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Waste Not #362

The Reporter for Rational Resource Management
Summer 1996


Editorial: “Don't buy plastics!”

At every step in the production of plastics, hazardous substances are used and hazardous wastes are produced. When plastics are disposed of in incinerators, more hazardous wastes are produced. If we are truly concerned about limiting our exposure to hazardous and toxic wastes, then we must take on the plastics industry. For the plastics industry is a major, if not the largest, source of the hazardous wastes entering our environment. The promise of recycling plastics keeps this hazardous waste industry alive. PVC can't be recycled economically. Many other plastics can't be recycled., and even when they can, the one sure product being recycled is hazardous waste. It has been difficult to confront the plastics issue because of several factors, some of which are listed below.

(1) Citizens have worked hard to bring the message home on the necessity to recycle materials. It has been an extraordinarily successful campaign. Millions of Americans have responded, in an overwhelmingly positive way.

(2) In our effort to bring the message home, the plastic industry waylaid concerns when they said they would and could recycle plastics. At that time, the fundamental question of what we were recycling was put on hold.

(3) Greenpeace has persisted in educating us on the dangers of one plastic: PVC. They've done a great job, produced great reports, and it is generally accepted in environmental circles that we must do whatever we can to stop PVC production.

(4) Since the successful battles against McDonald's use of Styrofoam, what major environmental group is campaigning against any other plastic?

(5) Millions of tons of plastics are being dumped in third-world countries while the plastic industry is pumping millions of dollars into `let's feel good about plastics' ads.

(6) The issue of endocrine disruptors hit us all in the ecological solar plexis. We learned that many substances, that are known endocrine disrupters, are used as additions to plastics and that they leach out from them. In fact, just one of these substances, Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate “is principally used [95%] as a plasticizer in the production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and vinyl chloride resins.” (Ref: Toxicological Profile for Di (2-Etheylhexyl) Phthalate, April 1993, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.]

(7) Plastics are used for practically everything - packaging for food; furniture; construction; medical supplies; toys, etc. They have replaced many safer materials. In fact, we are losing, at an exponential rate, our ability to manufacture safe materials

(8) If, in the saving of life, plastics must be used, so be it. We will not argue against really critical use; but wherever possible we must campaign for alternative materials that produce less hazardous wastes and are genuinely conservative of finite resources.

(9) Those who work in the production of the chemicals necessary to produce plastics have been the hardest hit. They are exposed, almost unconscionably, to toxic and hazardous chemicals. Many have had their health impaired; many suffer illness and cancer; too many have died. Similarly, people who live in the communities where these chemicals and plastics are produced; who live near the incinerators and cement kilns where they are burned; who live next to hazardous waste landfills; and the firefighters who brave toxic fires, are also put at grave risk for cancers, illness and death. Shouldn't we be asking: “Are plastic food wraps, plastic packaging, plastic furniture, plastic construction materials, and plastic toys worth the cancers, illness and deaths their production, manufacture and disposal cause?”

“Pesticides and plastics have common ingredients and common hazardous waste by-products. The famous Love Canal and Hyde Park toxic dumps (both near Niagara Falls, New York) from Hooker Chemical and Plastics Company came from one-site manufacturing of several chlorinated products. Among these products are DDT (pesticide), Mirex (pesticide), lindane (pesticide), PVC (plastic), and PCBs (plasticizer, fire-retardant, and insulator). These products were made at the one manufacturing site because of many common feedstocks that are necessary for all these products. (Feedstocks are the chemicals needed for the manufacture of these products.)...Most people don't even know that there is a close relationship between plastics and pesticides, or that they are often manufactured on the same site with the same feedstocks.” In the Mouth of the Dragon: Toxic fires in the age of plastics, by Deborah Wallace, 1990, Avery Publishing Group, ISBN 0-89529-440-0.

“In an EPA ranking of the 20 chemicals whose production generates the most total hazardous waste, five of the top six are chemicals commonly used by the plastics industry...These include propylene (ranked first), phenol (third), ethylene (fourth) polystyrene (fifth) benzene (sixth).” Ref: Wrapped in Plastics: the environmental case for reducing plastics packaging, by Jeanne Wirka for the Environmental Action Foundation, 1988.

The following excerpts are from Wrapped in Plastics:

Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE): Principle raw materials: ethylene gas (monomer). Sometimes copolymerized with butene, hexane, octene, or vinyl acetate. Toxic chemicals used in production: benzene, chromium oxide, cumene hydroperoxide, tert-butyl hydroperoxide.

High Density Polyethylene (HDPE): Principle raw materials: ethylene gas (monomer). Also frequently copolymerized with other olefins such as 1-butene, 1-hexane, or propylene. Toxic chemicals used in production: chromium oxide, benzoyl peroxide, hexane, cyclohexane.

Polypropylene (PP): Principal raw materials: propylene (monomer). Toxic chemicals used in production: methanol, 2,6-di-tert-butyl-4-methyl phenol, nickel dibutyl dithiocarbamate.

Polystyrene (PS): Principal raw materials: Styrene (monomer). Most styrene is produced from ethylbenzene, which is itself made from benzene and ethylene. Toxic chemicals used in production: Styrene, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, polyvinyl alcohol, antimony oxide, tert-butyl hydroperoxide, bensoquinone.

