November 10, 2008

More sad plastic news. Plus Year 2, Week 21 Results: .05 oz of plastic waste.

The format of this post will be a little different from most of my weekly tallies because I want to emphasize three stories in the news this week which illustrate more of the problems with plastic and plastic recycling.

First: I learned from JessTrev of The Green Phone Booth (via Twitter) that one of the few plastics we had thought was fairly safe might not be so. Medical researchers at the University of Alberta have found chemicals leaching from polypropylene (#5 plastic), the type of plastic used for many, many food uses, including yogurt tubs and Bentology/Laptop Lunch containers, which parents purchase as an alternative to disposable food containers for children. Preserve toothbrushes (the kind I use) are also made from recycled polypropylene.

Not enough is know at this time about the two chemicals found to leach from the plastic, quaternary ammonium biocides and oleamide, to determine whether or not the leaching poses health risks, but Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist with Environmental Working Group, says, “We simply don’t want these chemicals getting into our bodies.”

When asked which plastics are safe for food, I’ve always replied that #2, #4, and #5 are the safest as far as we know, but the fact that they haven’t really been studied as thoroughly as other plastics means that we don’t know for sure if they are actually safe. As it turns out, we’re now even less sure. My opinion? Why store food in plastic when we can use glass and other safer alternatives?

Second: Saturday afternoon, a massive fire broke out at a plastics manufacturing plant in Channelview, Texas. View video and news coverage of the fire here. According to an article on, the plant manufactured polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products. Ironically, according to the news story, city officials claim the smoke was non-toxic.

Really? Non-toxic PVC smoke? According to Greenpeace, smoldering PVC gives off hydrogen chloride, “a corrosive, highly toxic gas that can cause skin burns and severe long-term respiratory damage,” as well as dioxin, which has been found to cause cancer and reproductive disorders. How is it possible that the smoke from a burning PVC plant can be considered safe for any town?

Third: Tonight, FPF reader Christy B alerted me to a 60 Minutes story that aired today revealing a terrible reality of electronics and plastic “recycling” that will turn your stomach. You already saw the Sky News story about plastic recycling in China. This one is even worse. Watch it below or view it on the 60 Minutes site. This story illustrates why cutting our consumption and requiring manufacturers to produce less toxic, longer-lasting products is essential.

Watch CBS Videos Online
And now that you’ve had your fill of reasons to cut out plastic, here’s my tally for the week.

All new plastic waste:

    • 1 plastic envelope window. From Financial West Group, which does not yet offer electronic statements.


  • 1 plastic seal from a carton of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey. This happened Tuesday night. I blame election anxiety. What a rush!


And that’s it. I actually did also receive a free T-shirt in a bubble mailer with plastic tape, but I returned it to the sender after sending an email explaining why. I also received one of those plastic pizza inserts, but I’m planning to take it back to the pizzeria and ask them to reuse it. It’s actually unnecessary. I usually remember to request no plastic thingie, and the pizza arrives just fine.

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14 years ago

We bought our kids Klean Kanteen Water Bottles at this company . All the BPA stuff.. just kind of freaked us out, why take chances?? It helps the environment, and is safer for you… so its a win, win.

heather t
14 years ago

Whew, sorry if I sounded really snarky! I was frustrated. I'm working full-time & a newly single mom. I feel like I'm doing all I can and it's still not enough.

I will check out the alternatives you guys mentioned. Note that even the metal containers I've seen have plastic lids.

Things that still go in plastic are mostly wet things: baby oranges, baby carrots (I know, I know!), applesauce, the occasional pickle or (homemade) pudding cup. The baby carrots or pickles usually go in a disposable plastic baggie (horror!) because I don't have a reusable container that is the right size/shape for them.

Another thing to consider is the space all these reusable containers take up in a lunchbox. That's one reason I made the snack sacks for the dry treats like pretzels or cookies. The snack sacks are flexible, can be folded & tucked into a lunchbox corner or pocket like a plastic baggie can. The hard reusable containers – I can only fit so many of them in the lunchbox!

I like the look of the bento boxes I've seen – maybe I'll try that when their current lunchboxes wear out.

