Interview on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters.
TRY TO go a day — scratch that, an hour — without touching plastic. Go on, bet you can’t do it. You won’t be able to lean on your laminated benchtop, brush your teeth, pick up your shampoo bottle, button your shirt, put clothes in the dryer, switch on the kettle, touch your computer keyboard or use the TV remote.
Forget grabbing the keys and jumping in the car. And you would probably go a little hungry, too. You couldn’t touch the fridge handle to get to the plastic-wrapped bacon, tub of yoghurt or juice bottle. The bread, looking so temptingly fresh in its bag, would be off limits too.
Susan Freinkel set herself this very task and found she lasted until she had to use the toilet, just seconds into her experimental day. So the American author instead decided to write down everything she touched made with plastic in all its forms (starting with her pen). By the end of the day she had filled four pages with a nowhere-near exhaustive list of 196 items … a cellophane-wrapped box of tea, vinyl dog leash, her sneakers, the sticker she peeled off an apple, the Lycra in her sports bra.
“I didn’t really contemplate what that would mean or how hard it might be until that morning … it opened my eyes to just how ubiquitous it was,” says Freinkel, a science journalist who has written a book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. “I thought about that experiment because I wanted to get a literal sense, a tactile sense, of how pervasive plastic was. But, even so, I didn’t really grasp just how completely permeated my life was by plastic until I did that. It’s so omnipresent in our lives that you just overlook it.”
To go a normal day without touching this man-made marvel, you would pretty much have to live in the early 1900s, before World War II’s voracious appetite for scarce resources opened the floodgates on plastic products. (A few, such as PVC and polystyrene, were actually “discovered” in the 1800s, but the materials weren’t viewed as having any purpose for decades).
In Melbourne, Gina Prendergast has gone one very big step further. She has set herself the daunting task of living one year without buying anything using “virgin” plastic. Under her self-imposed rules, recycled plastic is OK at a pinch and, if she has to buy something new, she has to keep the container for a year so that it doesn’t become part of the waste stream. (She plans to make a sculpture with it when the year is up, and maybe auction it for charity.)
“Where I drew the line was (that) I don’t create individual demand and my dollar isn’t going towards supporting virgin plastic being created,” Prendergast says. Complicating the task is that the 32-year-old fell pregnant about the same time she decided to embark on the challenge, prompting her partner to suggest she put the idea on hold until the messy, tiring baby years were behind her. But she was undeterred.
Where Freinkel’s experiment was driven by simple curiosity, the trigger for Prendergast’s decision was watching documentaries about the destruction plastic was wreaking on ocean life and society’s poor. “I hadn’t realised that by purchasing plastic I was also participating in something that was destroying people’s lives — people that live near plastic factories, the diseases they were suffering,” she says.
One BBC documentary opened her eyes to the amorphous, mysterious Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a pool of debris that stretches across the centre of the North Pacific Ocean. While much of the floating junk is below the surface and can’t be seen by satellite — no use looking on Google Maps — the Pacific patch is choking untold wildlife as it circulates in the currents of the North Pacific gyre. Another patch containing these small pieces of broken-down plastic debris (up to 200,000 pieces concentrated in a square kilometre) was located last year in the North Atlantic.
Prendergast, who lives in Tarneit in Melbourne’s outer west, started her year without much planning but says she hasn’t had to make significant life changes — though she does have to be more organised, less impulsive and less wasteful. Hosting dinner parties takes more work because she can’t buy commercial dips, cheese and crackers as appetisers.
She will mourn the last of her now irreplaceable mascara and has also found that freezing bread and other foods is no longer an option, unless she can scrounge a second-hand bag.
But, six months in, the New Zealand native has not lost her enthusiasm and, as a bonus, reckons she feels healthier and has even experienced relief from a digestive disorder. She is not sure why, but assumes it’s because she has been forced to shop at farmers’ markets and been steered towards whole and less processed foods.
“I haven’t seen it change my life a lot, other than I do have to put a bit more thinking time and preparation into getting things, acquiring things, but what that’s often meant is I’ve learned to live without a little bit more,” says Prendergast, a team leader at NAB and volunteer with the Australian Conservation Foundation.
“For me, any plastic bag that I come across that’s second-hand and someone else doesn’t want, the value of that has gone up. That plastic bag is not waste to me any more; it can provide a huge convenience for me and I look after it.”
Her small legion of Facebook followers has been a valuable source of inspiration and advice, providing recipes for toothpaste and pointing her in the right direction for deodorant bars and bamboo toothbrushes. She takes her own container and tongs to the butcher. She is using olive oil from a four-litre tin to replace her body moisturiser and as hair treatment, and has purchased “soap nuts” to wash her clothes and — soon — make her own shampoo. Apparently it will only take 15 minutes to whip up a batch.
