Do we need a national plastics control law?

20 10 2010

John Wargo wears at least three hats:  he is a professor of environmental policy, risk analysis, and political science at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he chairs the Environmental Studies Major at Yale College, and is an advisor to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  He published this opinion on plastics in the United States last year – and I couldn’t have said it better myself:

Since 1950, plastics have quickly and quietly entered the lives and bodies of most people and ecosystems on the planet. In the United States alone, more than 100 billion pounds of resins are formed each year into food and beverage packaging, electronics, building products, furnishings, vehicles, toys, and medical devices. In 2007, the average American purchased more than 220 pounds of plastic, creating nearly $400 billion in sales.

It is now impossible to avoid exposure to plastics. They surround and pervade our homes, bodies, foods, and water supplies, from the plastic diapers and polyester pajamas worn by our children as well as our own sheets, clothing and upholstery,  to the cars we drive and the frying pans in which we cook our food.

The ubiquitous nature of plastics is a significant factor in an unexpected side effect of 20th century prosperity — a change in the chemistry of the human body. Today, most individuals carry in their bodies a mixture of metals, pesticides, solvents, fire retardants, waterproofing agents, and by-products of fuel combustion, according to studies of human tissues conducted across the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children often carry higher concentrations than adults, with the amounts also varying according to gender and ethnicity. Many of these substances are recognized by the governments of the United States and the European Union to be carcinogens, neurotoxins, reproductive and developmental toxins, or endocrine disruptors that mimic or block human hormones.

Significantly, these chemicals were once thought to be safe at doses now known to be hazardous; as with other substances, the perception of danger grew as governments tested chemicals more thoroughly. Such is the case with Bisphenol-A (BPA), the primary component of hard and clear polycarbonate plastics, which people are exposed to daily through water bottles, baby bottles, and the linings of canned foods.

Given the proven health threat posed by some plastics, the scatter shot and weak regulation of the plastics industry, and the enormous environmental costs of plastics — the plastics industry accounts for 5 percent of the nation’s consumption of petroleum and natural gas, and more than 1 trillion pounds of plastic wastes now sit in U.S. garbage dumps — the time has come to pass a comprehensive national plastics control law.

One might assume the United States already has such a law. Indeed, Congress adopted the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976 intending to manage chemicals such as those polymers used to form plastics. Yet TSCA was and is fundamentally flawed for several reasons that have long been obvious. Nearly 80,000 chemicals are now traded in global markets, and Congress exempted nearly 60,000 of them from TSCA testing requirements. Among 20,000 new compounds introduced since the law’s passage, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued permits for all except five, but has required intensive reviews for only 200. This means that nearly all chemicals in commerce have been poorly tested to determine their environmental behavior or effects on human health. The statute’s ineffectiveness has been recognized for decades, yet Congress, the EPA, and manufacturers all share blame for the failure to do anything about it.

In contrast, the European Union in 2007 adopted a new directive known as “REACH” that requires the testing of both older and newly introduced chemicals. Importantly the new regulations create a burden on manufacturers to prove safety; under TSCA the burden rests on EPA to prove danger, and the agency has never taken up the challenge. Unless the U.S. chooses to adopt similar restrictions, U.S. chemical manufacturers will face barriers to their untested exports intended for European markets. Thus the chemical industry itself recognizes the need to harmonize U.S. and EU chemical safety law.

The most promising proposal for reform in the U.S. is the “Kid-Safe Chemical Act,” a bill first introduced in 2008 that would require industry to show that chemicals are safe for children before they are added to consumer products. Such a law is needed because there is little doubt that the growing burden of synthetic chemicals has been accompanied by an increase in the prevalence of many illnesses during the past half-century. These include respiratory diseases (such as childhood asthma), neurological impairments, declining sperm counts, fertility failure, immune dysfunction, breast and prostate cancers, and developmental disorders among the young. Some of these illnesses are now known to be caused or exacerbated by exposure to commercial chemicals and pollutants.

Few people realize how pervasive plastics have become. Most homes constructed since 1985 are wrapped in plastic film such as Tyvek, and many exterior shells are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) siding. Some modern buildings receive water and transport wastes via PVC pipes. Wooden floors are coated with polyurethane finishes and polyvinyl chloride tiles.

Foods and beverages are normally packaged in plastic, including milk bottles made from high-density polyethylene. Most families have at least one “non-stick” pan, often made from Teflon, a soft polymer that can scratch and hitchhike on foods to the dinner table. Between 1997 and 2005, annual sales of small bottles of water — those holding less than one liter — increased from 4 billion to nearly 30 billion bottles.