In the meantime, I'll try to get a photo up on Make A Bag of our typical school lunch so y'all can make suggestions.

BTW – Chunky Monkey is my favorite ice cream flavor, and I don't like banana-flavored stuff typically!

Beth Terry
14 years ago

Froghair — you have convinced me. And in fact, that little plastic pizza thingie has been sitting on my desk for several days mocking me. So I will add it to this week’s tally and perhaps I won’t forget to specify no plastic next time!

The T-shirt, on the other hand (which you didn’t mention but which I feel obliged to expound upon now) was not my fault. I specifically requested that the sender use no plastic including plastic tape to send it to me. And the sender used plastic anyway. So I marked it “return to sender” without even opening it and sent an email explaining why. Yes, the plastic will end up in their garbage most likely, but that’s their karma.

These rules do get kind of arbitrary at times, don’t they? I had a discussion/argument early on with a reader who thought I should be including my husband’s personal plastic waste in my tally as well because of the benefit I get from living with him. By that logic, I should be including all my co-workers’ plastic too.

If I buy it or if I use it, I count it. If not, I don’t. Simple. So, okay, the pizza thingie goes in. Thanks for keeping me even more honest than I thought I was!!!

14 years ago

Pardon my skepticism, but do you really think the pizza place is just going to pop that plastic thingie back in their bin and reuse it? Frankly, I hope not, because that's got to be a health code infraction, even if it is washed. Or perhaps I am uninformed — does the pizza place have a return & reuse program for these thingies?

Beth: so great is my respect for you and your work, I am reluctant criticize, but I think that if you cause the demand for a plastic item, it needs to get tallied in your count. If you forgot to order the pizza without the plastic thingie, just accept your mistake, and add it to the tally. Taking it back to the pizza place (where they will almost certainly throw it away there), just offsets the plastic disposal to somewhere else. It's like calling an electric car a zero emissions vehicle. There certainly *are* emissions involved in making that car go, they're just not coming out of the tailpipe. Again, I hesitate to even say anything, because it's not like I've made the effort to do my own plastic tally, who am I to criticize others? So I hope you'll accept this as friendly commentary and not whoo-boy-one-of-THOSE-people.

Now, getting wound up in the details of how you tally your plastic bits is missing the big picture, I admit. So I just want to also say that your site has changed how I consume things. Small example: one of my administrative assistants at my office keeps a fully loaded bowl of bite-size chocolates on her desk, for everyone to share. I was trying to kick the habit of partaking, soley for health's sake, but that was an on-again-off-again practice. But when I considered the *plastic* I was consuming every time I unwrapped one of those candies, I was able to stop, cold turkey. Thanks!!

Beth Terry
14 years ago

Birthblessed — ha! We have two ice cream makers. Chunky Monkey is not actually a habit. It was an election night impulse. And, in fact, it was the first time I ever tried that particular flavor. How have I lived for 43 years without knowing that banana ice cream is yummy? I guess I was an ice cream bigot before, assuming that if it wasn’t chocolate, it wasn’t really dessert.

14 years ago

You know, you can get an ice cream maker, dear, and bust the Chunky Monkey habit.

14 years ago

Oh, just ordered from stainless containers for my kids lunches. Had been sending kids to school with glass, but finally got complaints from school. These items are plastic and glass free. I also bake quick breads that they take to school wrapped in waxed paper just like my mom used to do in “the good ole days”. Same with sandwiches. Also, bought mismatched cheap flatware from salvation army that the kids use in their lunch boxes and bring home … but if I lose one, no biggie. Hope this helps. -Sandy

14 years ago

Just ran into your site. Fabulous. The plastic issue is sickening. I love your idea of tallying your plastic “consumption” – brilliant. I’ve pretty much gone to all glass or stainless. I saw the 60 Minutes empisode … infuriating. I felt betrayed by the recycling folks. Sad. My understanding up til this point on #5 plastic is that it’s “supposedly” ok if you don’t put it in the dishwasher, microwave it or put hot foods in it, or when it gets really old and scratched it leeches. In my book this means: unsafe. Finally we are getting somewhere on the BPA thing — I hope we can get somewhere on the rest of it. Keep up the great work! -Sandy

