From championing it as the material of the future, to calling it “symbolic of everything that’s fake and wrong with the modern material world,” plastic has long been a controversial topic between industry and environmentalists/health nuts. After the original form was first invented in the mid-1800s by Alexander Parkes, the material exploded into consumer kitchens in the 1930s and ’40s, and soon after, plastics began to be used in everything from cars to shopping bags to Velcro to Silly Putty.However, plastics are inherently not the most sustainable material for the environment. Because they are essentially built to not biodegrade under a normal range of heat, pressure, and acidity, plastics when thrown away merely take up space in our landfills. Plastic bags take 10-20 years to decompose, plastic containers take 50-80 years, plastic soda bottles 450 years, and plastic foams never decompose. Furthermore, plastics are synthetic materials derived from non-renewable crude oil through the breaking down of the hydrocarbon polymers found in oil, natural gas or coal and rebinding into moldable plastic resins. Not only do we pour oil into our cars, we sit on oil-derived plastic vinyl seats, grasp a plastic gear-shift, drink from a plastic water bottle, while eating plastic-wrapped fast food. Beginning to see the problem?
Compounding the plastic dilemma, in 2003, the first studies were done citing the harmful health effects of chemicals leaching into food and drink products from plastic containers, such as water bottles. One of the earliest consequences cited relates to the disrupting effects of bisphenol A (BPA) on cell division, resulting in cancer, brain developmental problems, and birth defects including Down Syndrome, according to a recent article in Scientific American. Considering BPA is found in a huge number of consumer products at low concentrations, this is a significant health concern. BPA is found in hard clear polycarbonate plastics and leaches easily when these plastics are heated or washed with hard detergent (as in most dishwashers).
By now you’re thinking, I’ve heard all this plastic stuff before, but I’m still drinking out of my Nalgene, heating things up in the microwave in Tupperware containers, and using plastic bags and Saranwrap to store lunch meat and cheese. Am I really going to get cancer or something when I’m 80 from all this plastic? What does this mean for me and my water bottle?
Let’s start by looking at your conventional bottle of water from the vending machine. Plastic bottles made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyethylene (PET, HDPE, PE) are used for water bottles in many countries. Though the jury is still officially out on this matter, these bottles may leak potential carcinogens into the water over time. Additionally, manufacturers are not required to put an expiration date on bottled water, so there is no way you can tell just how long that bottle has been leaching potentially harmful chemicals into the water you’re about to drink. And the amount of leaching increases with the temperature at which the bottles are stored: higher temperatures mean more chemicals. Leaching also increases with use. Most vending machine-style water (or soda) bottles are made of #1 high density polyethylene (HDPE), which can only safely be used once. Here we are faced with the dilemma: discard the plastic bottle and know it will take at least 450 years to return to the biosphere in a usable form (barring recycling) or risk your health by reusing the bottle?
What about that Nalgene, those ever-popular, indestructible pieces of gadgetry encouraging students to carry water everywhere with them? Well, it depends on which type you have. Some Nalgenes (and the knock-offs) are made of #7 plastics, which have been linked to BPA leaching. Nalgene also makes a #2 HDPE bottle that is supposed to be less harmful. However, the recent Scientific American article condemns most hard plastic polycarbonate bottles guilty of BPA leaching. An interesting note: the Lawrence University water bottles sold in the Union Station are made of Aleutian polycarbonate plastic.
Just hype or should you trash that bottle or container? Ultimately, those most at risk of the damaging effects of BPA are young children and pregnant women, not to say you’re not at risk otherwise. Research is only in its infancy on the issue. Another important point to note, however, is that we expose ourselves to hundreds of carcinogens every day. I guess you have to pick your battles. I’ll probably keep drinking out of my Lawrence water bottle in the meantime.