The Environmental Impact of Plastic

Learn about the environmental dangers associated with the production and use of plastics, and why you won’t miss much by switching away from bottled water.

| October 2019

plastic-bottle 
Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

The Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age have been designated as the three great prehistoric and ancient eras of humankind. If a period can be defined by a transforming material, historians may someday refer to our era as the Plastics Age. But plastic isn’t only the ever-present basis for most of our products. In one form or another, the chemicals used to make plastics and the residues from them are also found widely in drinking water, whether from the tap or from bottled water.

Plastic may be the most successful example ever of turning trash into gold. In its many forms, plastic used to be mostly derived from impurities removed from crude oil in the process of refining it into gasoline, diesel, or home heating oil. It is now produced either from crude oil or, more commonly, as a by­product of natural gas. This “waste product” has evolved into a huge industry of its own. Of the $4.4 trillion in chemical sales worldwide, plastics are one of the largest segments, accounting for about $650 billion of that. In one form or another, plastic is found in more than seventy thousand products, and is used in industries as varied as automotive, packaging, computers, and aerospace, among many others.

For both good and bad, the rise of plastic mirrors the importance of the crude oil and natural gas from which it is derived. Just as these carbon fuels grew to be of extraordinary value both for those who extract them and those who use them to power industry and the world’s economies, plastic became a lucrative business while transforming global commerce. But while carbon fuels and plastic have led to countless benefits, in recent years those benefits have begun to be balanced by awareness of risks brought on by both.



Similar to the way in which oil and natural gas continue to be the world’s dominant energy sources even as the dangers of these carbon fuels become apparent, there is no other material available today that can replace plastic. Indeed, efforts to create new kinds of plastic continue in laboratories around the world. Depending on what characteristics are sought—such as flexibility, durability, weight, or temperature sensitivity, to name a few—chemists have been able to arrange molecules to achieve a dizzying variety of alternatives. Nearly all of these familiar and new plastics have a related chemical structure, but each also has enough variability that the formulation results in a different product with unique properties.

Aside from the trash that so much plastic creates, there is another problem with some types of plastic. Most of the time, exposure to plastic is believed to be benign, or, at least, having no currently known ill effect. But some of the plastics, even a few in very widespread use, have consequences beyond polluted seas and litter­filled riverfronts. They also affect human health.

Unlike a stable material such as glass, when drinking water comes into contact with some finished plastic products, chemicals from the plastic can leach into the water. One widely reported example of this is Bisphenol A, which may be more widely known as BPA. This lab­made compound has a structure similar to a human hormone. When swallowed, BPA can create disruptions in the human endocrine system. In another instance, vinyl chloride leaches out of PVC plastic, potentially causing impairment in the central nervous system. Vinyl chloride has also been confirmed as a human carcinogen.

Knowing of the possibility that some plastic products can pose a public health threat to drinking water, it would be logical for there to be a process to research the potential harm before introduction of the product. This might be done in a modified version of the way in which the FDA demands pharmaceutical companies prove that proposed new drugs are safe for humans. Yet with plastic there is no such precautionary approach from the EPA, FDA, or any other government agency. The effect of the weaker­than­ideal controls on plastic (and other new chemicals) is that testing of these compounds gets done, but in a different way than anyone might want.

Dr. Shanna Swan, a professor and researcher at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, has spent her career studying the interface of synthetic chemicals from plastics and the ways in which they disrupt the human body’s hormone­related activity. “Humans have become the guinea pigs to test the effect of new chemicals,” she says. “These compounds get released without adequate testing, and five or ten years later we start to see cancers or hormonal disruption or infertility or other problems. That leads to research getting done that should have been conducted years earlier before the approval for release was given.”

