On Celtic Fairy Stuff
Preparing Your Canvas for a Watercolor Painting
Fabulous Fabrics Without Breaking the Bank
The Sun, Part II
Plastic FantasticHealthy Green Artists
by Janet Chui
Some people devote their entire college and working lives to the field of plastics. The stuff is everywhere. You're probably sitting on it, you're looking at it (this column brought to you by your plastic computer monitor!), you're breathing it in (I mean, really), you probably work with it. We can't run from it - some artists may even ask why we should. Acrylic paints are great, and potential works of art made from plastic are still out there for the discovering! Carpe plasticum!
By now, most people are aware that plastic does take a toll on the planet. Though some plastic-like materials do have organic origins (eg. cellulose, shellac), the synthetic subject of this column is the kind made from the finite and highly polluting petroleum. Plastic doesn't degrade in the landfills. It chokes waterways and natural habitats. (Currently, in the Pacific Ocean, there is six times more plastic than zooplankton on the surface of the ocean.) We know we're supposed to recycle our (recyclable) plastic waste, except only 5 percent of the plastic we use actually gets recycled, and with limited effectiveness. The manufacture, recycling, and destruction of plastic releases toxic fumes into our environment. We are also beginning to find out that some plastics outgas toxins and endocrine disruptors (affecting the normal function of our hormones and vital organs) throughout their normal life of use, making it arguable how safe plastics really are as everyday household objects - and artists' tools!
It might seem strange to put plastic in bad light considering its life-saving applications, but even taking the different varieties of plastic into account, the problem with all plastic is its persistence and pollution. I encourage readers to find out more about endocrine disruptors outside of this column if they are curious. For now, we're going to look at some little known characteristics of #3 plastic that are a health concern, and some of the myths about plastic recycling.
PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) is commonly used in plastic pipes, containers for detergents and salad dressings, some food wraps, and everything you know as vinyl. (PVC is Type #3 when you look at plastic with the recycling "chasing arrows" triangle symbol.) It is not accepted for recycling. PVC on its own is a very hard material, but we are used to encountering PVC with varying degrees of flexibility. The flexibility is produced by injecting plasticizers (with phthalates being the most common) in with the PVC. The softer the plastic, the more plastizers have been added. What should be alarming is that the endocrine-disrupting phthalates don't stay in the plastic, but are constantly leaching out. (If you've ever smelled that "new car smell" or melting plastic, you've smelled plasticizers. Those with chemical sensitivity will probably get a headache.) Some researchers believe we've not studied the long term and devastating health effects of PVC in our environment enough--these studies are ongoing and quite a bit scary, showing the irreversible damage to our brains, bodies, and developing children.
Plastic production is quite complicated, but another point worthy of notice is the stabilizers added to PVC. These are most commonly lead compounds (making that recent story about lead in children's lunchboxes not so hard to believe-- what should be more surprising is how much we still trust vinyl). Compounds made of cadmium (another hazardous material) are also used as plastic stabilizers.
Dioxins are also produced in the manufacture of PVC. Even at very low levels, these are highly toxic substances that cause cancer and other human illnesses. They accumulate in fatty cells in humans, affect embryos and fetuses in pregnant women, and are fed to babies in breast milk. Dioxins sicken the workers that work with the production of PVC, and the people living in the vicinity of PVC production (and some other highly toxic products that are manufactured--paper not excepted). Dioxins persist in the environment and can travel long distances, making them a global threat no one can run from. The smartest thing we can do now is discourage their production. Groups like GreenPeace calling for the global phase-out of this product have not been very successful. As consumers, however, we can have our say by not purchasing and encouraging the production of PVC, looking out for (and avoid) #3 plastic while you're at the store, and limiting our exposure to it in our workspaces.
To touch on the other plastics, the "chasing arrows" triangle was developed to encourage the recycling of plastic, and there are seven categories altogether. (Well, roughly. Type #7 means "other" and is meant to cover anything that doesn't fall under the other basic six.) #7 cannot be recycled at all, #1 through #5 can be recycled, but commonly only #1 and #2 are accepted for recycling because recycling #3 through #5 is too cost-prohibitive.
I saved #6 for last because we probably run into it most often in our daily lives: It's polystyrene, which comes as a solid in eating utensils, and also in its expanded form known as Styrofoam. In the wild, it's frequently the culprit found in the digestive systems of birds and fish, killing animals that mistake polystyrene particles for food. Polystyrene is not recycled, does not break down, and when you think about how ridiculously short a time most styrofoam objects are used (the 10 minutes it takes to drink your coffee or eat your party food, for example), their prevalent use seems very wasteful (and it is). And, as with PVC, there are particles that leach out of it into our food at even normal temperatures-- single molecules of styrene. In your body, these mimic estrogen and can (again!) disrupt hormone functions, possibly contributing to thyroid problems, menstrual irregularities, other hormone-related problems and cancers. Much as we try to avoid it, however, we will probably still wind up bringing it into our homes and offices. (Top recommendations: Avoid eating off styrofoam, heating it in the microwave, or using it long-term to store food. It's most dangerous with its food-related applications.)
Environmentally aware (or cheapskate) artists can safely delay styrofoam's trip to the landfill by employing it in the studio to hold our paint water (never use it to contain solvents or a medium you aren't sure about) and even water-based paint. I once had an art teacher who saved meat and vegetable trays from the grocery store for her students to use as disposable palettes in class. White is probably best. Don't eat your paint.
The field of plastics is big, and the information on plastics that is available out there can be daunting. While environmentalists believe they are mostly a bane on the planet, number-crunchers argue that plastics actually do not make up the majority of our trash (paper is still the biggest component in our garbage), and many disposable plastic items use less resources to make than their non-plastic alternatives. Recycling plastic often uses up the same resources it takes to make new plastic, if not more, and you'll see this point raised by those who are against plastic recycling. The information on the toxicity of plastics so far is somewhat small, but it is growing. Well, there is a way to avoid this whole tangled mess - use less plastic!
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