New Internationalist

Plastic is forever

Issue 415

There are more than 50 different groups of plastics and hundreds of different varieties – an estimated 113 billion kilos of raw plastic pellets are produced from petroleum feedstock, worldwide, every year.

Plastic bags, no thanks!

• The world uses an estimated one million plastic bags every minute; 150 bags per year for every person on earth.1

• The Canadian province of Ontario banned plastic bags from government liquor stores in 2008 resulting in 80 million fewer bags being used yearly.2

• China banned plastic bags in 2008 following the lead of Hong Kong. Bangladesh was the first country in the South to ban them in 2002. Papua New Guinea, Bhutan, Taiwan and Botswana followed suit.3

• Ireland introduced a plastic bag tax in 2002. Within a few months the number of bags handed out at supermarkets had dropped by 90%.1

• It takes about 11 barrels of oil to make one ton of plastic bags. Before the ban, China used more plastic bags than any other country and wasted 37 million barrels of oil on them every year. 4

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Sea of plastic

• Plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds yearly as well as 100,000 marine mammals.

• Plastic makes up 60-80% of all garbage floating in the oceans. Every square km of ocean contains 13,000-18,000
pieces of plastic.5

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Ghost fishing

Discarded plastic fishnets called ghost nets are perpetual killing machines continuing to catch fish and other species.

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Chasing arrows

The plastic industry has adopted a numbering system to identify basic plastic resins. In a classic example of ‘greenwashing’ the numbers 1-7 are framed within the ‘chasing arrows’ recycling symbol, thus assuring consumers they can be recycled – which is often not the case.

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Toxic trio

These chemicals are found in thousands of common household items and have been linked to birth defects, learning disabilities, cancers, liver damage and reproductive problems.

Phthalates – compounds used to soften plastics, notably PVC. In everything from shower curtains, paint, pesticides and children’s toys to vinyl flooring, IV bags and hospital tubing. Also in hundreds of personal-care products like perfume, body lotion, nail polish, shampoo and air fresheners.

BPA (bisphenol A) – basic constituent of polycarbonate plastic, the hard durable plastic used to make re-usable, ‘sports’ water bottles, large ‘water cooler’ bottles, baby bottles, dental sealants, the lining in canned food and some drink containers, CDs and DVDs. First produced as synthetic estrogen – 2.7 billion kilos are now produced yearly.

PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) – used as flame retardants and added to plastic cases of consumer electronics – cell phones, digital cameras, iPods, TVs, laptops. Also found in textiles, curtains, foam cushions, mattresses, upholstery and circuit boards.

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Bottled water blues

• It takes 7 litres of water to manufacture a 1 litre bottle creating 100g of CO2 emissions. Worldwide, bottling of water uses about 2.7 million tons of plastic
each year.8

• In the US 96% of bottled water is sold in single-serving PET plastic bottles. An estimated 4 billion of them end up in the garbage, costing cities $70 million a year in clean-up costs.7

• To make the plastic bottles used annually in the US requires 17 million barrels of oil, enough to fuel a million cars for more than a year.9

• In Britain 3 billion litres of bottled water were consumed in 2007 mostly in PET bottles. Of the 13 billion bottles, just 3 billion were recycled.8

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Green plastic?

Plastic made from plants takes generations to degrade in landfills. When it degrades without oxygen it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than CO2.6

• The market for bioplastics made from corn, sugarcane and wheat is growing by 20-30% a year.6

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Who do you trust?

• In November, 2006, 38 leading scientific experts on BPA warned of ‘potential adverse health effects of exposure’ to polycarbonate plastic.12

• Every study backed by the industry has found that low-dose exposure to BPA poses no risks. Of the 160 non-industry studies, 90% have detected harmful effects including hormone-related illnesses and cancer.13

  1. ‘Ireland rids itself of plastic nuisance,’ International Herald Tribune, 31 January 2008.
  2. ‘Plastics industry objects to bag ban,’ Toronto Star, 28 May 2008.
  3. ‘China boosts war against menace of the plastic bag,’ The Guardian, 12 January 2008.
  4. ‘China joins war on plastic bags,’ The Straits Times, 31 May 2008.
  5. ‘Plastic debris in the world’s oceans’, http://tinyurl.com/4q6pfm, Greenpeace International.
  6. ‘Sustainable bio-plastic can damage the environment,’ The Guardian, 26 April 2008.
  7. ‘The bottled water backlash,’ Michael Blanding, AlterNet, www.alternet.org/story/65520
  8. ‘UK: Eco-backlash against bottled water,’ http://tinyurl.com3u3d6b, Inside the Bottle Campaign.
  9. ‘Take back the tap’, http://tinyurl.com/2nx8ex, Food and Water Watch.
  10. Beverage Marketing Corporation, www.bottledwater.org/public/statistics_main.htm
  11. Libby McDonald, The Toxic Sandbox (Perigee 2007).
  12. ‘Timeline: BPA from Invention to Phase-Out,’ www.ewg.org/node/26291, Environmental Working Group Research.
  13. ‘Studies that support use of bisphenol A called into question’, Globe and Mail, 5 April 2008.

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