Plastics contain and leach hazardous chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that threaten human health. An authoritative new report, “Plastics, EDCs, and Health,” from the Endocrine Society and the IPEN (International Pollutants Elimination Network), presents a summary of international research on the health impacts of EDCs and describes the alarming health effects of widespread contamination from EDCs in plastics.
EDCs are chemicals that disturb the body’s hormone systems and can cause cancer, diabetes, reproductive disorders, and neurological impairments of developing foetuses and children. The report describes a wealth of evidence supporting direct cause-and-effect links between the toxic chemical additives in plastics and specific health impacts to the endocrine system.
Conservative estimates point to more than a thousand manufactured chemicals in use today that are EDCs. Known EDCs that leach from plastics and threaten health include bisphenol A and related chemicals, flame retardants, phthalates, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), dioxins, UV-stabilizers, and toxic metals such as lead and cadmium. Plastic containing EDCs is used extensively in packaging, construction, flooring, food production and packaging, cookware, health care, children’s toys, leisure goods, furniture, home electronics, textiles, automobiles and cosmetics.
A new investigation into the history of plastics manufacturing by US journalists (for National Public Radio) has reignited the policy debate over plastics pollution. NPR turned up a wealth of evidence, from documents and industry sources, that producers of plastics have cynically promoted the virtues of recycling for decades – thus encouraging consumers to think it’s fine to use more – all while knowing full well that most plastic (more than 90%) is never recycled. It is far cheaper and more profitable to make new plastic (from oil and gas) than to recycle it. But in order to keep selling new plastic, the industry had to “greenwash” its wasteful image by embracing recycling, according to Larry Thomas, ex-president of a plastics industry trade association. “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” says Thomas. So vast corporate resources were diverted into intricate “sustainability theatre”.
Is it news that big business plays dirty?
No, but the extent of the deception, and the planning behind it, is striking. And it lends credence to the view espoused by both environmental campaigners and neoliberal economists that “plastic recycling is largely a fraud,” as Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, an NGO that campaigns against the illegal waste trade, puts it. In reality, much recycling – and certainly the recycling of plastics – is an uneconomic activity that merely gives us “moral licence to pollute”, says Michael Munger of the American Institute for Economic Research. It’s akin to the “indulgences” sold by the pre-Reformation church to exculpate sins. Putting out your plastics for collection is not so much a rational economic act, more a “religious ceremony”.
What’s the scale of the problem?
Mass production of plastics began in the 1950s. So far 8.3 billion tonnes has been created, according to a 2018 study published in Science. Currently, we produce around 300 million tonnes globally each year. Most of that is in the form of disposable products: half of all plastic produced ends up in the bin within a year. Of the 29 million tonnes of plastic waste collected in the EU (including the UK) in 2018, about 30% was recycled (a far higher proportion than in the US). About 43% was burned in incineration plants, but a quarter ended up in landfill.
Is it easy to recycle plastic?
No, it’s an energy-intensive process which involves significant environmental risk for relatively little reward. There are dozens of types of plastic, but of the seven main types, five hardly ever get recycled as it’s not worth the effort. These five types of plastics (polyvinyl chloride, low-density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and polycarbonates) often contain toxins, carcinogens and other pollutants, explains Eline Schaart on Politico. That makes the process too expensive and complicated, and in any event the resulting product “is of lower quality than cheaper virgin plastics made out of oil and other hydrocarbons”. The two types of plastics that it can make sense to recycle are polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used for things like single-use water bottles; and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is used to make some types of plastic bags and detergent bottles. Unfortunately, even these recycled plastics “can’t be used in the same way as virgin plastics, because the polymers in plastics degrade each time they are reused”. PET can be recycled to make new bottles or textiles like fleece garments, while HDPE is recycled into garden furniture and plastic lumber.
How does the recycling process work?
Once sorted at a local processing centre, bales of different plastic types are sent to a second facility to be washed and cleaned. Take the example of plastic water bottles, typically made of PET. First, they are washed and dunked in chemicals to get the labels off, then sliced up. Lid plastic is separated from bottle plastic using a flotation pool. Then the lid flakes and bottle flakes are “extruded” – melted down into pellets (using energy and emitting harmful chemicals) before being sold on to manufacturers. “It is possible to do all of this in an environmentally friendly way: treating the wastewater correctly, disposing of chemicals properly and making sure harmful emissions don’t escape”, says Leslie Hook in the Financial Times. Done right, this uses less energy and resources than virgin material. But it’s costly, and if shortcuts are taken, the consequences can be environmentally devastating. Which is one reason why China, at the end of 2017, announced it would no longer be the world’s dumping ground, transforming the $200bn global waste business – and diverting the world’s torrent of plastic to south-east Asia (especially Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand).
