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Is That Plastic in Your Trash a Hazard?

There are medical, chemical, and environmental issues associated with some pretty common plastic products. Is it time to label these as hazardous waste?
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Plastic has taken its lumps of late. Plastic bags are being chased from store checkouts around the world. Bisphenol A, or BPA, in plastic containers has been linked to a Pandora’s box of hormonal and genetic problems. And the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans each have a gigantic soupy concoction of plastic waste at their centers—the Pacific and Atlantic have one such patch in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Despite this, the world’s general attitude to plastic has been pretty cavalier. And since we’re not sweating the advent of peak oil as much, at least not in North America, that plastics are made from petrochemicals doesn’t seem so problematic. In fact, if current trends continue, the 280 million tons of plastic produced in 2012 will grow to 33 billion tons in 2050.

How cavalier would we be if plastics, always assumed to be chemically inert, were a hazardous waste?

A group of researchers led by ecologists Chelsea M. Rochman and Mark Anthony Browne, commenting in the journal Nature, call for governments around the world to classify some plastics, such as PVC, polystyrene, polyurethane, and polycarbonate, as hazardous waste. Such a move, if undertaken by major producers like the U.S., China and the European Union, would—in the researchers’ view—foster a virtuous circle of less waste, resulting in less potentially toxic material that ends up in oceans or leaches harmful chemicals from landfills, and could even create new jobs as industry sought safer replacement materials.

Neither Rochman or Browne are anti-plastic. There’s a time and place for the petrochemical-based product, they explained recently over hot drinks at a Starbucks. (The toll? Two throwaway cups, one plastic and unused takeaway lid, and one battered plastic travel mug.) But the present overreliance on plastic, from food containers to fleece clothing to cheap housewares and electronics, is a concern.

Browne points to an increase in plastic milk containers in Britain as a prime example of plastic’s overreach. For a century milk had been delivered in re-usable glass containers, which were chemically inert, sustainable and fostered local production. To use some jargon, it was a “closed-loop system.” Then plastic swept in. It was cheap and weighed less, making it easier to move longer distances, which tended both to erase the smaller carbon footprint gains from its lightness and allow dairies to be further and further from their customers. Then, of course, once the plastic jug was empty, it either had to be broken down for recycling or just trashed.

In the United States, the EPA estimates 45 percent of plastics were used as containers or for packaging, and just 12 percent of that gets recycled. In New York City, it’s estimated the average citizen tosses out 107 pounds of different kinds of plastic waste each year, and only 17 pounds of that was even designed for recycling, much less was recycled. “We create things just so we can throw them away,” Browne laments.

But while recycling is a positive outcome, declaring some plastics as hazardous waste isn’t an end run, the ecologists say, but a necessary step based on reality. Many plastics can be toxic in themselves in some contexts, or can absorb a surprising array of pollutants.  “Yet,” reads the commentary in Nature, “in the United States, Europe, Australia and Japan, plastics are qualified as solid waste—so are treated the same way as food scraps or glass clippings.”

And, both Browne and Rochman aver, no way is plastic that innocent, even as they admit they’re still trying to get a grip on both the size of the issue and plastic's ecological impacts.

For example, some plastics that are seen as benign in their consumer forms can have nasty attributes when they break down. Rochman, has studied how different kinds of plastic absorb pollutants in the oceans—she calls plastic-filled seas “cocktails of contaminants.” The kinds of plastic used in detergent bottles and shopping bags, for example, after breaking down into water-borne pellets, can continue to suck up pollutants for months and even years. The Nature piece points to an unpublished analysis that found that at least 71 percent of priority pollutants listed by the EPA and 61 percent listed by European Union are associated with plastic debris.

These poisonous pellets can then bob around in the water or settle and concentrate in the sediment; or they can get eaten by animals or microorganisms and enter the food web.

Rochman’s work shows that not all plastics are equal. Those used in water bottles, or PVC, used in clear-food packaging, aren’t as powerful at absorbing pollutants. On the other hand, vinyl chloride, a component in polyvinyl chloride (PVC), has been identified as carcinogenic.

In fact, while many plastics in their final form are considered safe, many of the chemicals used to make them are  known to be hazardous to health, or conversely, individual chemical compounds may have received a green light for safety but haven’t been tested as they interact with other compounds. Plus, as plastics degrade into smaller pieces, their properties can change. The particles that come from polyester or acrylic clothing—think of that warm fleece jacket made out of recycled two-liter soda bottles—can be ingested or inhaled with malign effects at the cellular level.

Again, says Browne, a lack of research has hampered the ability to make definitive statements, but not, he hopes, from invoking the precautionary principle. He and his co-authors would like producers and packagers to have to show that their products are safe.

“Our goal is to provide information. We’re not telling people what to do but allowing them to make choices. But they should know that plastic is not an inert material.”

While government and industry haven’t necessarily embraced the idea of declaring plastic waste as hazardous, in some cases they’ve supported basic research—one of Rochman’s experiments had funding from the American Chemistry Council—or started phasing out the most likely serious offenders.

There are laws from the local to international level that could help. In the European Union, regulations (described as the most complex sets of rules in the EU’s history) are in place to test out the hazards of chemicals in everyday use, although the effects of these findings aren’t expected to hit industry and consumers for years. And even longstanding rules may not effectively address longstanding problems. For example, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships has banned disposing of plastic at sea since 1988, but since then things like the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” have gotten worse.

But there are stronger efforts afoot. The Center for Biological Diversity, for example, has petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop rules, using the Clean Water Act, to reverse the tide of plastic pollution in the oceans.

“We hope to be able to use existing laws—which industry wants us to do—to foster closed-loop systems,” Browne says.  That still leaves the door open to some plastics, especially those that can easily be reused and recycled, and to other materials that are benign by design.

Follow Michael Todd @MTodd_PSMag