War on Plastic: Rejecting the Toxic Plague

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War on Plastic: Rejecting the Toxic Plague
By Jan Lundberg
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Sunday 07 February 2005

Plastic as toxic trash is barely an issue with health advocates,
environmentalists, and even those of us looking toward the
post-petroleum world. Instead, "recycling" and future "bioplastics"
distract people from keeping plastic out of their lives. As the
evidence from our trashed oceans and damage to human health mounts,
plastic can no longer be conveniently ignored. The days of naive trust
and denial need to be put behind us, and a war on plastics declared now.

Fortunately, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors has before it a
first-in-the-nation bag-fee ordinance; the vote is this Tuesday. All
major grocery stores would charge customers 17 cents for every
shopping bag, plastic as well as paper. Although the logic and the
follow through seem well designed, much pressure is being put on the
Supervisors to reject the ordinance. (An action alert is at the end of
this article.)

Litter bothers all of us, and a smaller number of us worry about
petroleum used for dubious purposes in an age of war for oil and
global warming caused by fossil fuels. Some of us have learned how the
plastic disaster in the middle of the Pacific, for example, has
resulted in death for millions of creatures who confuse the
toxin-laden plastic particles with krill and plankton. But the cost to
humans in general is maybe the bigger story yet to hit.

One recently discovered principle about exposure to toxic
chemicals is that very low concentrations can trigger worse damage in
many individuals than larger exposures, in part due to the sensitivity
of our genes. Also, potency is not possible to predict when various
plastics' chemicals combine in our bodies and cause synergistic
reactions later on.

Today's extreme dependence on plastics can easily be acknowledged.
They are pervasive, cheap, effective, and even "essential." The list
of plastic types goes far beyond what we can start listing off the top
of our heads. If a product or solid synthetic material is not clearly
wood or metal, chances are it is plastic - almost entirely from
petroleum. Computers, telephones, cars, boats, teflon cookery, toys,
packaging, kitchen appliances and tools, and imitations of a multitude
of natural items, are but part of the world of plastics. Living
without them would seem unthinkable. However, these plastics are
essential to what? Answer: essential to a lifestyle that is fleeting -
historically speaking.

There are people who say they cannot live without something, and
those who yearn to do so. People think it is a matter of choice.
However, when the coming petroleum supply crunch hits and cannot be
alleviated by more production - world extraction is soon passing its
peak - a combination of factors will deprive global consumers of the
constant flow of new products now taken for granted. Therefore, we
will not have a choice when we must suddenly start doing without. The
supply of petroleum products such as plastics will dry up thanks to
the extreme market response that we can anticipate as soon as geologic
reality triggers panic. The peak of oil extraction is imminent, with
natural gas to follow soon after. Most plastic bags are made from
natural gas (methane).

The ongoing use and "disposal" of plastics is a health disaster
because we are never rid of the stuff. All the plastic that's ever
been produced is still with us today ... unless, of course, it has
been incinerated, which spews a plethora of toxic substances into the
air. But wait, hasn't there been progress? Plastic grocery sacks are
40 per cent lighter today than they were in 1976, and plastic trash
bags are 50 per cent lighter today than in the 1970s. However, growth
of the market cancels out any gains, and plastic's pollution just
accumulates, whether in the air, water or soil - or our bodies. On
many a tropical island beach where plastic junk outnumbers shells,
paradise is clearly trashed by modern "convenience." What is unseen is
the bioaccumulation of the inherent and hydrophobic toxins adhering to
plastics that goes up the food chain to us, even in Kansas eventually.

Most North Americans urinate plastics. Sperm counts are at an
historic per capita low. Cancer is an epidemic. Birth deformities, sex
organ abnormalities and eventual cancers are becoming more common -
all traceable to certain chemical exposures to the fetus. If the human
race is not driven extinct by nuclear holocaust or complete distortion
of the climate, it may happen through wonderful plastic and other
petrochemicals. The latter is an "unscientific" assertion, but later
in this report we provide some evidence to give everyone pause.

A movement to spearhead the fight against plastics is forming now.
While there have been municipal bans of polystyrene (styrofoam), the
plastics/petroleum industry has had a free ride at the expense of the
health of the planet and our bodies. While endocrine disruptors and
estrogen imitators have been targeted by researchers and
public-spirited writers and health organizations, government has done
next to nothing as it bows down to industry interests. The War on
Plastic will encompass not just a few "problem chemicals" or "the
worst plastics," because they are all bad in at least some single way.
We must reject the entire toxic petroleum plague to our fullest
capability, beginning now.

