Plastics-Free Living: Beyond the Low Hanging Fruit

March 29, 2013

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Appeared in:

Low hanging fruit tree

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps you already bring your own reusable grocery bags, have kicked the bottled water habit and know better than to microwave in plastics, but still find daily life swimming in plastics and want to use less of it.  After recycling, the average American still generates a half pound of plastic refuse daily, a concrete indicator of how deeply entrenched are plastic materials in our 21st century lifestyle (USEPA, 2010).

Rational reasons to cut back on plastics fall into one of two spheres: limiting exposure to hazardous chemicals associated with plastics – like bisphenol-A, phthalates and flame retardants – or reducing the harm to the environment incurred at all stages in plastics’ lifecycle, from extraction of the petroleum needed for manufacturing to disposal of the non-biodegradable finished products.

Short of adopting a Tarzan-like jungle existence, it’s probably impossible to completely eliminate plastics from modern day life, but with a little digging and shopping savvy, you can enlarge that dent in your plastics consumption.  Some ideas follow.

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Chemicals in Plastics Foster Diseases Passed on to Future Generations

February 14, 2013

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Appeared: Algalita Marine Research Blog, 20-Feb, 2013

Endocrine disrupting things

Common objects contain endocrine disruptors

In pregnant women, exposure today to endocrine-disrupting substances common in everyday plastics might not only be adversely affecting the health of their fetuses, but the health and fertility of their future great grandchildren might also be at risk, according to a laboratory study just published in January.  The health risks are not handed down via changes to the genetic DNA code (i.e. gene mutations), but rather through a parallel biological scheme of coding known as “epigenetics.”

Background
Traits are passed from one generation to the next through two distinct but interacting vehicles of inheritance.  The genes that make up our DNA were once thought to contain the entire blueprint for all inherited traits. For some time, however, scientists have understood the critical role of another coding system that literally sits atop the DNA and instructs genes to turn on or off.  Because all cells in a given animal or human have the same DNA sequence as the original fertilized egg and sperm, another mechanism is needed to explain how cell differentiation occurs during development so that a heart cell, for example, ends up so different from, say, a brain or skin cell.

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Bioplastics: Are They the Solution?

October 8, 2012

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Published in:

Throwaway living debuts after WWII
(Photo: Peter Stackpole, 1955)

Bioplastics are simply plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, like plants and microorganisms, whereas conventional plastics are synthesized from non-renewable fossil fuels, either petroleum or natural gas. It’s a common misconception, however, that a bioplastic necessarily breaks down better in the environment than conventional plastics.

Bioplastics are nevertheless marketed as being better for the environment, but how do they really compare?

The Problems with Petroleum-Based Plastics
The push to develop bioplastics emerges from alarming realities starting with the staggering quantity of plastics being produced, over 20 pounds a month for every U.S. resident, according to the latest numbers from the American Chemistry Council.

Conventional plastics do not biodegrade (defined below) within any meaningful human timescale – they just break apart into smaller plastic fragments. Also, the overall recycling rates for plastics remain fairly low, eight percent in the United States and 24 percent in the European Union in 2010 for example, in large part because plastic products contain unique proprietary blends of additives which prevent recycling of mixed batches of products back into the original products. So, unlike glass and aluminum which can be recycled in a closed loop, most plastics recycling is considered “down-cycling” into lower quality, hybrid-plastic end-products, like lumber or clothing, which aren’t recycled again. This means that, except for the fraction of plastic that is combusted for energy production, all plastics eventually end up as trash, either in landfills or as litter.

Petroleum and natural gas are actually organic substances, but why plastics synthesized from them do not biodegrade is straightforward. The exceptionally strong carbon-carbon bonds created to form the backbone of plastic polymers do not occur naturally in nature so are foreign to microorganisms which readily eat up other organic materials.

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Plastics Make America Fatter?

July 15, 2012

Are Plastics Making America Fatter?

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko

Appeared in:

Still disappointingly chubby after cutting back on junk foods and exercising regularly?

Two-thirds of U.S. adults are now either overweight or down right obese. And while an unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle can contribute to an expanding waistline, evidence is accumulating that exposure to substances in everyday plastics and other industrial chemicals can fatten you up too.

Doctors gauge fatness by the Body Mass Index (BMI), based on a person’s height and weight. For adults, the cutoffs are 25 for overweight and 30 for obesity.

The average U.S. man or woman now has a BMI of 28.7, according to the Centers for Disease Control. One-third of adults are overweight, and another third are obese. Even those at the lower end of normal are showing an upward trend.

And not just adults are tipping the scales. A national survey of children and teens found that 32 percent are overweight or obese. Even animals seem to be gaining weight, including domestic pets and feral rodents. The ubiquity of the problem has led scientists to suspect environmental influences.

