Everyday Household Items Made From Black Plastic Can Be Harmful to Human Health

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iStock

It would be difficult to get through an entire day without coming into contact with plastic, but too much exposure to certain kinds of the material could pose a health risk, according to new research. A study by the University of Plymouth in England has revealed "significant and widespread contamination" of everyday items containing black plastic, such as thermos cups, toys, coat hangers, and Christmas decorations, Co.Design reports.

Black plastic isn't widely recycled because its dark pigment makes it hard for many plastic sorting facilities to detect it via infrared radiation. Nevertheless, the plastic parts of old electronic devices like laptops and music players are often repurposed into common household items. Researchers used X-ray fluorescence spectrometers to examine 600 black plastic items and found the presence of additives that can be harmful to human health, such as bromine, antimony, and lead. Historically, bromine has been used in electronic devices to prevent them from catching fire, but they’re not suitable for food containers or other items (like children's toys) that can come into contact with one's mouth. Their findings were published in Environment International.

"Black plastic may be aesthetically pleasing, but this study confirms that the recycling of plastic from electronic waste is introducing harmful chemicals into consumer products," the study's author, Andrew Turner, said in a statement released by the university. "That is something the public would obviously not expect, or wish, to see and there has previously been very little research exploring this."

As Co. Design points out, the greatest concern is cooking utensils, especially food containers. In the UK, some businesses have vowed to stop using black plastic, including supermarket chains Waitrose and Tesco. In Toronto, some businesses are considering swapping out their black plastics (like coffee cup lids) for materials that can be recycled more easily.

Another University of Plymouth study from January found toxic elements in second-hand children's toys, including bromine, lead, and other substances that can be toxic over time. Beyond the risk to human health, black plastic also harms the environment and introduces contaminants to beaches, the researchers found.

[h/t Co.Design]

Guinness Is Doing Away With Its Plastic Packaging

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iStock.com/sasar

The parent company that makes Guinness, Harp, and Smithwick's beer has announced it will start phasing out plastic packaging this summer, according to Food and Wine. In an attempt to reduce waste and introduce more sustainable products, Diageo said in a statement that it will replace its plastic ring carriers and shrink wrap with "100 percent recyclable and biodegradable cardboard."

Diageo, which bills itself as the world's largest producer of spirits, said this measure is the equivalent of "removing 40 million 50cl [nearly 17-ounce] plastic bottles from the world which, if laid out in a row, would reach from London to Beijing."

After rolling out the new packaging in Ireland this August, the company will introduce the cardboard packs to Great Britain and other international markets beginning in the summer of 2020. Though the company doesn't plan to completely eliminate plastics, it says it will ensure that 100 percent of its plastic use is recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025.

Diageo is the latest brewing company to take a stand against plastic packaging. In 2016, the Florida-based Salt Water Brewery introduced compostable six pack rings made from by-products of the brewing process, including wheat and barley, on some of their products. Carlsberg also announced last September that it would start using glue (instead of plastic rings) to hold its cans together, and Corona started experimenting with plastic-free rings last November.

These plastic rings can be harmful for marine habitats because wildlife can become ensnared in them. According to the Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup report from 2011, birds are the animal most likely to become stuck in a six-pack holder, followed by fish and invertebrates [PDF]. However, fishing lines and nets were identified as far greater sources of entanglement, and cigarettes were the greatest source of ocean pollution overall.

Beyond the effect on marine habitats, single-use plastics are also problematic because the U.S. recycles just 9 percent of its plastic waste. The problem has been compounded by China’s decision last year to stop accepting certain kinds of waste from western countries. Instead, some cities have been incinerating or stockpiling their recyclables as a stop-gap measure.

[h/t Food and Wine]

What Do Those Recycling Symbols and Codes Mean?

iStock.com/ChrisSteer
iStock.com/ChrisSteer

Earth Day is here again, serving as an annual reminder of the need to reduce, reuse, and recycle our way to a better planet.

