Plastics are not very meta-efficient. They are toxic to all forms of life, they don’t biodegrade. Practically all the plastic that’s even been made still exists – either in landfills or in places like the ocean. There are other materials that can often substitute for plastic such as ceramics or rubber. Bioplastic is also become a viable option.
In terms of toxicity and environmental damage, plastics can be arranged in a pyramid, starting from the worst at the top:
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other halogenated plastics
- Polyurethane (PU), Polystyrene (PS), Acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), Polycarbonate (PC)
- Polyethylene-terephthalate (PET)
- Polyolefins (PE,PP, etc.)
- Biobased Polymers (Bioplastics)
PVC plastic (vinyl) is the worst plastic for our health and for the environment because it is produced using chlorine, and it releases dioxins throughout its lifetime. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemical ever produced. The EPA suggests that there is no safe level of dioxin exposure.
Also, because PVC is a hard and unusable material, chemicals must be added during manufacture — such as
phthalates (pronounced “thay-lates”). Unfortunately these chemicals leak out of the plastic easily. When children suck or chew PVC toys, they can end up ingesting these chemicals.
Here is a 2003 PVC Report Card on Kid’s Toys Manufacturers. Find out which toys are still produced with PVC. Disney products are some of the most hazardous out there. Here is a more extensive list in a PDF file.
Here is a guide to PVC alternatives.
Polycarbonate (#7 plastic) can also be quite toxic. It can release bisphenol A, a suspected hormone disruptor, into liquids and foods. In 1998, the Japanese government ordered manufacturers there to recall and destroy polycarbonate tableware meant for use by children because it contained excessive amounts of bisphenol A.
Polystyrene (#6 plastic) may leach styrene into food it comes into contact with. A recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives concluded that some styrene compounds leaching from food containers are estrogenic (meaning they can disrupt normal hormonal functioning). Styrene is also considered a possible human carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.