The billions of video games, computers, MP3 players, cameras, and cell phones purchased each year in the United States use a wide variety of plastic resins. And the almost 7.5 million new vehicles sold in the United States each year contain 2.5 billion pounds of plastic components, which have little hope of being recycled, especially if made from polyvinyl chloride or polycarbonate.  The American Plastics Council now estimates that only about 5 percent of all plastics manufactured are recycled; 95 billion pounds are discarded on average yearly.

The chemical contents of plastics have always been a mystery to consumers. Under federal law, ingredients need not be labeled, and most manufacturers are unwilling or unable to disclose these contents or their sources. Indeed, often the only clue consumers have to the chemical identity of the plastics they use is the voluntary resin code designed to identify products that should and should not be recycled — but it offers little usable information.

The true costs of plastics — including the energy required to manufacture them, the environmental contamination caused by their disposal, their health impacts, and the recycling and eventual disposal costs — are not reflected in product prices.  Adding to the environmental toll, most plastic is produced from natural gas and petroleum products, exacerbating global warming.

Plastics and Human Health

The controversy over BPA — the primary component of hard and clear plastics — and its potential role in human hormone disruption provides the most recent example of the need for a national plastics control law.

Normal growth and development among fetuses, infants, children, and adolescents is regulated in the body by a diverse set of hormones that promote or inhibit cell division. More than a thousand chemicals are now suspected of affecting normal human hormonal activity. These include many pharmaceuticals, pesticides, plasticizers, solvents, metals, and flame retardants.

Scientists’ growing interest in hormone disruption coincided with a consensus within the National Academy of Sciences that children are often at greater risk of health effects than adults because of their rapidly growing but immature organ systems, hormone pathways, and metabolic systems. And many forms of human illness associated with abnormal hormonal activity have become more commonplace during the past several decades, including infertility, breast and prostate cancer, and various neurological problems.

BPA illustrates well the endocrine disruption problem. Each year several billion pounds of BPA are produced in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found, in results consistent with those found in other countries, that 95 percent of human urine samples tested have measurable BPA levels. BPA has also been detected in human serum, breast milk, and maternal and fetal plasma. BPA travels easily across the placenta, and levels in many pregnant women and their fetuses were similar to those found in animal studies to be toxic to the reproductive organs of the animals’ male and female offspring.

Government scientists believe that the primary source of human BPA exposure is foods, especially those that are canned, as BPA-based epoxy resins can migrate from the resins into the foods. In 1997, the FDA found that BPA migrated from polycarbonate water containers — such as the five-gallon water jugs found in offices — into water at room temperature and that concentrations increased over time. Another study reported that boiling water in polycarbonate bottles increased the rate of migration by up to 55-fold, suggesting that it would be wise to avoid filling polycarbonate baby bottles with boiling water to make infant formula from powders.

Scientists have reported BPA detected in nonstick-coated cookware, PVC stretch film used for food packaging, recycled paperboard food boxes, and clothing treated with fire retardants.

Since 1995 numerous scientists have reported that BPA caused health effects in animals that were similar to diseases becoming more prevalent in humans, abnormal penile or urethra development in males, obesity and type 2 diabetes, and immune system disorders. BPA can bind with estrogen receptors in cell membranes following part-per-trillion doses — exposures nearly 1,000 times lower than the EPA’s recommended acceptable limit.

In 2007, the National Institutes of Health convened a panel of 38 scientists to review the state of research on BPA-induced health effects. The panel, selected for its independence from the plastics industry, issued a strong warning about the chemical’s hazards:

“There is chronic, low level exposure of virtually everyone in developed countries to BPA… The wide range of adverse effects of low doses of BPA in laboratory animals exposed both during development and in adulthood is a great cause for concern with regard to the potential for similar adverse effects in humans.”

The American Chemistry Council, which advocates for the plastics industry, has criticized most scientific research that has reported an association between BPA and adverse health effects. The council’s complaints have included claims that sample sizes are too small, that animals are poor models for understanding hazards to humans, that doses administered in animal studies are normally far higher than those experienced by humans, that the mechanism of chemical action is poorly understood, and that health effects among those exposed are not necessarily “adverse.”

Research on plastics, however, now comprises a large and robust literature reporting adverse health effects in laboratory animals and wildlife at even low doses. Claims of associations between BPA and hormonal activity in humans are strengthened by consensus that everyone is routinely exposed and by the rising incidence of many human diseases similar to those induced in animals dosed with the chemical. Two competing narratives — one forwarded by independent scientists and the other promoted by industry representatives — have delayed government action to protect the health of citizens through bans or restrictions.

