Plastics have long filled an important role in our daily lives as one of man's most durable and widely used packaging material. Hard or soft, rigid or flexible, thick or flimsy, plastics are so versatile that they assume many shapes and sizes for a variety of uses at home.
Plastics are derived from the carbon content of petroleum. Carbon is usually combined with other chemical compounds and subjected to various chemical reactions to achieve varying degrees of toughness, flexibility and durability.
At home, most containers and packaging material for food, drinks and cosmetics are made from plastics. Plastics come in many forms and are known by various chemical names that often start with the letter "P" for polymer, as all plastics are polymers, such as:
Often used as containers for soft drinks, water, mouthwash, salad dressings, peanut butter, pickles and microwaveable food trays, PET has long been regarded as a safe plastic material until recently when studies found that re-using it is dangerous to one's health as part of the plastic may leach into the food or drink after the recycling process.
PVC may be hard or flexible depending on its intended use. As a soft material, PVC is suitable for shower curtains, shrink wrap, food wrap, or book covers. When PVC is used as a tough material, it can be moulded for use as construction materials, for fencing, framing or decking. One of PVC's components, vinyl chloride, has been found to be a human carcinogen. Oftentimes, manufacturers treat PVC with a chemical plasticizer to make it softer and more flexible. Plasticizers, however, have displayed toxic and carcinogenic effects in laboratory studies.
LDPE is durable yet flexible and has been used as grocery and garbage bags, squeezable bottles, shrink wrap, stretch films and coating for milk cartons.
PP is a popular material for food containers because of its high melting point. PP is used to hold beverages, food items like yogurt and margarine, take away meals and deli foods.
Styrofoam is regularly used as protective packaging for fragile appliances, furniture, and for take away meals.
While government food regulators maintain that most of the plastics in use at home have been tested as safe for their intended use, they admit that part of the plastic chemicals may leach out of the containers and contaminate the food and drink.
Plastics may have become an indispensable part of our lives but a growing awareness of their harmful effects should motivate us to gradually reduce or limit our use of plastics at home.
• Switch to specially marked ceramics and glassware for the microwave.
• Insist on loading your grocery supplies in reusable bags made from natural raw materials to lessen contact with plasticizers that are found in plastic grocery bags.
• If you must use plastic containers for your food, avoid using them for hot items as most plastics escape into the food or drink when subjected to high temperatures.
• It is also healthier for you to recycle plastics rather than re-use them to avoid absorbing toxins that may have escaped during the recycling process.
• Above all, you should always use a plastic product only for its intended use.