There are two main things that concern me about plastics.
1. Chemical off-gassing from PVC. PVC, or vinyl, is, according to The Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, “one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created.” It off-gasses (or evaporates) chemicals into the air, such as mercury, dioxins, and phthalates. These chemicals “may pose irreversible life-long health threats.” Phthalates are a class of chemicals that can cause reproductive harm, allergies, behavioral problems in children, and diabetes, among other things.
PVC can be identified by its label of the number 3 inside the arrowed triangle commonly found on plastic products. It cannot be recycled.
PVC is also found in a lot of children’s and baby products and little ones can be exposed when they chew on it.
2. Leaching chemicals into food, particularly Bisphenol-A, or BPA, which is an endocrine disruptor and mimics the hormone estrogen. (If you’re going for man-boobs, keep drinking that water out of plastic bottles!) A big problem with BPA is that it doesn’t stay put in the plastics that touch our food. It migrates into our food, and it has an easier time migrating when it’s heated. Here is a good article about the concern with BPA and foods. And here’s another one.
But there are some plastics that don’t worry me as much.
1. I know that some of our old furniture has plastic. The chair I’m sitting on right now is covered with vinyl. Now this has no scientific basis, but the chair is also from the 1960s and has not been recovered. I plan to recover it eventually, but in the meantime, I personally think that most of the off-gassing has already occurred and we’re relatively safe.
2. Plastic toys, especially older ones (like from my childhood) and toys for older kids. At 4, W is no longer chewing on his toys (obviously). I’d prefer if they weren’t all plastic, but I don’t worry as much about it now as I did when he was still slobbering on everything.
3. The little bits of plastic that are found in everything from my refrigerator to the clock radio to our telescope and the keyboard I’m typing on. Two reasons I don’t worry about them. First, they’re not likely to be PVC and I worry less about offgassing from non-PVC plastics. Second, there is absolutely nothing I can do about them.
4. When plastic does more good than harm. Plastic bike helmets, for example. There’s not a really good substitute for this and I’d never ride a bike without one.
Here is a good article about good plastics and bad plastics that explains in a more coherent fashion why some plastics are OK.
A camera crew from a local TV station is coming to my house today to talk about “Plastic Free Living.” I don’t know if that’s what they really plan to do the story on, but I think that truly plastic free living would be truly impossible. Even with unlimited funds. Maybe if you moved to a remote location and lived completely self-sufficiently, and your radio was from the 40s and you found an old telephone and you never needed commercially-prepared medicine and you used a horse for transportation.