Action Needed

How has the plastics industry escaped serious regulation by the federal government, especially since other federally regulated sectors that create environmental or health risks such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides, motor vehicles, and tobacco have their own statutes? In the case of plastics, Congress instead has been content with limited federal regulatory responsibility, now fractured among at least four agencies: the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. None of these agencies has demanded pre-market testing of plastic ingredients, none has required ingredient labeling or warnings on plastic products, and none has limited production, environmental release, or human exposure. As a result, the entire U.S. population continues to be exposed to hormonally active chemicals from plastics without their knowledge or consent.

What should be done? The Kids Safe Chemical Act represents a comprehensive solution that would apply to all commercial chemicals including plastic ingredients. Yet the nation’s chemical companies, with their enormous political power, are not likely to agree to assume the testing costs, nor are they likely to accept a health protective standard. Rather than pass another weak statute, Congress should consider a stronger alternative.

The nation needs a comprehensive plastics control law, just as we have national laws to control firms that produce other risky products, such as pesticides. Key elements of a national plastics policy should include:

  • tough  government regulations that demand pre-market testing and prohibit chemicals that do not quickly degrade into harmless compounds. Exempting previously permitted ingredients from this evaluation makes little sense, as older chemicals have often been proven more dangerous than newer ones.
  • The chemical industry itself needs to replace persistent and hazardous chemicals with those that are proven to be safe.  Plastics ingredients found to pose a significant threat to the environment or human health should be quickly phased out of production. Congress chose this approach to manage pesticide hazards, and it has proven to be reasonably effective since the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996.
  • Federal redemption fees for products containing plastics should be set at levels tied to chemical persistence, toxicity, and production volume. These fees should be high enough that consumers have a strong incentive to recycle.
  • We need mandatory labeling of plastic ingredients, in order to allow consumers to make responsible choices in the marketplace.
  • Finally, manufacturers should take responsibility for cleaning up environmental contamination from the more than one trillion pounds of plastic wastes they have produced over the past 50 years.
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Plastics – part 2: Why recycling is not the answer

5 05 2010

In Plastics, Part 1 (last week’s post; click here to read it) I tried to give a summary of why plastics are not such a good thing.  The Plastic Pollution coalition has a list of basic concepts about plastic.  Click here to read the expanded version:

  • Plastic is forever
  • Plastic is poisoning our food chain
  • Plastic affects human health
  • Recycling is not a sustainable solution

Yet there seems to be no end to our demand for plastics.   In one year alone, from 1995 – 96, plastic packaging increased by 1,000,000,000 lbs.  And despite recycling efforts, for every 1 ton increase in plastic recycling, there was a 14 ton increase in new plastic production.

I tried to explain some of the roadblocks to plastic recycling efforts.   We have all heard that recycling is good for the environment,  and it’s hard to argue with the intuitively correct reasoning that if we recycle we reduce our dependence on foreign oil, we conserve energy and emissions and we keep bottles out of the landfills.

And what about the lighter weight of plastic bottles?  Surely there are benefits in shipping lighter weight bottles  – giving plastic bottles a lower overall carbon footprint?  Well, here’s the thing:  there are environmental trade offs, just like in life.  Even if we accept that plastics are more carbon efficient than alternative materials (glass) in transportation, we’re still talking about vast amounts of carbon emissions.  Plastics use releases at least 100 million tons of CO2 – some say as much as 500 million tons – into the atmosphere each year.  That’s the equivalent of the annual emissions from 10 – 45% of all U.S. drivers.  Plastic manufacturing also contributes 14% of the national total of toxic (i.e., other than CO2) releases to our atmosphere; producing a 16 oz PET bottle generates more than 100 times the amount of toxic emissions than does making the same size in glass.  But the critical point is that it’s definitely cheaper to ship liquids in plastic rather than in glass.  And it’s also cheaper for manufacturers to use virgin plastic than a recycled plastic.

These rather alarming CO2 numbers could be much lower, we understand, if only Americans recycled more than the paltry 7% of plastic which is recycled today.  We could cut our usage of virgin material by one third – and that means an annual savings of 30 to 150 million tons of CO2.

So why aren’t Americans recycling more?  Although our plastic consumption has grown by a factor of 30 since the 1960s, recycling has grown by a factor of just two.  Is this just because we don’t take the time to separate recyclable plastics from general waste, or because we don’t take the time to throw the bottle into the proper recycling bin?  What about companies that use the plastic – they are not clamoring to spend more to use recycled plastic (again that bugaboo “cost”) so they continue to demand virgin plastic.