In California, to complement the Campaign Against the Plastic
Plague formed this year in southern California, we at Culture Change
have joined this effort with a northern California emphasis. One of
our first projects is to support the San Francisco bag fee. We are
visiting more Californian communities to promote bag fees and bans on
certain plastics. Next, the whole state. We will face increasing
opposition. (Once again the petroleum industry will be unhappy with
Jan Lundberg, formerly called "the Oracle" by Chevron's vice
chairman). But when our rationale and data are considered, almost no
one will be able to turn away and ignore the issues.

Waiting for technology to save the lifestyle of using unlimited
plastics, by having bioplastics replace the petroleum, is no help. We
find that after studying the problems with plant-based replacements
(see section above the action alert), and seeing the examples of other
environmental problems saddled with non-solutions, fundamental change
is the only reasonable approach. Such change will address the whole -
our social system, the ecosystem and the economy - instead of spinning
our wheels on the ineffectual reforms of mere symptoms of our
extremely wasteful society.

Science Misleads in the Cancer Game

The ubiquitous presence of plastics is already killing us. Exactly
"how" is never going to be completely isolated. Eighty per cent of
cancers are environmentally derived. When we wonder where the epidemic
of cancer is coming from, can we say that plastics gave Ms. Jane Doe
cancer? Perhaps, but cancer is coming from not only plastics and their
associated toxins but also from radiation sources, smog, the modern
chemically tainted diet, household and workplace chemicals, etc. To
say cancer is "genetic" is to put the onus on our intrinsic humanity,
so as to ignore the 80% environmental-source principle.

Migration and release of plastics' chemicals into our food, water,
and skin is of little interest to the government and its corporate
friends. But certain principles won't go away: for example,
polymerizing does not perfectly bind the petroleum chemicals together,
especially when substances such as carcinogenic plasticizers are added
after polymerization. Did you think that cute "rubber" duckie in the
bath tub was harmless? Think again.

The U.S. public is thus treated every bit as shabbily as the Third
World victims of plastic pollution. In India, where much of Americans'
plastic "recycling" (mostly trash) is sent, the authorities dismiss
the sad public health impact there by asking, "How can you prove that
these plastic and lead recycling factories are causing these
problems?" [source: Plastic Task Force, Berkeley Ecology Center] In a
land like India, where biotech crops and corporate fast-food outlets
have been sabotaged, it is possible that folks may intensify their
destroying of whatever is destroying them. When the environmental
movement holds back forthright judgment, and the environment and our
health are not protected, people do need to take on plastics and other
threats personally. This is because the mainstream movement to protect
the environment and public health is going practically nowhere. This
is exactly what industry and its scientists want. It's as if industry
is funding the environmental movement; in large part it is.

Your War on Plastics

The prevailing attitude by those already concerned about plastics
is that we must just focus on reducing the use of one or two key
plastics while continuing to push recycling. This philosophy of
compromise, without stating the whole truth that plastics must be
eliminated as much and as fast as possible, is a deadly mistake. The
funded environmental movement and public health officials are
needlessly resigned to accepting a plastic world just because ignorant
consumers have habits. The approach of promoting only the bringing of
one's own bag for shopping, along with the recycling con game and
waiting for bioplastics, has failed and needs to be abandoned publicly.

Paul Goettlich, of Mindfully.org, concludes "There are no safe
plastics. All plastics migrate toxins into whatever they contact at
all times. It does not matter if it is water- or oil-based; hot or
cold; solid or liquid."

Analogy: When war is used as a solution in reacting to an alleged
threat or terror, etc., (Saddam, Noriega, ad infinitum) we fail to
focus on the real problem - the cause of the war, which is usually
corporate America. We are distracted by one alarm after another, while
war profiteers and jingoistic politicians bleed us dry. It's the same
with plastics - the chemicals are the battles but the war is really
about plastic and petroleum dependence. The focus of environmental
organizations is often the individual chemical, rather than real
solutions such as reusable nontoxic, nonplastic replacement of
containers and bags. Instead of wondering what plastic might be safer
to microwave, those of us in the know say, "None. And don't microwave

A host of poisonous chemicals are imbedded in plastic that are
unstable, causing genetic damage and resultant disease. Here are a few
of the critical, insurmountable challenges from plastic's production
and disposal:

* Clear plastic food wrap contains up to 30% DEHP
[di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate]. This substance is also in intravenous
blood bags. This poison was identified by the State of California for
its Proposition 65 list of carcinogens and mutagens, but industry
pressure got the listing weakened.

* In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it was found that 1,000,000
times more toxins are concentrated on the plastic debris and plastic
particles than in ambient sea water.

* Six times as much plastic per weight than zooplankton is in any
given amount of sea water taken from the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

* Triclosan, in plastics as well as antibacterial soaps,
deodorants, toothpastes, cosmetics, and fabrics, is shown to cause
health and environmental effects and compound antibiotic resistance.
Researchers found that when sunlight is shined on triclosan in water
and on fabric, a portion of triclosan is transformed into dioxin.

