What is the Least Toxic Plastic?
Commentary by Paul Goettlich 8jun03
[More by Paul Goettlich]
Last night in Berkeley, I was on hand at the showing of the movie Blue Vinyl to answer questions. About 15 people attended. After the film, I first said that it is impossible to produce polyvinyl chloride—also known as PVC and vinyl—without creating dioxin as a byproduct. And I started to talk about the often repeated phrase that "everything is toxic, so why worry?" It serves the purpose of denial. It externalizes the problem by making it something that is beyond the control of the one that repeats the phrase.
Before I could finish, someone in the front row interrupted me with a burning question: "What is an alternative to the PVC drainage piping that was proposed to be used on her property?" I answered that there were several choices—clay tile, iron, steel, and copper—and that clay tile was probably the best. I explained that half the State of Indiana was once a tree-covered swamp and is now denuded and drained by mile after mile of clay tiles into drainage ditches. This was not the answer she wanted to hear. Now this is just speculation, but she may have meant one of two things.
The first is that she wanted to know what is the best alternative plastic to use for her project. Or she might have wanted to know if some "alternative" material existed that wouldn't harm anything on earth. In either case, my answer would have been the same, that being that there is no good plastic. In fact, all earthly materials and elements, if used in the quantities that humans have grown accustomed to, have negative impacts on the earth.
The real answer to the question is that there is no "environmentally friendly" drainage pipe. Furthermore, one might ask why the land around her house needs to be drained.
The cause of the woman's problem is that her house was built in an inappropriate place that disrupts the natural flow of water. It should not have been built there. From that symptom of her flooded land, one can follow the causes to the over-population of Earth by humans. We are taking up too much space. Perhaps that is a bit of a stretch, but we must all come to the point where we admit the root cause of a significant portion of the environmental problems is that we have over-stepped the limits of common sense and are now seeing the rapid degradation of all ecosystems.
Back to plastics; a good example of rapid degradation caused directly by humans is that in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—the most isolated and distant place from land—there is more plastic floating on the surface than zooplankton. In fact, there is 6 times more plastic by weight. A large part of that plastic has never even been made into a product. It is nurdles, or tiny little beads that were destined for a production plant somewhere in the world. They may have fallen of a container ship or gotten washed down a drain, but they are definitely first generation pellets as opposed to recycled material.
To make matters worse, those little plastic bits look just like plankton. They have a specific gravity about equal to the water, so in a storm they rise, and in a calm, they sink. This means that they are thoroughly incorporated into the ocean. And while this is a worst case scenario, all sea waters are in the same state with regards to plastic. As this saddening development is examined more deeply, those nurdles are acting as magnets to the metabolites, or breakdown products of DDT—DDE and other dioxin-like chemicals.
These endocrine disrupting chemicals are found on the surface of the nurdles at rates as high as 1 million times that found in the sea. There is no method of removing those nurdles without vacuuming the entire ocean and filtering out the plastic. Forgetting about the impossibility of such a task, it would also destroy much of the life within the seas. One of the wide range of effects of this plastic, combined with other toxicants, is that the fish are changing sex and their reproductive systems are failing.
What we have here is the result of 50-odd years of the production of plastics and other synthetic chemicals. The lesson to learn is that plastic—any and all plastic—is an unsustainable material and its production should be halted immediately and until it myriad of problems can be solved. And I strongly suspect that the problems will remain and that no "alternative" plastics will be found. Whether the ingredients are outright hazards, or the quantities of materials being used are unsustainable makes little difference.
Most of human technology is this way. The problems occur at their foundations of logic. Assumptions are made which are denial of the realities in order to profit and/or maintain our present lifestyles. We are trained to treat symptoms and avoid recognizing the problems. This is especially evident with Western cultures when compared to other people of the world.
There is no safe plastic.
Lies, deceptions, and omissions are and have been a part of the popular mass media for at least the last 50 years. It is nothing new. Its occurrence and magnitude is rapidly increasing with the likes of the present Bush administration. Remaining complacent about it only feeds its growth.
It is impossible to have an inkling of an idea of what is truly happening in the world today if ones source is the popular media—CBS, NBC, PBS, NY Times, and so on. They all have something to contribute, but the problems are not worth overlooking in order to be an informed US citizen. One must dig deeper. Consider what person or entity owns those sources of information.
The tentacles of corporate-speak and greed run deep. Integrity is lost to the illusion of technology and its promise of making life easier and longer. Until corporate financing of political campaigns and politicians is halted, there will be no truth. Our government must be unplugged from the source of most of our problems. And our eyes and minds must be open to reality—and not the reality of movies. That reality is that the fate of all humans, as well as all other life on Earth, is intricately bound together. Most of the checks and balances have been overcome by the sheer magnitude of the human footprint, causing the rapid degradation and extinction of the very life that human life depends upon. Come out of denial or die. Those are the alternatives. There are no others.
Get Plastic Out Of Your Diet - Paul Goettlich / Living Nutrition magazine v.15, Spring (April) 2004
Sustainable Living and Technology - Paul Goettlich 11may02
78 Reasonable Questions to Ask about Any Technology by Stephanie Mills in Clamor magazine, Jan/Feb03.
Material World Statistics - in Material World: A Global Family Portrait. P. Menzel, et al. Sierra Club Books (1994)