Do you know what your things are made of? While this seems like a simple question, often the products we use consist of or include plastics, even if it doesn’t look like it. If it’s not made of glass, metal, rock, wood, paper, cotton or wool, it’s probably plastic. The world as you know it, looks the way it does because of plastic.
There are many different types of plastics with a range of properties making plastics practical in many applications. Their various chemical structures allow them to be flexible or rigid, clear or opaque, smooth or sticky. Plastics have allowed the production of a range of new products. They have allowed us to store foods indefinitely, sell processed food and drink, transform the medical industry, reach new levels of technological advancement, and make “disposability” a defining part of our culture. Captain Charles Moore, the founder of Algalita, once said that plastics are the lubricant of capitalist society. While plastics have helped society advance, we should make sure to think about the cost we’re paying for this “progress.”
Plastics are building up on our planet because they are not processed by nature, at least not on meaningful timescales. They often include a range of additives that scientists are now finding in humans. These additives are often endocrine disruptors or carcinogenic. To us, the scariest part is that plastics might be influencing us on a generational level, affecting our ability to reproduce or affecting our offspring, more than ourselves. Because plastics are used in so many “invisible” applications, and the fact that the materials and chemicals used in the products (except food and cosmetics) are not required to be listed, consumers have very little knowledge of or control over their effects on us. Plastics have infiltrated our lives, often in intimate ways, and often without us knowing about it.
Take personal care and beauty products, for example. Many face washes, soaps and toothpastes, used to contain tiny plastic particles, called microbeads. These microbeads end up directly in waterways where water treatment plants are not designed to capture the microscopic particles or where waste water isn’t treated. While the microbead problem has been addressed in the United States, these harmful plastic particles continue to cause damage to aquatic ecosystems. Only 11 countries in total have banned the use of microbeads in some shape or form, and the issue will continue to grow unless there is a wider ban on microbead use. While these policies will still lead to less microbead use in cosmetics, major economies like China, India and Brazil have not banned these substances. As countries develop, consumers will start to demand more beauty products: as the market for cosmetics increases, it is likely that microbead use rises again, despite bans in prominent countries like the United States, France, Canada and the United Kingdom. Second, some countries within this list have permitted certain exemptions for bioplastics or microbead use for medical purposes.
Microbeads are just the tip of the iceberg. The cosmetics industry is riddled with plastics, and not only in packaging. The “glow” of bronzers, blushes and eye shadows often comes from plastic glitter, giving a shimmery affect to the wearer. Nail polish, like other paints, is made up of assorted plasticizers and resins like acrylic. Menstrual pads, tampons and wet-wipes, even flushable ones, are usually partly plastic. Floss is made up of synthetic materials such as Teflon.
Beyond beauty, “invisible plastics” can be found in nearly every aspect of life, from when you get dressed in the morning to when you go to bed at night. Synthetic textiles, like your onesie, fleece blanket, soft polyester sheets, faux leather and faux fur, sports jersey, microfiber cleaning cloths, bathing suits, stretchy jeans, and sheer chiffon blouses – are all plastics like polyester, acrylic, nylon, and polyurethane. They release microscopic particles called microfibers when they are worn, washed, and dried. These microfibers which are less than 1 mm in size, are basically dust and float through the air where we can breathe them in. Once you’re dressed, you go to work: Synthetic rubber from car tires and brake pads release small plastic particles as tires and brakes wear down. Inside the car, headliner fabric, seat fabric, steering wheels, the carpet, and the dashboard are all plastics. In your home, plastics make up insulation, fake wood polyethylene floors and patio furniture, polyester curtains, nylon carpet, and polypropylene parts on appliances and toys. Your couch might have a smooth, clear plastic polyurethane varnished wood holding up polyurethane foam cushions. Your computers and phones are cased in plastic too.
Being able to identify the plastics in our lives needs to start with awareness. That needs to be followed up with policies that require companies to list the materials in the products they sell. While microbeads continue to be a plastic problem, they are much more visible today through media campaigns and general awareness. As a consumer, you have a voice – let the companies you like know that you’re looking for plastic-free alternatives. Until we address these countless hidden plastics, we will continue to encounter these harmful particles in our air, water, and everything in between.
A brief list of some hidden plastics
Acrylic paint – acrylic
Backpacks, sports clothes – nylon, acrylic, polyester to name a few
Balloons/water-balloons – Mylar or latex with a crimped polypropylene ribbon
Boxed water/milk cartons/Tetrapaks/juice boxes – 6 layers of polyethylene, paper and aluminum
Can linings – steel and aluminum cans are lined with epoxy or other synthetic polymers often including BPA (bisphenol A)
Carpet – nylon with synthetic adhesive
Chewing gum – Polyethylene, Polyisobutylene Polyvinyl acetate
Computer housing – polycarbonate, ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene)
Credit cards and gift cards – many layers of different plastics, with the core being PVCA (polyvinyl chloride acetate)
Curtains/bedspreads – polyester, nylon
Electronics (wiring) – ranges widely from PVC (polyvinyl chloride), PET (polyethylene terephthalate), nylon, Teflon and others
Elmer’s Glue – poly vinyl acetate
Erasers – PVC (polyvinyl chloride) with phthalate plasticizers and calcium carbonate filler
Fake leather – PU (polyurethane) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride)
Fake wood decking – polyethylene
Fleece sweaters, blankets and “onesie” pajamas – polyester
Floss – Teflon or nylon
Furniture cushioning – PU (polyurethane) foam
Glitter – aluminum metallized PET (polyethylene terephthalate)
Helmets – EPS (expanded polystyrene) with nylon straps and PET (polyethylene terephthalate), ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), Kevlar shell defending on the quality
Home insulation – Styrofoam or PU (polyurethane)
Hot glue – ethylene-vinyl acetate-based polymer
House paint – acrylic
Laminates (on tables, flooring, furniture) – acrylic or PU (polyurethane) coatings
Nail polish – nitrocellulose dissolved in butyl acetate or ethyl acetate, among many other things
Paper cups – paper cups are lined with a thin layer of polyethylene film
Polymer sculpting clay – PVC (polyvinyl chloride) with a liquid plasticizer
Soles of your shoes – PU (polyurethane) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride)
Spandex – PU (polyurethane)
Sponges – polyester and PU (polyurethane)
Stretchy jeans – elastane (PU, or polyurethane)
Tape (Scotch tape/duct tape) – acrylate based polymers
Teabags – polyethylene, PET
Wetsuits – Neoprene (polychloroprene)
***There are variations within products, between brands and overtime in the materials used to manufacture products.
By Elizabeth Bigham and Anika Ballent