What ensues is what Swan describes as “an endless game of Whack­ A­Mole,” the children’s activity where pushing a make­believe mole back into its hole only leads to another mole popping out of a different hole. In this real­world version of the game, chemicals come to market and, years later, when health concerns become suspected, a demand for testing begins. When the chemical is linked to a medical condition, the chemical companies often challenge the science used in the study or find other ways to keep sales of their product going for as long as possible. Then, says Swan, when consumer complaints start to be heard widely or political pressure starts to be felt, the company withdraws the chemical and re­sets the clock by introducing an “analog chemical” that has a similar chemical structure while technically being different. Because of that comparable chemical structure, the new compound offered as a replacement will likely cause the same or similar health problems as the withdrawn one it supplanted, but, as with its predecessor, the effects don’t become apparent until several years after the “new” product has been introduced.

None of this is a call to ban plastic. Just more than one hundred years since its first commercial use, plastic is the dominant material of our times. If one wanted to do so, it would be nearly impossible to go even a day without contact with it in some form. Yet even with a great appreciation for all of the ways in which plastic has improved our lives, a hanging question about plastic is: At what cost?

Is Bottled Water Safer than Tap Water?

America’s bottled water industry achieved an important milestone in 2016. For the first time, the volume of bottled water sold in the U.S. was greater than that of carbonated and sweetened soft drinks, or what, depending upon the part of the country, is mostly called soda or pop. The success of the bottled water companies—among whom are such beverage giants as Coca­Cola, which bottles and markets Dasani, and PepsiCo, which does the same with Aquafina—is all the more remarkable because of the disparity in what is spent in marketing in the two categories. For every dollar spent on bottled water advertising and promotion, the soda brands spend nearly thirty.

Bottled water’s success has less to do with marketing than with a change in popular attitudes. Consumers today buy bottled water for four main reasons: They prefer the taste, something that is of special value in places with local water that has high mineral content. They like the convenience of having water at hand along with the ease of being able to discard the container. They were or are soda drinkers but want to reduce or avoid consumption of sugary drinks to cut down on calories and to promote better health. Or they are afraid to drink tap water because of a concern it may be contaminated. There is reason to believe that the last of these four is the most compelling.

In a November 2017 Harris Poll in which those questioned could list more than one reason as to why they drank bottled water, 99 percent cited “quality” and 92 percent “safety” as an explanation for their beverage choice. That those two attributes should rank so highly isn’t a surprise when matched with consumer research from August 2015 that reported 60 percent of bottled water is consumed in the home. Since tap water ordinarily flows freely there and is generally available for less than one­tenth of one percent of the cost of bottled water, consumer purchases are compelling evidence of people’s priorities—and worries.



That so many people should be fearful that the drinking water in their homes is unsafe should be of concern to every public official whose job touches on water infrastructure and the quality of what comes out of the tap. Every person who is drinking bottled water, especially when tap water is close at hand, is making a statement that government and the water utilities have failed to assure them that the available tap water is as clean, safe, and pure as bottled water is perceived as being.

While bottled water is often safer than tap water, the people driven to bottled water as a kind of immunity from contamination may not always be getting the level of purity they imagine. The nearly twenty pages of technical language in small print in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations that addresses bottled water is mostly devoted to the acceptable limits of ninety­one contaminants, including coliform bacteria, arsenic, lead, and benzene, and how to test for them. This list confirms that— even if all limits are honored and even if, by being below those limits, the federal government says that the water is safe to drink—the water in that bottle may still contain contaminants that the consumer was not expecting. Bottled water consumer information labels contain mostly worthless nutritional data like calories, fat, carbohydrates, and protein (all of which are zero), but carry no information about bacteria or chemicals that may be found in representative samples of the water.

As to which of the ninety­one regulated contaminants are found in any given bottle of water and at what levels, one scientifically rigorous study that tested at least three samples of more than one hundred bottled water brands revealed that the presence and mixture of contaminants is nearly as broad as the number of bottled water brands that were tested. In all, about one­third of the brands examined had at least one sample that exceeded recommended levels for bacteria and/or chemical contaminants. The researchers also found little uniformity, with the quality of the water often varying for the same brand of bottled water from one production run to the next. Different contaminants at different volumes were found in different samples from the same brand. Some of those individual brands that had an excess of contaminants in one sample showed no trace of those same impurities in other bottles tested.

troubled-water


From TROUBLED WATER: What’s Wrong with What We Drink by Seth M. Siegel. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.





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