* Migration from all seven categories of plastic designated with
numerals on packaging, including the recyclable types 1 and 2, are
(partial list): Acetaldehde, antioxidants, BHT, Chimassorb 81, Irganox
(PS 800, 1076, 1010), lead, cadmium, mercury, phthatlates, and the
acknowledged carcinogen diethyl hexyphosphate.

* Many more such additives are often present, creating in our
bodies synergisms that can be 1,600 times as strong as an estrogen
imitator/endocrine disruptor/single chemical may be.

* The main issue surrounding the use of polyvinylchloride (PVC) is
the impact of toxic pollutants generated throughout its life cycle. A
Greenpeace (UK) study from October 2001 stated in its headline, "UK
Government report on PVC misses the point, but still condemns PVC
windows and floors." Nowadays, the "green" building code in the U.S.
ducks the issue of PVC content.


Bioplastics have started to appear, but they often contain
petroleum plastic as well, and even if non-petroleum, when
"compostable" they are not guaranteed to be properly composted. Brown
paper bags do not break down in landfills.

We have faith in "human ingenuity" and "science" that will "solve
our problems" some day, as "they" will "think of something." They sure

Dupont is marketing "Greenpla." When you check their website about
biodegradable plastics and see Dupont's "Biomax," we see its generic
name is "Polybutylenesuccinate/terephthalate" [Note that the last
phrase, phthalate, is in a class of highly toxic compounds. - ed.]

I would predict that plant-based plastics will be niche products
and used very locally, similar to alcohol fuels which are only
realistic for meeting very local, limited needs possibly, in certain
parts of the world. Meanwhile, it is time to fight petroleum addiction
by concentrating on plastics.

Action Alert: The Movement's First U.S. Battle

The current, high-profile battleground is San Francisco. Following
the example of Ireland and other countries that have put a fee on
plastic bags, the grocery shoppers of San Francisco may soon start
paying a fee of 17 cents per bag. That figure is the cost that the
citizenry is already paying in general taxes for some of the costs of
plastic-bag trash, such as cleaning up the litter and unclogging the
waste system.

The American Plastics Council claims that the bag fee is a crazy
idea, saying in the San Francisco Chronicle that "this will hurt those
who can least afford it." Just the opposite is true. Northern
Californians Against Plastic presented figures to show that if each of
the 347,000+ households in San Francisco were to purchase a couple of
cotton or canvas bags, over the approximate 10-year life of those bags
the total amount saved by consumers - compared to everyone using eight
bags each week at 17 cents each - would collectively be over $300
million. And the bag fee would mean revenue to fund programs for the
poor, such as free reusable natural-fiber bags. The Chronicle and the
Commission on Environment (the San Francisco body putting the bag fee
proposal to the Supervisors for an ordinance) have this new information.

If you want to see the 17-cent bag fee on supermarket shopping
bags implemented in San Francisco, now is the time to contact the
Board of Supervisors. (It's okay if you don't live there.) Before the
elected officials might be swayed by the current backlash of negative
reaction about the first-in-the-nation ordinance up for consideration
by the city, concerned citizens everywhere are urged to email, call,
fax, and mail the President of the Board of Supervisors, immediately:

Aaron Peskin - District 3
City Hall
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, Room 244
San Francisco, CA 94102-4689
(415) 554-7450 - voice
(415) 554-7454 - fax
[email protected]...

Suggested comment (it's good if many of you reword or rearrange
the text):

I support the bag fee at San Francisco grocery stores that would
help clean up the environment. Society can easily work out the
adjustment to reusing bags and cutting down costs. People are already
paying more than the 17-cent cost, because on top of the waste problem
the city deals with, there are health problems from plastics, damaged
tourism from both the trash and the harm to sea life, and petroleum
used for plastics is a strategic commodity that wars are fought over.
So please pass the ordinance and be the first city in the U.S. to
follow excellent examples such as Ireland which passed a 15-cent fee
on plastic bags. The revenue collected would, at a minimum, be good
for ensuring San Francisco's success with the program. Thank you,

Let's not get left holding the bag.

Jan Lundberg formerly ran Lundberg Survey Incorporated, which
published the once "bible of the oil industry," the Lundberg Letter.
He now writes essays and songs, and publishes CultureChange.org.

Resource Links:

Jan Lundberg's first report on the subject:
Plastics: Your Formidable Enemy - Culture Change Letter #70.

Campaign Against the Plastic Plague:

Algalita Marine Research Foundation, maker of the award-winning
movie, "Our Synthetic Sea," available for purchase:

Paul Goettlich's mindfully.org has almost everything on plastics:



Scientific American article on "green plastics".

Sustainable business: www.reuseablebags.com.

Plastic Oceans news article.

"78 Reasonable Questions to Ask about Any Technology" by Stephanie
Mills/Clamor, i.18, Jan/Feb03.



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