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Speaking of plastics

One of my favorite sources for news from the sciences is EurekAlert!, which today posted “Perils of plastics: Risks to human health and the environment,” describing the results of a survey of existing literature done by Rolf Halden (an associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University and assistant director of Environmental Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute) on the impact of plastics on human health and the environment.

I’m assuming everyone knows by now that BPA is bad for you (something that was actually known for decades before the FDA officially acknowledged it this year). And phthalates are bad news, too (most of the recent coverage of this was focused on how it is used a lot on soft plastic items given to babies). Who knows how safe all the rest of that stuff is? It turns out that studying the impact of plastics on human health is difficult because it is hard to find good controls, particularly for long-term low exposure. Because there is so much plastic out there, and has been for so long, that it is almost impossible to find anyone who hasn’t been exposed.

Here’s the part I want to highlight in terms of sustainability:

Halden explains that while plastics have legitimate uses of benefit to society, their brazen misuse has led to a radically unsustainable condition. “Today, there’s a complete mismatch between the useful lifespan of the products we consume and their persistence in the environment.” Prominent examples of offending products are the ubiquitous throwaway water bottles, Teflon-coated dental floss and cotton swabs made with plastic PVC sticks. All are typically used for a matter of seconds or minutes, yet are essentially non-biodegradable and will persist in the environment, sometimes for millennia.

Emphasis mine. Plastics are useful! They can do things other materials can’t! But 8% of all petroleum goes into making plastics, so it seems like – if we’re going to use it at all – we ought to use that resource a little more thoughtfully. And non-toxicly.

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