovascular system damage, adult-onset diabetes, early puberty, obesity and resistance to chemotherapy.
For details on common particular types of plastics, see the following page of our website: PLASTIC TYPES
NOTE: The 'Plastic Types' section is always under construction and will soon be updated with significant new information on plastics, including numerous references to peer-reviewed scientific research on the effects of plastics.
Anthony L. Andrady, ed., Plastics and the Environment (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003).
"Plastic," Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic) (accessed 26 April 2010).
E.S. Stevens, Green Plastics: An Introduction to the New Science of Biodegradeable Plastics (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002).
Richard C. Thompson, Shanna H. Swan, Charles J. Moore, Frederick S. vom Saal,"Our Plastic Age," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol. 364, no. 1526 (27 July 2009), pp. 1973-1976.
IMPORTANT NOTES: While we strive to provide as accurate and balanced information as possible on our website, Life Without Plastic cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because there is always more research to do, and more up-to-date research studies emerging -- and this is especially the case regarding research on the health and environmental effects of plastics. None of the information presented in this website is intended to be professional advice or to constitute a professional service to the individual reader. All matters regarding health require medical supervision, and the information presented on this website is not intended as a substitute for consulting with your physician.
Throughout these articles, some technical terminology is used. In the interest of not making the articles too long and dry and complex, technical terms are hyper-linked to more detailed explanations and relevant reference material provided in Wikipedia. Please keep in mind that Wikipedia articles are written collaboratively by volunteers from all over the world and thus may contain inaccuracies. Life Without Plastic makes no guarantee of the validity of the information presented in Wikipedia articles to which we provide links. We suggest you read the Wikipedia General Disclaimer before relying on any information presented in a Wikipedia article.
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