When the year is up, Prendergast reckons she’ll maintain most of her newfound habits but will accept 5 per cent sneaking back into her life — sanitary products, food in cans (with their plastic lining) and vitamins.
FREINKEL is not on any crusade. In her view, plastic is neither all good nor all bad: it is simply a material. “How we use it determines whether it’s a good use or a bad use; how you make it determines whether it’s a problem or not … when you put it into things that are meant to last a long time, I have less trouble with that,” she says. “I’m not advocating giving up plastics. I’m just advocating using it in a more thoughtful fashion.”
Plastics “democratised” previously scarce or costly consumer goods and allowed the world to indulge in the culture of disposability to which we are now addicted. It is an extremely useful and versatile product — think plastic buckets, or nasal-gastric tubes — but we use it in too many “dumb” and toxic ways. One of the worst is that we treat too much of this durable material as disposable — use once, throw away, repeat many times daily — when we should treat it like a limited resource and recycle as much as possible.
Freinkel thinks cars, computers, even fridges, should not be stripped only for their valuable parts. The abundant plastic they carry should also be returned to the production cycle. “When it really becomes a problem is when you’re talking about all the throw-away stuff, and the trouble is that accounts for about half of all the plastic that’s consumed. It goes into single-use applications, some of which are really trivial.” Like wrapping the outside of a CD cover, or the neck of an already airtight jar.
“One of the examples I’ve talked about with people is Styrofoam. It’s a great insulator; it’s a really durable material, great for insulating, so when you take Styrofoam and put it in a house it’s actually considered an environmentally preferred material. But when you take Styrofoam and you put it into a single-use coffee cup, that’s going to be a problem because the cup you throw away never goes away.”
She makes some sobering observations: The world has produced almost as much plastic in the past decade as we did for the whole of last century. It’s claimed world consumption has exploded to about 100 million tonnes a year. In the space of a generation, the average American has gone from consuming about 13kg of plastic items a year to 10 times that — about 136kg. Each Australian churns through about half that amount.
More disturbing, but not all that surprising, is that “humans are just a little plastic now”. “Just as plastics changed the essential texture of modern life, so they are altering the basic chemistry of our bodies,” Freinkel says in her book.
PLASTIC has been with us since the 1830s, when a German apothecary discovered polystyrene — but it would be another 80 years before the world started to understand what it had in its hands. However, English inventor Alexander Parkes is credited with the first plastic — Parkesine — a cellulose-based material he created in the 1850s that held its shape until it was heated.
It was assumed, as our post-war love affair with plastics began to flourish, that it was inert, safe. Then, in the late 1960s, scientists discovered that a key chemical used to make PVC pliable — a phthalate — was leaching into humans from medical devices (such as blood transfusion bags) and everyday plastic products.
It turns out that phthalates, which are now being phased out of products in the US and Europe, easily leach into food and the atmosphere, especially in warmer conditions. It taints most homes and is lurking in cosmetics and body-care products, toys, erasers, vinyl flooring, shower curtains — even in the coating on some medications.
The chemical has been linked to asthma and allergies, and as an endocrine disrupter it can, in high doses, interfere with hormones and foetal development.
A 2009 Swedish study on indoor pollution and childhood allergies accidentally found a link between PVC flooring in bedrooms and autism.
Last year, Australia banned the import and sale of toys and infant products that contained more than 1 per cent of the most common type of this “plasticiser” — DEHP, or diethylhexyl phthalate — because of “international research linking it to reproductive difficulties”.
“I think we’re kind of in the midst of a big uncontrolled experiment and we don’t really know what the implications are,” Freinkel says. “It may well be that some of the chemicals that people are very concerned about now may actually pan out not to be so dangerous, but the thing is we don’t know.
“Some of these chemicals seem to have delayed effects and transgenerational effects (so) the fear is you’re going to see things show up when today’s children become adults. People look at the rise of all these various chronic diseases — cancer, heart disease, asthma, attention deficit problems, allergies — and they track the steady rise of these diseases over the last 50 years, and it is the same timespan where synthetic chemicals have become so much more part of everyday products.”
While the medical industry has decided the benefits of blood and IV vinyl bags outweigh the uncertain long-term impact on human health, Freinkel argues this is the sort of area where governments should be more vigilant and manufacturers more long-sighted and community-minded — especially because many industrial chemicals are in common use not because they have been proved to be safe, but because it has not been proved they are unsafe.
Unlike the choices conscientious individuals can make when buying furniture and groceries, says Freinkel, items such as medical devices are ones “you cannot shop your way out of”.
