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Recycling is normalising plastic pollution

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Tracey Creed

Published March 13 2023

Awareness of plastic pollution is fairly recent, though concerns over the chemicals plastic leach and its persistence in the environment—and us, are not. Demand for plastics was manufactured, as was recycling, a failed system created to shift focus from plastics beginnings. And so, most of us do not think much about the manufacturing of plastics, but we should. We then come to understand how plastic's fate became so entwined with our own we are inclined to rethink plastic bottles, all of it.

Plastics and phthalates - “the everywhere chemical.”

Phthalates are a group of chemicals ubiquitous in use in the human environment and they interfere with the function of hormones. An endocrine disrupting chemical (EDCs) is defined as an exogenous substance that causes adverse health effects in an intact organism and/or its progeny, consequent to changes in endocrine function’.

Low-molecular-weight phthalates are frequently added to shampoos and other personal care products to preserve scent, while high-molecular-weight phthalates are used as plasticisers in plastics manufacturing, notably polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles to improve softness, flexibility, durability, longevity, and workability. If you want soft, squeezable plastic, you’re using phthalates. So they’re pretty widespread.

It’s also fairly acknowledged in the scientific community that environmental exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as phthalates could be contributing to the trend of declining testosterone and related disorders. This article from 2014 concluded phthalates found in plastics could block hormones involved in sexual, and cognitive function.

I recently watched a short video featuring the work of Shanna H. Swan, PhD, one of the world’s leading environmental and reproductive epidemiologists. She co-authored Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race, published last year, it did not receive the media attention it deserved. It is an important book, highlighting that plastics are a public health issue. And so the video discusses how phthalates impact reproductive health and the neurodevelopment of children. It would be hard to continue drinking plastic bottled water after viewing.

Phthalates risks

As a society, we have become very dependent on various plastics and there had been interest from researchers. Even by the 1980s there was a substantial body of literature linking these chemicals to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. These results, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinol Metabolism supported the further investigation into the endocrine-disrupting effects of phthalates. And there were in 2020, findings from a cross-sectional analysis of data from 2013–2016 concluding males may be vulnerable to different phthalate metabolites in age-specific ways. And then last year, this study evaluating associations of phthalate exposure with mortality says, hey, wait a minute, you had better change to safer alternatives because the costs to society are huge, and there’s also lost economic productivity. And while I don't enjoy making economic arguments together with disease arguments, I think the fact that tens of thousands of people are dying due to these exposures is both frightening and depressing.

Last October in Aoteroa when regulation banned various PVC food trays and containers, and polystyrene and expanded polystyrene takeaway packaging, plastics 1, 2 and 5 were proposed alternatives. The Ministry for the Environment is promoting plastic manufacturers, and the website features a directory of Plastics NZ members. The new regulations support the maintenance of the status quo. Several weeks later, I came across a Facebook post where a sushi chain was proudly announcing their move to PET that could be recycled. There were hundreds of comments. People believed this to be a huge positive for Mother Earth.

At the time I had read this paper researching the migration of phthalates from PET water bottles where said bottles were re-used. I recalled an article published in National Geographic, describing how plastic bottles would eventually become unsafe when exposed to high temperatures. And heat waves. This article looked at antimony — a semi-metal used in manufacturing plastic. It is used in PET manufacturing and can be toxic in high doses. In 2008, scientists at Arizona State University researching the impacts of heat on antimony release in PET bottles found that while PET is generally considered ‘safe’ in mild 21-degree weather, at hotter temperatures, it is not.

And at higher temperatures, like those of a car on a hot summer’s day, in experiments, it took 38 days for water bottles heated to these temperatures to show levels of antimony that exceeded safety recommendations. Since heat helps break down chemical bonds in plastics, those chemicals will migrate into the beverages or food they contain. PET plastics are unsuitable for reuse and must be kept out of heat and sun. This is why we are advised not to microwave plastics.

Recycling is normalising plastic pollution

During a 1963 conference, it was acknowledged no established procedures for separating plastics from other waste existed, nor were there established markets for contaminated mixed plastics. A report sent to top industry executives in April 1973 called recycling plastic "costly" and "difficult," stating sorting plastics was "infeasible" and there was “a serious doubt it can ever be made viable on an economic basis." It was not until the 1980s that the plastics industry looked at recycling for the first time seriously.

The Society of Plastics Institute knew and stated that "if the public thinks recycling works, then they won't be as concerned about the environment." Resin properties and performance are degraded during any reclamation process. And the reality is that gas production and fracking increased plastic production, making it cheaper to produce virgin plastics than recycled plastics. The plastics industry lied to make billions of dollars of profit. Recycling was the industry's response to keep bans at bay in the face of public scrutiny.

In 1988, the Society of Plastics Institute developed a system of codes and symbols of their own to facilitate the sorting of plastics that looked similar to the recycling logo, a Möbius strip-inspired glyph designed by Gary Anderson, a University of Southern California student. It was part of a student contest to raise awareness about recycling. At the time, many States were adopting single-stream recycling programs, a significant component of which is the curbside pickup of unsorted recyclables. And so, while SPI assigned seven types of plastics a code, not all municipal recycling programs accepted these materials. Globally, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, while 22% is mismanaged, according to this OECD report.

Plastic is only ever downcycled

Recycling is costly and lacks market viability. Generally, due to the additional manufacturing and transport expenses, high-quality plastic recyclates are more expensive than virgin plastics of the same type. Broken chain polymers of PET have only one viable market for remanufacturing, and that is currently plastic particles that are spun into fibres for polyester fabrics, carpets, and other fabric materials. And then we have a situation where these fabrics are releasing microplastics into the environment. rPET teaches us that it’s better to keep oil in the ground and avoid contributing to ever-increasing carbon emissions by drilling just to recover a tiny fraction of PET. And so inevitably, plastic recycling can be viewed as a waste delay.

Plastics contain additives that determine their properties—stability, colour, and flexibility. Most of these chemicals aren’t regulated, so what is clear is that some of those additives, which end up in plastic and recycled plastics, are dangerous. The argument usually is that it’s too costly for the economy even to consider safer alternatives. Ultimately the plastics industry is following the tobacco industry’s playbook. Engaging in local politics and using our voices to work towards passing effective laws can make real progress. Single-use plastic bans reduce waste, save taxpayer money spent on disposal and cleanup, and reduce plastic pollution in the environment. Ultimately this is about protecting our environment, including our bodies. Phthalates were not designed with the human body in mind, and as such, avoiding plastics where at all possible is a health move.

To avoid phthalates:

— Avoid synthetic self-care products

— Avoid plastics with the resin codes number 3, 6 and 7 where possible

— Until we can be sure manufacturers have transitioned away from BPA-based linings and that alternatives are thoroughly assessed for safety, avoid purchasing canned foods.

— Do not reuse plastic water bottles. Ideally, do not purchase water bottled in plastic for hydration during hot Summer days

— Avoid reheating food or beverages in plastic containers

— Know what your fast food is served in. Is it plastic or plant materials that are compostable? According to this 2016 study, people who ate more takeout had greater phthalate exposures.

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