When Rhode Island enacted comprehensive recycling legislation in 1986, including bans on plastic bottles – the plastic industry responded by introducing their resin codes, in part (some say) to deflect attention from the virgin polyester production and encourage an environmental spin on the plastics.  The plastics industry’s  “chasing arrows” symbol surrounding a number (those resin codes) were “deliberately misleading” according to Daniel Knapp, director of Berkeley’s Urban Ore.  “The plastics industry has wrought intentional confusion with that symbol”, said Bill Sheehan, director of GrassRoots Recycling Network.  Unlike glass and aluminum, plastic has no system for recycling – no infrastructure to sell it, no markets to buy it, no facilities to make it.  “In short, the arrows led nowhere.”(1)

According to many, these codes just gave plastic an environmental patina, which the industry was quick to use.  “Several states have postponed or backed off from restrictive packaging legislation as a result of the voluntary coding system” – this gleeful statement from a 1988 newsletter of the Council on Plastics and Packaging in the Environment.

The industry’s critics say that it won’t do anything to support recycling.  Mel Weiss, an independent plastics broker, sees the industry focused on PR and not at all interested in recycling.  He says:  “the American Plastics Council (APC), a trade group representing virgin-resin producers, won’t do anything to support recycling. If they had a choice between selling one pound of virgin and 22 tons of recycled, they’d sell the virgin. All they’re doing is masking what they’re doing with an expensive ad campaign.”

Here’s the irony:  it was the veneer of recyclability – cultivated by the plastics industry – that led to this explosion of plastic use.

The plastics industry, spearheaded by the American Plastics Council (APC), has sponsored campaigns to convince the public that recycling is easy, economical and a big success.  They are a “responsible choice in a more environmentally conscious world”, according to the APC.  Between November 1992 and July 1993, the APC spent $18 million in a national advertising campaign to “Take Another Look at Plastics.” (Environmental Defense Fund, October 21, 1997, “Something to hide: The sorry state of plastics recycling.”)  Examples of how plastics “leave a lighter footprint on the planet” include the argument that plastic grocery bags are lighter and create less waste by volume than paper sacks, the industry said. And the fact that plastics are so lightweight and durable enables manufacturers to use less energy and generate less waste in production processes, plastic promoters said.

In addition to the American Plastics Council, the American Chemical Council (ACC) also spends millions to defend the chemicals produced by their members to make plastics. – including lobbying against any bills that would add a few cents to each bag or bottle to encourage returns and recycling efforts.    According to Lisa Kaas Boyle, Board Member of Heal the Bay, the ACC has hired the same advisors who defended the tobacco industry to formulate a strategy to promote and defend the petrochemical industry.  That strategy is based on preventing legislation to curtail single use plastics  (SUPs – i.e., soda bottles etc.) and to generate positive press on the promotion of recycling as the solution to plastic pollution.  This approach makes the industry look environmental while continuing with business as usual.

Because most manufacturers don’t take back their products, there’s often little opportunity to sell collected plastic. It is true that the West Coast  is blessed with domestic and overseas markets that have made recycling of #1 and #2 plastics – soda bottles and milk jugs – somewhat easier. But even here, metals and paper are the real money-makers.

“Plastics is the least profitable part of the business,” said Kevin McCarthy, regional recycling manager at Waste Management Inc.,  “and it may not even be fair to say that it is profitable at all.”

Like McCarthy’s operation, many recyclers will collect plastic only to meet contractual requirements from government agencies. The impetus to collect certain types of plastic comes from residents. But these plastics often have no market for reuse. Recyclers call it “junk plastic,”  – stuff that gets collected only “because residents wanted it collected because they watched the commercials on TV extolling the recyclability of plastic,” said one recycling official who insisted on anonymity.

In Europe, plastic recycling rates hover around 16.5%, largely because there are strict regulations from Europe’s “End of Life Directive”, in which manufacturers must take more responsibility for the processing of waste from their products.  In the U.S., efforts come largely from voluntary programs within companies, such as Wal Mart’s campaign to reduce the size of packages and increase their use of recycled materials.   The  U.S. government is highly unlikely to enact recycling legislation.  We in Seattle  voted last summer on a citizen sponsored plastic bag tax (we called it a fee)  of $0.20 per disposable bag coupled with a ban on Styrofoam.  The American Chemistry Council spent more than $1.4 million to defeat the bill – and they succeeded.

One aspect of recycling which is little known to consumers is the fact that almost all of the plastics we recycle, regardless of type, end up in China, where worker safety standards are virtually nonexistent and materials are sorted and processed under dirty, primitive conditions. The economics surrounding plastic recycling — unlike those for glass and aluminum — make it a dubious venture for U.S. companies.

(1)  Dan Rademacher, “Manufacturing a Myth: The plastics recycling ploy”, Terrain Magazine, Winter 1999