“I hate plastics. We should get rid of them.” So began an email I received. The correspondent went on to talk about how plastics are a plague on the environment, how they contain chemicals that contaminate our food supply, disrupt our hormones, cause autism and ADHD and use up valuable petroleum deposits. What prompted the email was some comments I made about different plastics having different properties and how there were some concerns with some but not with others. The disturbing part of the message was the insinuation that I must be in the pockets of the plastic industry since I did not agree that plastics were substances forged in hell. That allegation is easy to answer. I get zero funding from the petroleum or plastics industries. My allegiance is to the scientific method. Where that path leads, I go.
It is true that plastics can be an environmental plague. But plastic shopping bags don’t jump into rivers or trees by themselves, and empty bottles that should be recycled don’t leap into garbage cans unaided. People are the problem. As far as using up petroleum resources, only about 5% of oil goes towards plastic manufacture, and in North America the prime raw material is actually not petroleum but natural gas. I should add that while plastics are mostly made from fossil fuels, this is not the case exclusively. Polylactic acid, widely used today, is made from corn and there is extensive research in the area of “green chemistry” to produce a variety of polymers from plant products.
What about the bit about contamination of our food supply? Anytime two surfaces come into contact, there is an exchange of chemicals. Indeed, it is possible that trace amounts of plastic chemicals with endocrine disruptive properties may end up in our food supply, but the dose is so small that any sort of harmful effect is very unlikely. Heat increases the release of chemicals, so it is better to use glass or ceramic for warming up food, although plastics labeled as microwave safe contain no easily leached components. As far as ADHD and autism go, the fact is that nobody knows the cause. There is much speculation ranging from genetics and microbiome imbalances to environmental contaminants but plastic ingredients would come way down the list. It is true that we can definitely live without plastic microbeads in cosmetics and even without synthetic fabrics, although resorting to cotton poses a whole range of other problems. But the suggestion to get rid of plastics is simple-minded nonsense that amounts to lack of seeing the forest for the trees.
Our life today depends on plastics. They are vital components of our airplanes, our cars, our buildings, our TV sets, our food production and drug manufacturing equipment, as well as numerous consumer goods ranging from shampoo bottles to shower curtains and toothbrushes. Yes, you could make toothbrushes from wood and pig bristles, but nylon is a lot better. Modern medicine could not function without plastics. Intravenous tubing, blood bags, burn dressings, artificial limbs, heart-lung machines, artificial joints, pacemakers, MRI machines, CAT scanners and x-ray equipment and white dental fillings rely on plastics. And just try to make a computer without plastics. Right now you are reading this on a computer or cell phone that could not function without plastics. Mr. McGuire in the Graduate was right: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Benjamin: Yes, sir. Mr. McGuire: Are you listening? Benjamin: Yes, I am. Mr. McGuire: Plastics!”