Plastic: When forever isn’t a good thing

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By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

On a visit to the orthodontist a few months ago with my daughter, I was reminded of the thousands of tiny “disposable” toothbrushes that fly into the trash every day in dental offices across the globe.

OK, so this isn’t a story about an oil spill or catastrophic climate change. Stay with me for a minute.

As each kid arrived, he or she paused to brush their cage-encased pearly whites, in preparation for that day’s tightening and tinkering. It seemed like a nice thing, getting those gnarly braces freshened up, brushed clean for the orthodontic inspection. The ortho assistants certainly appreciated it. Must have felt good just for its own sake, too.

But a peek into the trash bin was disheartening. It housed about 100 little paper cups — another disposable, but biodegradable — and a dozen or so small plastic toothbrushes, which would be around…oh, forever.

We don’t often think about it. But plastic is forever. Diamonds too. But so are plastic forks. We make so many things now — cups, utensils, toothbrushes — that are used for a few moments, then discarded. We lick our lips and they’re gone. Except they’re not.

I’d noticed this problem before at the orthodonist’s office. But I’m not saying this is the worst place, just one of the many business enterprises and human activities that have come to rely upon inexpensive plastic accoutrements. Disposables that aren’t really disposable. It just so happened that I cringed more deeply in this case because I’d just read an eye-opening book about the environmental impact of plastic, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, by Susan Freinkel.

Plastic takes a hard, clear (like polycarbonate!) look at the fallout from our obsession with these carbon polymers that compose every third thing in view, from computer casings to lunch utensils. Stop, look around you right now. I see plastic-encased scissors, a plastic key ring, plastic hair clips and plastic pen casings.

Freinkel, a veteran journalist, gives the concept its due. Plastic succeeded in offering the world new options: a cheap plastic comb, a lightweight container for milk, a pliable substance for toys. Often it was a more agile compound than the glass, wood, metal and in some cases, the precious natural resources, that it replaced. (You wouldn’t want to go back to real tortoise shell combs, necessarily. Not if it meant pursuing live tortoises for supplies.)

Our switch to and development of plastics, which are derived from petroleum, improved our lives in many ways, especially in the medical field where plastic was used for critical supplies that needed to meet certain performance criteria. A polyvinyl bag of blood is flexible, so it can be chilled, and yet see-through, so it can be examined. Tiny, bendable plastic tubes have helped safe infant lives.

Plastic could be molded into almost any shape, creating an almost endless possibilities for lab and consumer goods. It’s plastic for crying out loud.

But plastic’s achievement — its durability — also has proven to be its downfall, as Freinkel explains in her cogent and surprisingly compelling book. We can recycle some of it, though we don’t bother to often enough. But too often plastic things just end up staying with us forever in ditches, landfills, rivers, the ocean and in wildlife. Plastic is ending up inside of us, also, as toxic substances leach from the plastic packaging and home goods that surround it. This has led to serious concerns about how plastics leave a trail of harmful waste, such as the BPA that was found to leach into food and beverages from plastic bottles, disrupting the human endocrine system. Studies now show that children’s delicate, developing hormonal systems can be damaged by exposure to these chemicals, which also appear to affect fertility and could be a trigger in certain cancers.

What’s worse, there seems to be little escaping our increasingly plasticized world. BPA has been banned in several locations and cleared out of most drinking bottles and baby toys. But the bulk of the plastic created over the last century lingers, most dramatically in giant vortexes in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

And I do mean GIANT.

The largest of these, known as the North Pacific Garbage Patch, is a swirl of plastic items larger than the state of Texas.  This is a warning to the world that needs little further explanation, though Freinkel’s heartbreaking account of how marine life are dying from an inadvertent diet of plastic kibble will make you feel less than proud about the plastic utensils you threw out at lunch.

There’s little doubt that we need to start thinking differently, using plastic wisely, when it’s really needed and not as a disposable. Plastic utensils, plastic water bottles, plastic tchotchkes — they all come from natural substances that were in the earth for millions of years (oil remember?), and we use them for just a flash in time.

The solution to these benign crimes? We need to make “plastic” products that are completely renewable and recyclable. Fortunately, the technology for that is emerging. Cargill’s NatureWorks has produced Ingeo, a plant-derived polylactic (PLA) plastic now used in a host of products, from car mats and lipstick holders to dress shoes and plastic clamshells that cradle ready-to-go food. You’ve probably bought some at Sam’s or Target, where some of the vendors used Ingeo for packaging. I once tried out an Ingeo pillow. I hated it, but not because it was Ingeo, it was too firm and plump and I’m picky. But I digress.

Ingeo is fully recyclable. The network for recapturing it is just now being built, but is expected to perform at a higher standard. Ingeo reclamation centers are said to be capable of reclaiming nearly every ounce of the polylactic material for reuse, according to their creators. And the process can be repeated.That’s a big difference with regular plastic, which degrades as its reclaimed and cannot be recycled multiple times.

The best feature of this new faux plastic is that it returns to the earth when composted. Last year, Frito Lay used Ingeo for its Sunchips bags, which were compostable. It withdrew the offering when customers complained that the bags were too loud. (Really, people? We care more about that than returning resources to the land?)

Another inventive new bioplastic, Mirel, is being derived from microbes grown in switchgrass. The product’s not yet cost competitive, but it offers a planet-friendly premium, biodegradability.

The best new development in plastics is occurring within the military which may have finally found the best fit for a goo that can be molded into a permanent structure, aka, plastic. But I’ll save that surprise for those who want to read the book.

As for those proliferating temporary toothbrushes at the orthodontist’s office, I’m going to look for something made from bioplastic. There are also bamboo toothbrushes appearing in niche marketplaces. These can be retired more gracefully than plastic ones. They biodegrade!

Here’s one example of a set of four bamboo toothbrushes for a reasonable $11.

There are also toothbrushes made from recycled plastic, which is better than nothing, but ya know, it’s still plastic. Can it be recycled again? Not sure. I hope so.

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