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BPA Linked to Infertility

May 25, 2012

Source: Wikimedia Commons

BPA Newly Linked to Human Infertility
By Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Appeared in: Algalita Marine Research Blog, 30 Jul ’12 

Researchers are finding evidence for the first time that inadvertent exposure to BPA (bisphenol-A) in women of child-bearing age might hinder their fertility, and the levels of BPA involved are similar to that observed in the general U.S. population.The synthetic chemical BPA has earned a solid reputation as an endocrine disruptor based on its estrogen-mimicking properties and documented health effects on lab animals exposed to even low, environmentally-relevant doses. Literally hundreds of animal studies have linked BPA to a wide spectrum of health concerns including obesity, diabetes, breast and prostate cancer, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, low sperm counts and abnormal genital development.

Human exposure to BPA is known to be widespread – over 90 percent of the U.S. population show BPA in their urine – and stems from water bottles and other consumer items made of polycarbonate plastics, the epoxy lining of most food & beverage cans, dental sealants and thermal check register receipts. Ingestion is thought to be the primary route of exposure.

Discerning whether current levels of BPA exposure in humans carry the same health risks seen in animals is intrinsically difficult because of ethical prohibitions on intentionally exposing people to a potentially harmful substance and because of the hodgepodge of other industrial chemicals to which humans are exposed.  However, preliminary reports have surfaced linking BPA to human female infertility.

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L.A. Bans Plastic Bags

April 8, 2012

Los Angeles City Leaps Aboard Plastic Bag Ban Wagon
by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Other versions of this article have appeared in:

  • Vall-E-Vents, Sierra Club San Fernando Valley, Jul/Oct 2012
  • Southern Sierran as Why L.A.’s Plastic Bag Ban Matters, July/Aug 2012.
  • Fullerton Observer as Plastic Bag Ban: Will Fullerton Follow City of L.A.’s Lead? Early June, p. 10.
  • Surf City Voice as L.A. Poised to Ban Plastic Bags: Surf City Vote Hinges on EIR Cost, 10 April, 2012
  • Santa Monica Daily Press, 09 April, 2012

Will the ban on plastic bags in L.A. be the tipping point for a statewide ban?

The “City of Angels” just joined a growing web of four dozen California jurisdictions banning single-use, plastic carry-out bags.On May 23, the L.A. City Council cast a near unanimous vote to ban the flimsy “T-shirt” style carry-out bags and to phase in a 10-cent fee on paper bags. An earlier proposal also included a ban on paper bags, but the council decided instead to consider after two years whether a ban on paper was needed depending on whether enough people had switched to reusable bags, the real goal of the plastic ban. A bag ordinance is expected to be enacted before year’s end, and a six-month grace period will follow so consumers can adjust and to allow stockpiles of plastic bags to be used up. The ban will not include the plastic bags used for fresh produce or meats.The L.A. Bureau of Sanitation estimates that the city uses 2.3 billion plastic bags and 400 million paper bags a year and that the bag recycling rate is only 5% for plastic and 21% for paper. The rest end up in landfills or, worse still, as litter.

The “Save the Plastic Bag Coalition,” a group of plastic bag makers and distributors, is putting forth an all-out effort to block the spread of plastic bag bans within the state through legal challenges. In March, L.A. County’s 2010 ordinance banning plastic bags and placing a 10-cent fee on paper bags was upheld in Superior Court. Other California jurisdictions which have enacted similar bans include the cities of San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Palo Alto, Santa Clara and San Jose in the northern region and Long Beach, Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, Calabasas and Malibu in the south. Many more ban ordinances are in the works across the state, including in Pasadena, Dana Point, Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach, to name a few.

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Greener Laundry: Avoid Polyester

November 1, 2011

Greening Laundry Day: Avoid Polyester Fabrics
by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Appeared in:

  • Algalita Marine Research Blog, 20 Aug ’12
  • Natural Life Magazine, Mar/Apr issue 2012
  • Surf City Voice as “Microplastics: Avoid polyester fabrics to help prevent ocean pollution,” 06 Nov 11
  • Culture Change, 05 Nov 11

A single polyester garment can shed >1900 plastic microfibers per wash

If you have already switched to an eco-friendly laundry detergent, as many people do to contribute less to water pollution, you might be surprised to learn that the pollution you generate on wash day has as much to do with the kind of fabrics your clothes, bedding and towels are made of as the detergent you wash them in. Recent studies have revealed that a single garment made of polyester can shed innumerable tiny fibers into the wash water, and those fibers are finding their way to the ocean. The pollution they cause is worsened by the fact that, like plastic materials in general, polyester attracts oily pollutants in seawater so is a vehicle for the transfer of potentially dangerous chemicals into the food web when the fibers are ingested by sea creatures.

Although we don’t usually think of polyester fabrics as plastic per se, polyester is nonetheless a plastic material synthesized from crude oil and natural gas. And, like other plastics, polyester is a long polymer chain, making it non-biodegradable in any practical human scale of time, especially in the ocean because of the cooler temperatures.

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