So should we give up on recycling?
Scientists are hard at work on identifying “super-enzymes” that could break down plastic quickly enough to make it more viable. But in the meantime the drive to cut plastic usage – plus a growing awareness of the limitations of recycling – has clear impacts on businesses and investors.
A recent report from Carbon Tracker described the plastics industry as “a bloated behemoth, ripe for disruption” by governments keen to slash its heavy carbon footprint and tackle plastic pollution in the oceans. Producing plastic emits around five tonnes of carbon dioxide for every tonne of plastic produced. Thus the looming war on plastic waste raises the risk of stranded assets for oil companies, which hope that rising demand for “virgin plastics” will drive future strong demand for fossil fuels. But demand for virgin plastics may peak in 2027, predicts Carbon Tracker’s energy strategist Kingsmill Bond, and global oil demand may already have peaked. “Remove the plastic pillar holding up the future of the oil industry, and the whole narrative of rising oil demand collapses.”
CTI courses hosted by EcoProfit
As climate change events increase in number and ferocity, so does climate change risk for businesses and organisations. To remove or control this risk, organisations need to be equipped with the right practical knowledge.
Carbon Training International (CTI) offers courses that give clear direction to understand how to deal with climate change risk.
CTI courses include Strategic Carbon Management, Carbon Accounting, Applied Energy Efficiency, Reducing Fleet Emissions and Carbon Offsetting.
For all courses commencing in February, CTI/Ecoprofit is donating 10% of total course fees to Project 460, a Mountain Services Youth Service (MYST) program dedicated to raising funds to train Blue Mountains Year 10 students in mental health first aid.
You can easily enrol in one of CTI’s online webinar courses at:
Just choose your preferred course and course start date. Extra course dates can be arranged.
The good news: carbon emissions and business costs are linked. The more an organisation reduces its carbon emissions the more it reduces its costs.
Share watch –Battery Metals Boom 2.0 is officially on
EUROPEAN LITHIUM (ASX:EUR)
European Lithium surged +50 per cent this morning despite raising $7m at a massive discount to the pre-market share price. These funds, which supplement a share purchase plan to close on 22 January 2021, will be used to continue exploration and development at the Wolfsberg lithium project in Austria.
Storied European Lithium chairman Tony Sage says the response to the raise reflects the positive market sentiment for battery metals. “After a very challenging year we now see demand for lithium chemicals to support a very strong EV market which led to the recent lithium price rally,” he says.
ENOVA MINING (ASX:ENV)
The probably very confused rare earths minnow has surged two days in a row for a total gain (so far) of ~170 per cent.
Northern Territory focussed Enova hasn’t put out an announcement since late October.
At the time, it was undergoing met test work on Charley Creek project ore to develop a process flowsheet (designing the processing plant) “and estimate key project parameters and costs”.
LITHIUM AUSTRALIA (ASX:LIT)
Lithium Australia is king of the overstuffed announcement (we don’t need your life story bro) but this one hit the mark with investors, sending the stock up +30 per cent in early trade.
They say the lithium ferro phosphate (LFP) battery market will grow 500 per cent by 2030. LFPs which minimise or replace costly nickel and cobalt are good for short range trips, like in urban settings.
Demand has taken off the China, and Lithium Australia reckons its battery R&D subsidiary VSPC is now well-positioned to service LFP markets outside China.
Is this classic FOMO? The geothermal lithium play is now up 372 per cent over the past month and 6,650 per cent over the past year. According to a recent study, Phase 1 of its Zero Carbon lithium project in Germany will cost about $1.09 billion to build. That would take just five years to pay back, as Phase 1 is expected to have the low operating costs of $US3,816.30/t of lithium hydroxide.
Phase 2 is even cheaper. Hydroxide in a still-subdued market currently sells for between $US7,950 and $US10,150 per tonne, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
The VIX fear gauge as at Saturday ESDT is stable 21.56 for the last two weeks.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average as at Saturday has been stable for the last two weeks sitting on 30,996.98 points, the STOXX 600 is on 408.54 and the Shanghai Composite index on 3,606.75. Steady as she goes.
Gold on 1,855.50. US 10-year Treasury Bonds on 1.086 and oil on 51.98. Cryptos Bitcoin down 5,706 points or 24.02% to 33,069.
ASX 200 steady on 6,800.40. The Aussie dollar on 77.18US cents.
Eco Market Spot Prices
Sources: RenewEconomy, demandmanager, Reuters, SMH, Market Watch, Stockhead