When Thomas Smith, a chemistry PhD student from Manchester, was given a plastic lid for his takeaway tea by the staff at his university café, he had a novel comeback. "I can't take that," he said. "I'm a plasticarian."
The staff might not have come across a person trying to live a plastic-free life before, but it is likely they will again. The ubiquitous material, found in or on everything from your toothbrush and your shampoo bottle to your ready meals and your computer, has become the subject of international scrutiny. And consumers are listening.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) issued startling advice last week, warning pregnant women to take a "precautionary approach" and avoid food in plastic containers or cans where possible. The report highlighted "endocrine-disrupters" found in certain plastics, including Bisphenol A plastics (BPAs) and phthalates, which can disrupt normal foetal development. BPA has also been linked to breast and prostate cancer, heart disease and sexual dysfunctions. The RCOG report noted that there was "considerable uncertainty about the risks of chemical exposure".
Another problem, according to experts, is waste. Around 2.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging is used in the UK each year, but more than three-quarters is not recycled. Half of all plastic waste generated in Europe goes to landfill, according to the EU, whose consultation on how to make it more sustainable ends this month. The consultation is also looking at the chemicals in plastics – some of which, it says, can be carcinogenic, provoke toxic reactions or disrupt hormones.
But people up and down the country – and indeed the world – are not content to leave the problem to experts. Some are giving up plastic all together. And the actor Jeremy Irons is backing a European campaign to ban non-recyclable plastic, including plastic bags.
Mr Smith, 25, decided to give up plastic only after he started making the stuff himself. "I came to the realisation that in modern lives we come into contact with plastic constantly; the idea is you get the package, use it, and throw it in the bin. But in reality, a bit of plastic you had for a second lasts longer than your lifetime."
Not content to simply forgo the plastic bag, Mr Smith decided to boycott plastic completely, storing for himself anything he absolutely had to consume. "It can be quite difficult to find fruit and veg not wrapped in plastic. I went to small shops, but toilet paper was a hard one. Toiletries were also hard, toothbrushes and toothpaste; It led to me making my own soap," he told The Independent on Sunday. "Internet shopping was difficult because anything that comes through the post is usually wrapped in plastic; even going to a concert and buying a drink was hard. It arrived in a plastic container."
Mr Smith stopped after six months, after losing 5kg and storing 2.5kg of plastic. But even officials are suggesting we reduce how much we produce. Janez Potocnik, the European Commissioner for the Environment, told The IoS: "World-wide plastic production increased from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to 245 million tonnes per year in 2008, with around 60 million tonnes in Europe alone, and this is expected to continue growing at 5 per cent a year. Not only should we make all plastic fully recyclable, we should also avoid excessive plastic production for applications that are not obviously useful."
Beth Terry, 48, from California, has been living a plastic-free life for six years. Her book, Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, just published, has been endorsed by musician Jack Johnson and actor Rosanna Arquette. "It's definitely something people are getting more and more concerned about," she said. "Six years ago, I'd never see people carrying their own stainless steel water bottles, now it's becoming very normal."
The part-time accountant said she gave up plastic after learning about its contribution to marine waste – plastic makes up 80 per cent of the enormous waste patches in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – and can be harmful to sea life, which can ingest it or get entangled in it. "The hardest thing is developing the habit," said Ms Terry. "My bathroom is now almost completely plastic free; I found shampoo bars and have just found somewhere that makes plastic-free chewing gum." She also gave away all her plastic containers, which she had used to store food.
Gavin McGregor, a 36-year-old volunteer farming assistant from south London, gave up plastic for a month, last year. He said one of the hardest things was stopping barmen putting straws in his drinks and finding bike supplies that were not wrapped in plastic. "There's definitely a cost of time," he said. "When you nip to the corner shop, you can't buy what you normally buy, chocolate digestives, chocolate bars, or even healthy snacks."
But Louise Bowe, head of community partnerships at Wrap, a company funded by the government, said a plastic-free life "would be quite a challenge" for the average household. She added that plastics play an important role in keeping food fresh and conserving the energy that goes into producing food. "It's about getting the possible maximum use out of plastics and recycling as much as we can." The British Plastics Federation said plastics are "relatively inert and plastics packaging intended for use with food meets food safety standards by a wide margin".
The Government will publish its first waste prevention programme for England at the end of this year. A Defra spokesperson said: "We have a range of rigorous regulations and standards in place to ensure that plastics are produced in the safest possible way."
The chemical ingredients of more than 50 per cent of plastics are hazardous, according to the United Nations classification system. Bisphenol A (BPA) is perhaps the most infamous and is found in products including food containers, medical equipment, glues, toys, furnishings and electrical equipment. It has now been banned from baby-care products. It is linked to cancer in adults and hormone imbalances in foetuses and babies.
Plastic-softening phthalates have been linked to damage in the reproductive system, increased risk of asthma and cancer; several are banned in children's toys and certain types of food packaging in the EU. They are also used in the manufacture of lubricants and solvents, and are found in cosmetics, medical equipment, paints and packaging.
In some laboratory tests, monomers and other ingredients of PVC, polystyrene, polyurethane and polycarbonate have been found to be carcinogenic and can affect organisms in similar ways to the hormone oestrogen.
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