Plastic Waste: A Health and Sustainability Issue

The trash heaps, left behind for future archeologists to find, beg the question; what were humans of the 19th through 21st centuries thinking? Why did they use such harmful chemicals? How could they produce then dispose of these items knowing the harm it would cause for future generations? 

All good questions, but the plastic problem does not end with last weeks three categories of plastics. In addition to the ‘hard to recycle’ categories of 3, 4, and 6, five (5) more categories fall under the “recyclable” classification. These are everyday, both single use and reusable plastics that are used in the packaging for a variety of things from laundry detergent, milk and juice bottles, microwavable containers and dishware, CD/DVD’s, clothing fibers, to sports equipment and more. It is in our homes, schools, churches, places of business and sold everywhere. 

The simple truth, our plastic waste is in our oceans and it is causing great harm, not only to wildlife, but to us as well. After covering the types of plastic that fall under categories 3, 4, and 6 in last weeks digest, we find that the composition, petroleum-based chemicals, are used in their manufacturing process and far from environmentally safe. Nor are they sustainable as the manufacturing process contributes to CO2, while the end-life of plastic waste takes decades to breakdown, thereby, leaching chemicals into the earth and ground water and making its way to every waterway on earth. Plastic continues to be a recycling nightmare. Much is not recycled or it is rejected at recycling sites. Many people will not recycle due to mishandling and misunderstanding or lack of facilities. There are too few who do get it right, yet it makes barely a dent compared to the mountains of plastic that remains in landfills. The chart last week illustrated the number of years it takes the various plastic types to decay.  

Many of the these plastic products eventually break down into microplastics (a huge issue especially form the synthetic fabrics in ‘fast fashion’) generating the most harmful substances that are damaging to the environment. The sheer amount of such plastics are found across the globe, in the oceans, in our drinking water, our food sources and even in our own organs. Because of the relative newness of the discovery of plastics in our own bio-system, we do not have data to completely understand what harm is being done to our health. We do know that it is killing fish, birds and mammals across the globe. So, let’s look at these numbers at some depth before moving on to how to combat the deluge of plastic waste in our environment.

Polyethylene Terephthalate  or PET / PETE (this is the recycled product of PET)

This category is made up of water/beverage bottles, salad dressing, condiment containers and more, which are safe only for one-time use. It is not recommended to reuse these containers as food storage for prolonged periods due to the potentially harmful chemicals released into the food and/or beverage. However, this plastic can be recycled into new products such as fabric for t-shirts, sweaters, fiberfill in furniture (all of which contribute to micro-plastic pollution), and made into new PETE containers.  Although PET contains phthalates it is considered a “safe” plastic as it does not contain BPA (covered later). However, if heated, it leaches antimony, a toxic metalloid, into foods and beverages, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea and stomach ulcers. Since 2016, studies have found up to 100 times the amount of antimony in bottled water than in clean groundwater. Any bottle that sits on the shelf or is exposed to heat or sunshine for prolonged periods of time, the more antimony is likely to have leached into the product. (See: ECOWATCH Online, accessed 7/31/2021, 7 Types of Plastic Wreaking Havoc on Our Health )

Additionally, phthalates have been found in human urine with unborn babies and children being most at risk (doing more harm to males). This chemical is not only in plastic but also in nearly every product we consume from cosmetics, foods served in plastic, milk from exposed dairy cows, breathed in from lubricants, paints, and insecticides and even in the dust from carpeting and upholstery. Phthalate is not a single chemical and therefore is much harder to trace. “Phthalate levels in people are changing. Some are going up. Others are on their way down. DBP, BBP, and DEHP have declined in recent years. They’re now below the amounts considered unsafe by federal health agencies. But exposure to replacement phthalates like DINP, DnOP, and DIDP is higher.” (See: WebMD Online, accessed July 31, 2021. Phthalates: Are They Safe? )

High-density Polyethylene; HDPE

HDPE is commonly used in milk and juice bottles, detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, grocery bags, and cereal box liners. Like PET, it is also considered “safe,” but has been shown to leach estrogenic chemicals dangerous to fetuses and juveniles. Although HDPE appears to be the safest of the current plastics we use everyday, it is a petroleum based product, so it is not sustainable regardless of its safety ratings. More study is being done to understand the estrogenic effect that this plastic has on mammals. HDPE can be recycled approximately 10 times and can be found in new containers, toys and rope (also causing micro-plastic waste).

Polypropylene: PP

Another plastic considered safe is Polypropylene. Among other items, PP is used to make deli food containers and winter clothing insulation. PP has a high heat tolerance so it will not leach many of the chemicals other plastics do. Drawback, it remains a petroleum-based product that is considered non-sustainable and production methods, as such, cause CO2 emissions.  PP can be recycled and is found in battery cables, brushes, clothing fibers and dishware. This category also contributes to the micro-plastic problem,


This category is a catch-all for items from beverage bottles, baby milk bottles, sports equipment CDs & DVDs. It is on this list as it is recyclable but only at specialized recycle stations. This category contains BPA chemicals (bisphenol A). BPA is an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1950s.  

“Exposure to BPA is a concern because of the possible health effects on the brain and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children. It can also affect children’s behavior. Additional research suggests a possible link between BPA and increased blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.” (See: Mayo Clinic, Online, accessed 7/31/2021, What is BPA? Should I be worried about it? )

Category 9 (Nine), for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene or ABS  (recycle symbol unavailable), does not appear to have any carcinogens nor is it known to leach chemicals. This plastic compound is used to make pipe fittings, LEGO toys, computer keyboards, and power tool housings. These take a specialized recycling center to handle their disposal for repurposing. Within the past year the LEGO company has initiated a recycle program called LEGO REPLAY. LEGO Replay is our way of helping fans donate bricks to kids in need. We’re currently trying it out in the United States.” (See:  LEGO Online, accessed 7/31/2021. Replay – About us – US ) CCGKC wishes LEGO good luck in their effort, not only for sustainability but in the support of those children who could not afford LEGOs without this program.  

So, regardless of the ability to recycle, the safest plastics to use for food and beverage products will be found in containers bearing the numbers 2 (one-time use only), 4 and 5. Last week, we eliminated number 4 for its non-recyclable composition yet the plastic itself has been listed as safe under numerous studies but should not be reused to store or heat food. Category 9, while listed as “safe”, remains a chemical of petroleum-based products. (See: “Be Picky With Plastics” Online, accessed 7/31/2021.  2 thoughts on “Be Picky With Plastics” )

The conclusion from the research over the past month has pointed out that plastic, of any type at its worst, are harmful not only to the environment but also to the health of every living organism on the planet. The chemical cocktail involved in the manufacturing is part of the equation while the petroleum aspect and manufacturing process produce the harmful CO2 effect. Last of all, to recycle or not to recycle has the majority of the planet confused, which may be why we are in the mess we are now in, purely out of sheer frustration and half hearted attempts to recycle.

Next week will discuss the where, how, and why micro-plastics are such a huge global problem; especially to wildlife from marine mammals to birds are at high mortality risk from micro-plastics in our oceans, coastal waters, rivers and lakes. They affect our food chain in ways that may be surprising.

Photo: Seal with neck wrapped in plastic waste. City of Westminster City Council, United Kingdom, Commercial Waste Service, Online, accessed 8/1/2021. Plastic Waste and Pollution [Everything You Need To Know In 2020]