More of Your Plastic Questions, Answered

Plastic is a material that surrounds us, but it’s complicated to understand. We tackled five big plastics questions we got from Green Americans like you.
stacks of empty plastic tupperware containers
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It’s hard to grasp the sheer volume of plastic in our lives, and many people are wondering, is it really safe? Since 1950, more than 8.5 billion tons of plastic have been produced. In the seven or so minutes it will take you to read this article, there will be seven million more plastic water bottles on the planet. Half of plastic produced is designed only to be used once. If you look around your kitchen you’ll see a lot of it. This article aims to answer five of the biggest questions on plastics safety we get at Green America.

Don’t see your question? This article is the second in a series—check out “Your Top 10 Plastics Questions, Answered” for the answers to questions about single-use plastics, how China processes our recycling, and more.

Is BPA still a concern? Wasn’t it banned?

The FDA banned BPA from infant formula packaging and sippy cups for kids in 2013 following many states and counties banning the plastic chemical from various packaging items.

Since BPA has gotten a lot of bad press, many companies are phasing it out, including in invisible inner liners of canned goods and coating on receipt paper. But now, those products that may be labeled “BPA-free” are likely using similar chemicals with less regulation but similar effects, so they should still be avoided. The journal of Environmental Research published a report showing over 100 studies confirming significant effects from exposure even to low doses of BPA, enough to cause hormone disruption or cancer. We can expect that may be true of BPS and other chemicals of this group, though we don’t know for sure.

How much plastic actually gets recycled?

Only about 9% of plastic is recycled, the EPA reported in 2018 (the most recent year with reported data). Plastic is the most complicated material to recycle because each number (noted on the bottom usually, but not always) designates a different chemical makeup. With current technology, the numbers can’t be mixed because they melt at different temperatures. Municipal funding, community pressure, and demand for recycled plastics determine what gets recycled.

Only 9% of plastic is recycled

It’s not the fault of regular people that more plastic isn’t recycled. While tossing your water bottle into the trash instead of the recycling bin isn’t ideal, most of the problem comes from manufacturers making plastics that are difficult to recycle or inadequate infrastructure to facilitate recycling. A 2020 report from NPR and PBS Frontline found that the plastic industry, as early as 1974, spent millions on campaigns to convince the public that recycling could keep the environment clean, then made billions on selling plastic. Check out our Plastic Free Toolkit for dozens of tips on how to reduce the amount of plastic you add to your life at
greenamerica.org/plastic-free-toolkit.

What happens to recycled plastic? Is it made back into the bottles and food packaging it comes from?

Even though only about 9% of plastic is recycled, that’s over 3 million tons, which can get made into a lot of recycled plastic items.

Plastics degrade each time they’re processed, unlike glass and aluminum which are infinitely recyclable. That means plastic is unlikely to be recycled into something of equal value. Recycled plastic bottles often get made into polyester fabrics, building materials, and more.

Should we be more concerned about consuming microplastics or about creating microplastic waste?

…Unfortunately, we should be concerned about both.

As far as creating microplastics, we don’t have much control over that. Microplastics are prevalent because there is so much plastic out there that breaks down relatively easily—but corporations are to blame for both situations. Besides reducing your demand for plastics, one thing you can do at home is to be gentle to your laundry, since so much of our clothing is also made from synthetic materials. Washing only full loads and only when items are truly dirty are great first steps for reducing microplastics from your laundry.

A 2019 study commissioned by WWF and carried out by the University of Newcastle Australia, combined data on microplastic ingestion by people and found that we could be ingesting about 5 grams of plastic a week in drinking water—that’s the weight of a nickel. People who drink bottled water are exposed to much more than those who drink tap, since their water is stored in plastic. Most water filters have not been tested for microplastics filtration, but pore size in filters should be a good measure. A 2018 study from State University of New York, Fredonia, found microplastics as small as 6.5 microns.

We could be ingesting about 5 grams of plastic a week in drinking water—that's the weight of a nickel.

The effect of plastic particles on our bodies is not yet understood. The smaller the particle, the harder it is to study its effects. It’s potentially similar to other tiny particles that can build up and cause serious damage, like particle pollution from car exhaust, or thin fibers of asbestos, according to a 2021 article from the journal Nature.

Is plastic less toxic as it ages? So that Tupperware (and other brands of plastic containers) I have had for 10 years is harmless now?

It’s probably time to toss your Tupperware and other very old plastic containers. Dr. Larry Silver, medical advisor for the Collaborative on Health and the Environment wrote that the older the plastic container, the greater the leaching activity. The same is true for non-food-grade plastics too, like shower curtains, which shed phthalates more as they age, especially when encouraged by heat and moisture—like your food containers—according to Mike Schade at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

The Tupperware brand has officially been manufacturing without BPA since March 2010, but as we learned before, that means they are likely manufacturing with one of thousands of lesser-known chemicals. Truly vintage Tupperware should not be used for food either—the stuff made famous by parties in the 70s has tested positive for lead, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium, depending on the color and style.

If your plastics, no matter the brand, are scratched up or cloudy, it’s time for them to go. To make the most of the newer containers you do have, don’t put them in the microwave or dishwasher, and avoid storing acidic or greasy foods in plastic.

Have more questions about plastic safety? If you have an unanswered question, send us an email!

From Green American Magazine Issue