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): Principal raw materials: terephthalic acid and/or dimethyl terephthalate and ethylene glycol. Toxic chemicals used in production: antimony oxide, diaszomethane, lead oxide.

Acrylonnitrile: Used as a key ingredient in the production of many synthetic fibers. It is also used as a monomer for two styrene resins (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, or ABS, and styrene-acrylonitrile, or SAN). Frequently copolymerized with polyvinyl chloride. Acrylonitrile has been shown to cause cancer and birth defects in laboratory animals and has been linked to an increase in cancer among exposed workers. Antimony Oxide: A crystaline substance used as a catalyst in the polmerization of PET, as a flame retardant in polystyrene, and as a pigment (white). A suspected carcinogen. May cause birth defects.

Benzene: used as a solvent in the production of PVC and LDPE and as a raw material for styrene, the chemical (monomer) used to make polystyrene. A recognized human carcinogen that causes leukemia. Acute exposure to benzene in the workplace depresses the central nervous system, causing headaches, fatigue, insomnia, nervousness, nausea and loss of muscular coordination. p-Benzoquinone: used as a retardant in the polymerization of polystyrene. Extremely toxic on ingestion. A suspected tumoragen and mutagen. t-Butyl Hydroperoxide: used as a radical initiator in the polymerization of polystyrene and linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE). Although the toxic hazard to humans is not know, has produced severe depression, incoordination, cyanosis, and respiratory arrest in laboratory animals. Carbon Tetrachloride: used in the polymerization of PVC and polystyrene and as a solvent for other resins. Causes cancer in laboratory animals. Suspected human carcinogen. Workers subject to prolonged or repeated exposure can develop severe liver and kidney failure. Chromium (VI) Oxide: uses as a catalyst in the polymerization of HDPE and LDPE. Has produced both cancer and mutagenic and teratogenic effects in laboratory animals. Chronic exposures in the workplace have led to severe liver and nervous system damage. Cumene Hydroperoxide: used as a radical initiator in the polymerization of LDPE. Acutely toxic by ingestion, inhalation, and skin absorbtion. A suspected mutagen and terotogen. Diazomethane: used in the polymerization of PET. A known animal carcinogen. 1,2-Dichloroethane: used as a solvent in the production of PVC. Extremely toxic by ingestion or inhalation. A suspected human carcinogen and mutagen. Dimethylphthalate: used as a plasticizer in PVC. Listed as a hazardous waste

Di-N-Butyl Phthalate: used as a plasticizer in PVC. Listed as a hazardous waste. Di-N-Octyl Phthalate: Used as a plasticizer in PVC. Listed as a hazardous waste. Ethylene Oxide: used in the manufacture of ethylene glycol (a raw material for PET) and acrylonitrile. Has caused cancer, changes in genetic material, and reproductive problems in laboratory animals.

Lead Chromate: used as a pigment in PET, LDPE, HDPE, PP, PS, PVC, and other plastics. Very toxic and accumulates in the body over time producing anemia, headaches, sterility, miscarriages, kidney and brain damage. Lead Oxide: used as a catalyst in the polymerization of PET and as a colorant. See above for symptoms of Lead Chromate. Methyl Acrylate: used in the preparation of thermoplastic coatings and as a copolymer for PVC. High levels of inhalation may cause lethargy, convulsions, and death from lung damage. Methanol: used as a solvent in the polymerization of PVC and other resins. Also known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol. Swallowing methanol, or breathing high concentrations can cause headaches, weakness, drowsiness, lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, drunkenness, eye irritation, blurred visions, blindness and death. Symptoms may recur without additional exposure and recovery is not always complete. Nickel Dibutyldithrio Carbamate: used as a UV-stabilizer in LDPE, HDPE, and PP. Nickel is a toxic heavy metal. Has been show to be associated with an increased incidence of nose and lung cancer in occupationally exposed workers. Present in the air emissions and ash from incinerators. Phthalic Anhydride: used as a plasticizer in PVC. Toxic. Polyvinyl Alcohol: widely used in the production of textiles, paints and other synthetics. Also used as a suspension stabilizer in the polymerization of PVC, PS, ABS, and other resins. Has produced positive results for carcinogenicity in animal tests. Styrene: used as a monomer in polystyrene. Styrene has been linked with increased levels of chromosomal damage, abnormal pulmonary function, angiosarcoma of the liver, and cancer in workers at styrene or polystyrene plants. Tetrahydrofuran: used as a solvent in the polymerization of PVC. Toxic by in ingestion and inhalation, causing irritation of the eyes, nose, and respiratory tract, headaches, dizziness, and potential damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidneys. Tribasic Lead Sulfate: used as a heat stabilizer in PVC. See “lead chromate” above for information on lead toxicity.

WASTE NOT # 362. A publication of Work on Waste USA, published 48 times a year. Annual rates are: Groups & Non-Profits $50; Students & Seniors $35; Individual $40; Consultants & For-Profits $125; Canadian $US50; Overseas $70.

Editors: Ellen & Paul Connett, 82 Judson Street, Canton, New York 13617. Tel: 315-379-9200. Fax: 315-379-0448.