When it comes to the last part of that familiar three-”R” mantra, most people know enough to separate certain items from the rest of their garbage, but much of our modern recycling routine remains a mystery. From the recycling symbol itself to what those numbers on plastic containers actually mean, there's a lot you can learn from your trash before it becomes someone else's treasure.

An International Symbol With An Earthy Origin

The universal recycling symbol—three folded arrows that form a triangle, with the head of one arrow pointing to the tail of the next—was created in 1970 by University of Southern California student Gary Anderson as part of a contest tied to the very first Earth Day. Each arrow of the design represents one of the steps in the recycling process: collecting the recyclable goods after use, breaking them down and reforming them, and then packaging new products in the containers.

Originally designed as an inverted triangle, the symbol was later rotated to the pyramid-like orientation commonly used now.

The Number Game

The American Society of Plastics Industry first began using numbers inside the recycling symbols on plastic containers in 1988 as a way to assist with sorting them. The "Resin Identification Code" uses seven numbers to identify the type of synthetic material used to manufacture the container, with the higher numbers representing less commonly used plastics.

Here's a primer on each of the codes:

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE/PET)
Usually accompanied by the letters "PETE" or "PET," this resin is generally used for soda bottles and other containers for edible and non-edible goods. When it's not being used to manufacture containers, you might recognize it by another name: polyester. (Yes, it's the stuff that insulates your jackets.) It's also one of the most widely accepted forms of plastic in curbside recycling programs, though the amount of useable material available for new products after breaking down this plastic is relatively small.

2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
The second most widely used resin for plastic bottles, HDPE is a stiff, strong material with a high resistance to chemicals, which has made it the go-to plastic for food items like milk and juice, as well as household cleaners and trash bags. It's also easy to break down in the recycling process and easy to reform, making it one of the most efficient consumer plastics. Most curbside recycling programs have no problem with accepting products made from this plastic.

3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
First discovered in the 19th century, PVC is commonly used in building materials today—especially pipes and plumbing material—due to its strength and chemical resistance (although it's occasionally used for some household products). It has a nasty habit of releasing highly carcinogenic toxins into the atmosphere when it's burned, so recycling is a significantly less appealing option for PVC disposal, and it's usually not accepted by curbside recycling programs.

4. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
This plastic is becoming more common today, especially for manufacturing squeeze bottles and grocery bags. Plastics made from LDPE are usually very strong, and they're regularly used as sealants because of this quality. While they weren't included in curbside recycling programs at first, plastics made from LDPE are now becoming more commonly accepted.

5. Polypropylene (PP)
Regarded as one of the “safest” plastics produced today, PP is generally used for squeezable bottles, bottle caps, and straws. Along with LDPE, it's also used for food-storage containers that can be reused over time. It has an extremely high melting point, so it's one of the best consumer plastics for items that will be exposed to heat. Like LDPE, it's becoming more common for curbside recycling programs to accept items made from this plastic.

6. Polystyrene (PS)
More commonly known as styrofoam, this type of plastic is not only notoriously difficult to recycle, but it's also been shown to leach dangerous toxins over time into anything packaged in it—and even greater amounts of toxins when it's burned. This is the resin usually found in disposable serving trays, egg cartons, and cups, and it's rarely accept by curbside recycling programs due to the danger it poses and the difficulty of recycling it. Basically, this is the worst of the bunch.

7. Everything Else
There are countless other plastics, but very few of them are easily recycled in curbside programs, making this category the catch-all for everything that could conceivably be broken down and reformed, but might be better off reused or reformed in some way that doesn't require a chemical process. This category encompasses everything from bulletproof material to those large water jugs on office coolers, and is rarely included in curbside recycling programs.

Safety In Numbers

For anyone wondering which plastics are safe to reuse in their current form, it's widely accepted that HDPE (2), LDPE (4), and PE (5) can be reused multiple times for edible items, as they're generally resistant to chemicals, haven't been shown to degrade, and don't leach dangerous substances into their contents.

This story first ran in 2013.

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