“You have to have policies that require manufacturers to demonstrate safety of their chemicals, and I don’t think you could ever be utterly certain that every chemical produced is safe for health and to the environment. But we could do a lot better job than we’re doing at screening the chemicals that go into commerce.”
Widespread consumer concern about another common plastics chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), prompted the Canadian government to ban it recently and the European Union to prohibit its use in baby bottles. Australia is monitoring it but has not imposed any bans nor mandatory standards on products made with BPA.
The chemical is deemed an environmental oestrogen and can disrupt the body’s hormones. BPA can leach from microwaved plastic containers, from water bottles, the lining of food and drink cans, and polycarbonate tableware. It is even found on the thermal paper used for receipts and cinema tickets. Early exposure has been linked to obesity and breast cancer.
Contact with BPA can be difficult to avoid and there has been some concern about the effects of high levels on infant brain development, memory, mood and behaviour, and female fertility.
According to Product Safety Australia, it is found in trace amounts in breast milk. Studies have estimated that 90 per cent of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their urine. Even so, Australia has decided not to follow overseas examples and ban it in baby bottles because “dietary modelling showed that a 5kg baby would need to drink around 80 bottles of formula a day every day for many years before it would get up to the safety limit”.
However, tests by consumer watchdog Choice last year found significant levels of BPA in some canned products, and reported that a 10kg baby could potentially ingest 10 per cent of its daily safe limit in one meal.
In May, Food Standards Australia New Zealand released the results of tests conducted on 65 foods and drinks packaged in glass, paper, plastic and cans to see whether there had been any chemical leaching. “The survey results were very reassuring with no detections of phthalates, perfluorinated compounds, semicarbazide, acrylonitrile or vinyl chloride in food samples,” it said.
IT IS impossible to live a normal life that avoids all plastic. Even if you scrupulously avoid packaged food and anything that comes in plastic containers, there are non-negotiable items needed for everyday work and life, such as telephones, keycards and computers.
It is possible to be allergic to plastic — usually to the chemicals added in their manufacture to make the product more flexible or durable. Some people report contact dermatitis or mouth ulcers, and a few retail websites have sprung up (including Life Without Plastic) selling non-synthetic items such as food storage containers and baby products. (Prendergast has been disconcerted to find that orders of plastic-free products are sometimes delivered to her door packaged in . . . you guessed it.)
Prendergast may be experimenting with self-deprivation for a year, but there are some hardy souls in the blogosphere who have decided to make a stand against the global tide of consumerism by living a resolutely plastic-free life. It is not for the faint-hearted.
Californian woman Beth Terry — she blogs at My PlasticFree Life — washes her hair with a mixture of vinegar and baking soda, carries wooden utensils in case she is offered disposable cutlery when she goes out for a meal, has to remember to specify “no straw” when ordering a drink, and avoids food in glass jars if she knows the metal lid is lined with plastic. But even she can’t eradicate plastics from her life. She has been doing this since 2007 and has whittled down her consumption to between 45g and 200g a month. Pet food scoops, plastic envelope windows and medicine bottles continue to bedevil her.
While it might seem that such a stance is doomed in a world drowning in convenient consumer goods, Freinkel believes the efforts of people such as Prendergast and Terry can have a blossoming community impact.
“They point the direction for all of us,” she says. “I don’t think that the problems that we face with plastic can be solved by individuals but I think individual actions are useful and can have power. It can be a catalyst and the market can respond.”
Books and blogs won’t change the world, but Freinkel hopes she can “start a conversation” about how we each consume plastics. “I think we’re reaching a tipping point and either we deal with these problems or we face some pretty serious consequences,” she says of the explosion in plastic production and waste.
“I don’t think we have to accept a world in which we are inevitably threatened by the everyday products we use. I really think we ought to have a manufacturing process and policies that support a process in which what goes into the marketplace is screened and found safe for health and the environment.”
Having written her book, she is both more appreciative and more concerned about plastics than she used to be. It has made her more careful about the choices and purchases she makes and she is more diligent about recycling.
“It does get to you.”
>> Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, by Susan Freinkel, Text Publishing, $34.95.
>> To read more about Gina Prendergast’s experiment, and for tips on how to reduce the use of plastics, visit facebook.com/APlasticFreeYear or APlasticFreeYear.Blogspot.com
1907 The first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, made from coal tar.
1920 Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) developed as a cheaper alternative to natural rubber.
1920s The word “plastic” starts to become more widely used
1932 Polyethylene developed. It’s now used in billions of plastic bottles and bags.
1938 Teflon developed.
1939 Nylon changes fashion.
1954 Scientists create Styrofoam from petrol-based polystyrene.
1965 Kevlar, five times stronger than steel, developed.
1979 Polarfleece is developed for light, warm winter gear.