14 years ago

Wow, scary news on so many fronts. Almost like a snapshot of why we should limit plastics use. You know, a while back – you may not remember this – I emailed you to see if you’d figured out alternatives to plastic bandaids. I was so surprised when you said “I think that is a perfect use for plastic.” Since then, it’s helped me to frame my plastics use in that way. Is this a good utility of plastic (a possibly dangerous, polluting substance)? Or can I sub something else in pretty easily? Right now I’m shooting for low hanging fruit (skipping plastic bags, for instance) and trying to avoid plastics around my food. I have kids so I hear the frustration loud and clear. The metal tins are what we use, for the most part. Another idea I heard was to line the plastic container with wax paper to limit contact w/food. Addresses health concern + not enviro cost, obviously, but perhaps a workaround for parents. Thanks for the steady updates – I feel like plastics info is constantly evolving and appreciate your keeping us up to date.

Green Bean
14 years ago

Beth, you always bring us back to the important stuff. Thank you for keeping plastics front and center.

I’d love to find a plastic alternative for packaging foods for lunches. The metal ones just don’t work as well, are tough to open and glass can get thrown and broken.

Oh well. Hope you enjoyed the ice cream. :)

Beth Terry
14 years ago

Heather and Maya, I hear you! I’m sorry if I made it sound easy to give up plastic, and I’m sorry if sometimes I forget how hard it is when you have kids.

But I think Maya is right. People sent their kids to school with lunch before there was plastic. Heather, what is is that needs to go in a plastic container? Let me know, and I’ll see if I know of an alternative. has started selling very small stainless steel containers:

They are good for small portions of snacks. You are already using cloth napkins and cloth bags. Please let me know what you need the plastic for so I can help.

14 years ago

oh, Heather, you sound discouraged. you know, I’m so glad you are taking the steps you are already taking! Remember, though, kids took lunch to school before plastic was invented (in a tin can covered with a cloth, for example) and they can do it again.

My kid doesn’t, but I use metal bowls w/plastic lids and a metal thermos for hot food. No one is perfect, we just have to keep trying.

Beth–such discouraging news. I don’t know. I think I’m discouraged too. I just remind myself that I care, I have children who I want to inherit a liveable earth, other people care, we just have to keep trying.

heather from Make A Bag
14 years ago

So what would you recommend we pack kids’ lunches in? Glass?

Sorry if I sound snippy – I don’t mean to. It’s just very frustrating to be told “there’s no reason to use plastic” when, darn it all, there IS.

I’m doing my best to get plastic out of my kids’ lunches, but it’s hard. Our school doesn’t offer hot lunch, so we have to pack. They have thermoses, I’m wrapping sandwiches in cloth napkins and dry snacks in little cloth bags, but some things need reusable plastic. There’s no getting around it.

14 years ago

I can’t believe that they would say that PVC burning is not toxic? What are they smoking?

As for the computers in China, Mother Earth News wrote about this at least five years ago, and it broke my heart to see a young boy on top of all our AOL discs and computer crap.

See for more responsible recyclers.

14 years ago

A third thank you for the 60 Minutes reference. We all should pass the link around widely.

The smiling, cooperative, friendly guy who is “just like us” is as much a villain as the squawking guys trying to grab the camera in China. They hide what they do with the threat of violence while he hides what he does with a smooth style. The heroes of the story are the producers of the show who decided to take the time to investigate and the faceless folks in Hong Kong who caught the shipment of CRT’s and sent it back.

The thing to remember about every actor in the drama is that they do what they do for money, like the rest of us. The challenge is to make it unprofitable to do what we do not want to be done. We can start by raising as much of a stink about the problem as it raises (literally) in China and giving the 60 Minutes segment as much exposure as possible is a good start.

14 years ago

Thanks for bringing the 60 minutes segment to our attention. It was simply heartbreaking.

14 years ago

I saw the 60 Minutes segment. What was appalling was how complicit the American reycler was. Up to this point I assumed either they were recycling it here, or they didn’t know it was being sent overseas, or they knew it was going overseas, but thought it was being recycled there legally and safely. I was pretty mad when I saw the cavalier attitude and the lies, right there on camera.