Technological watch

An Open Letter to ‘Plastiphobes’ about the Material You Love to Hate

First things first: No plastic is toxic in itself, chemically or biologically, in the quantitative way that we define toxicity. Plastics are all mixtures with additives, much as cookies or pasta are mixtures of flour with other ingredients. Some additives can be dangerous, but this can be true of any other material, even cookies.

The general public confuses some additives with the plastics, and seems happy to do so. It’s this happiness that upsets me. I squirm when I see porous materials like paper promoted as healthy, as it can support bacteria in absorbed water, while unreactive and integral plastic does not. Plastic products may pose a danger to some sea animals, as we've all seen in pictures, but they and we can eat them and nothing will happen. Ditto for fish, which belies the meme that plastics poison fish and we eat the fish and, thus, the poison. This ignores numbers/concentration/probability, as well as biology, and assumes a miraculous behavior of the digestive systems of fish as well as our own.

I know about the pervasive fear of storing food in plastic. I’m still looking for reliable reports on how much of what happens to what foods in which plastic under what real-world conditions. I worry more about bacteria, so the plastic (and the food) should be sterile to begin with. Some plastics melt in microwaves and others distort, none of which matters much to the food but may make a mess in handling. What about the leaching from water bottles in a hot car? (Leaching, by the way, is often misspelled as leeching to increase the negative effect.) If I ask, “What leaches?” I may get the answer “BPA.” The harmfulness of BPA is controversial, but, in any case, has no relation to PET (recycle #1) used for water bottles. BPA is needed to make polycarbonate, a much more expensive plastic that we use for eyeglass lenses, airplane and bank windows, and CDs.

Plastics are strings of carbon atoms with attached hydrogens and sometimes oxygens (the components of water, or H2O). They are similar to fats and (with nitrogen) proteins, but plastics are much less reactive. It is this inertness that leads me to question degradables, because they are reactive. Waste and landfill management are separate, very important issues but not relevant to the topic of toxicity.

One major plastic, PVC, contains bound (not free) chlorine. Chlorophobes make much of this but the ocean is loaded with chlorine as 4% sodium chloride (salt). Chlorine vs. chloride makes a big difference — one is reactive (chlorine in pools) and the other is reacted (chloride as salt in the sea or PVC plastic).

But none of this matters when it comes to popular imaging. Images don't become popular for no reason. In the case of plastics, people are eager to embrace the negative image because of the following reasons.

  • Plastics are associated with fossil fuels, which is only partially true. Oil and natural gas are the primary sources of molecules that are combined to make plastics, but fuel (energy) is needed to make all other materials, too. Sand needs to be mined and melted to make glass, and added truck or rail fuel is needed to transport the glass — heavier and more fragile than plastic — to wherever it's going. Glass is environmentally terrible for these reasons but still remains a darling of some plastiphobes. Paper is better, but it absorbs water unless it’s coated with plastic (polyethylene) or wax (oil-based, too), which is what a "paper" cup needs to hold water. As for biobased plastics, their environmental impact must consider the costs to grow the plants and manage the process (plow, plant, fertilize, water, harvest, waste disposal and the chemical process required to turn the feedstock into plastics).
  • Plastics are associated with big corporations, which have drawn the ire of many for a variety of reasons. Corporations are still seen as owned by individuals who get rich by overcharging the public and underpaying the labor, but most are now public companies with shares held by investment banking groups and various funds. Also, making plastic is not labor intensive. This is over the heads of most people, who simply see it in terms of “us vs. them.”
  • Plastics are synthetic — molecules assembled by chemists, not by nature. It is easy enough to point out harmful natural things such as viruses, hurricanes, and snake venom, but people cling to the idea of a benevolent universe. It's us people that mess up things — note the appeal of the recent claim that the Chinese "made" the COVID-19 virus. We can cite synthetics and unnatural processes that keep us alive, lately focusing on vaccines but including just about everything we use — clothing, houses, even milk gets pasteurized for our safety. Yet the fear of the unnatural runs deep, and is seen in the success of words such as "organic" and "GMO-free" used to sell products, often at a higher price. Even "natural" wool and cotton undertake a long journey before they appear as shirts and socks.
  • Underlying all of this is the basic need of people to believe in the impossible. We are fascinated by magicians — we can feel safe that it's only a show. Same goes for reading fiction and going to movies and their digital clones. And Disneyland and its clones. It's only "make-believe” . . . but what is it making us believe? Religion is part of the answer, as it provides answers to mysteries and helps us handle death. But that's not all, as many secular people also follow the plastiphobic line. It's related to anti-vaxxers and global-warming deniers, and even people pushing to "open the country" now. Plastics are easily opposed by those who reject/fear the logical, magic-denying impersonality of science, as chemistry is its basis, one of the hardest of the hard sciences.  
I took a child development course once, where the professor said the concept of the all-powerful comes from babyhood, as the new human is totally dependent on the outer world for survival. Everything is magic. We eventually learn that our caretakers are not omnipotent, but the vestiges remain and account for some of our beliefs. Belonging is needed for survival, so we believe what helps us survive — the Darwinian drive in us all.

So that's why I see plastics as good for us. However, because the above reasons are so strong, the popular image isn’t going to change quickly or maybe ever. Lately the sanitary and medical values of plastics have come to the fore, much to the annoyance of diehard plastiphobes. There are countless positive/harmless uses for plastics. Clean packaging is one, but packaging represents only 20% of plastics consumption. Agriculture is important (mulch, irrigation, harvesting) and so is automotive, building/construction, and textiles (nylon and polyester are plastics, too).

Babies grow up and learn that life is like driving down a road: We need to see where the dividers and curves and boundaries are, but if we don’t get on the road, we won’t go anywhere. Extremes blind us from balance.

Image: Monster Ztudio/Adobe Stock

Publication date: 12/05/2020

Plastics Today


This project has received funding from the Bio Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 837761.