Plastic is not just one but many different types of material used in different types of products. Plastic can be problematic for various reasons. First, it is almost always made from fossil oil. Secondly, the plastic often contains additives, several of which can be harmful.
What is plastic?
Plastic consists of small building blocks, monomers. When you connect several of them into longer chains, polymers, additives are needed to give the plastic its shape, color and texture. Plastic consists of several different materials with different properties: it can be soft and flexible like a carpet or hard and sturdy like a storage box. Plastic is often considered problematic because;
Plastic is made of monomers that are connected into polymers, and additives are added to give it shape, color, and texture. It can be flexible or hard and is sometimes considered problematic because:
- It is made from oil (a non-renewable natural resource)
- The individual monomers and additives (for example phthalates and bisphenols can be harmful to health.
- Microscopically small particles, microplastics, are torn from the surface of plastics during use.
- Sorting and reusing plastic is not problem-free.
In order for a plastic to have a certain property, additive chemicals are mixed in. They can be there to, for example, give the plastic its shape, stability or fire resistance. Some additives can then leave the plastic throughout its lifetime. Some of them are harmful to health and the environment.
Better and worse plastic
PET, polyethylene (PE), polypropylene plastic (PP) and certain bioplastics (PLA) are the plastics of which we have seen the least problems so far, both in terms of the base material and additives. But since you don't know exactly which additives and impurities are in the plastic, it is impossible to say that it is always like this.
The more problematic plastics include PVC (also called vinyl) and polycarbonate plastic (PC).
Below is an overview of commonly used types of plastic:
The SELECT group
Contains gypsum which is today considered safe to use.
The OK Group
Contains plastics whose use is linked to various restrictions and where the production or degradation of the product may create health risks.
The AVOID Group
This group consists of plastics which have negative impact on people and enviroment. Heating food in plastic containers, regardless of plastic type and labelling, are not recommended. For the storage of cold to choose primarily containers made of porcelain, glass and metal, and secondarily plaster from the group SELECT.
The plastics in this group are considered safe to use.
Polyethylene (PE) with marking numbers 2 and 4, polypropylene (PP, no. 5) and polylactic acid or bioplastic (PLA, no. 7).
Polyethylene (PE) is available as PE-HD (No. 2) and PE-LD (No. 4) depending on its density. PE can either be soft or hard plastic and has the largest production volumes globally.
Polypropylene (PP) is a hard plastic. PE or PP are considered safe to use if no dangerous additives (for example halogenated flame retardants in electrical products) have been added to the plastic.
PE and PP are used in, among other things, storage bags, household bags, plastic bags, crockery, household appliances, dish brush handles, clothes hangers and toys.
Polylactide (PLA) is classified as bioplastic, is biodegradable and can be antigenically polymerized lactic acid or bamboo plastic. This plastic is used for, among other things, cutting boards, ladle, mugs, tableware, disposable tableware and toys. With bamboo plastic, you should be extra careful because the plastic is sometimes found to contain melamine to glue the bamboo fibers together.
The plastics in this plastic group are considered safe for the user within certain limits, but there are still several aspects that should be taken into account, for example wear during reuse, the starting material, contamination in the product and production.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a common plastic for single-use products, deposit bottles, soap bottles and yogurt cans. PET is considered a safe plastic for the user, but most products in PET are expressly intended for single use only. With further use, there is a risk that plastic chemicals will be released from the material into the drink/food.
However, cans and boxes in PET are suitable for storing e.g. sewing or craft accessories. Heating or storing hot food in contact with PET is not recommended. A large part of PET production goes to the manufacture of fleece and polyester, which contribute to the emergence of microplastics, microscopically small plastic particles that wear off the surface of the plastic during use.
Acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) is a hard plastic that chemically consists of acrylonitrile, 1,3-butadiene and styrene. Both acrylonitrile and 1,3-butadiene are classified as carcinogenic, while styrene is considered an endocrine disruptor. In the manufacture of ABS plastic, it is important to have accurate routines and good control, so that the workers in the factory are not exposed to these substances. ABS is still classified as a safe plastic, because few additives are used.. ABS plastic is used, among other things, for Lego pieces, toys, outer shells of household appliances, telephones, TVs and plastic parts in the interior of cars. Electrical products made of ABS plastic can be protected with halogenated flame retardants, which are classified as carcinogenic and endocrine disruptors.
Ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) is a transparent, rubbery and flexible plastic. EVA plastic is used for, among other things, bath toys, pacifiers, handles, the vacuum cleaner hose and electronics as well as for puzzle and yoga mats. EVA is generally considered a safe plastic. Using plasticizers, EVA plastic can be made into a foam that is not considered as safe to use.
Styrene acrylonitrile (SAN) is similar to ABS plastic, is a durable plastic, colored or transparent plastic in, for example, glass and water jugs. SAN plastic occurs, for example, in tableware, glass and in housings for household appliances and has partially replaced the plastic polycarbonate (PC) which contains the hormone-disrupting substance Bisphenol A. There is still some uncertainty about the use of SAN plastic. The plastic is fairly heat resistant, but contact with hot food is still not recommended.
Tritan is a hard and transparent or colored plastic, partly composed of PET, and has often replaced PC products. Tritan is a fairly new type of plastic and the producer says that the plastic is free of bisphenol A. There is some uncertainty about the matter as tests by an outside party found traces of hormone-disrupting substances in the plastic. Tritan is used, among other things, in kitchen equipment and food storage boxes.
The recommendation is to avoid these plastics due to their harmful effects on people and the environment.
The starting material in the plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) itself is carcinogenic and to make the PVC plastic soft, hormone-disrupting phthalates are added which can be released from the material during use. PVC is used to make artificial leather and can be found in, for example, interior design, building materials, clothing and shoes. Also toys (for example different types of balls and dolls), bath toys and accessories (soft plastic ducks and swimming rings) usually consist of PVC.
The plastic polystyrene (PS) is available in two variants, as ordinary thin plastic (for example file cans) and as styrofoam/styrox/frigolite (for example disposable cups). The substance styrene is classified as carcinogenic and is suspected of being an endocrine disruptor. Those who work in the production of polystyrene products are exposed to the greatest risks with the substance. PS is mainly used for single-use packaging: for example, black packaging for ready-to-eat food, plastic glasses and yoghourt cans, but also for pearl plates, electronics, building materials and as interior in refrigerators. Heating PS is not recommended as residual monomers can leak into the food. Residual monomers are molecules that have not been taken up and bound firmly in the material during manufacture. As the individual building blocks have been reshaped into a longer chain, a polymer, residual monomers lie more loosely on the surface of the plastic.
Melamine is a hard plastic that is often used in image-decorated mugs, plates and bowls intended for children. The substance melamine is toxic to the kidneys and can leak out of products made of melamine plastic. Some melamine products have also been found to contain formaldehyde which is carcinogenic and allergenic. Avoid using melamine in contact with hot food.
Polyamide (PA) is available as hard and soft plastic. PA is used for synthetic textiles in clothing (for example nylon), shoes, bags, carpets, kitchen utensils and as food packaging material. The plastic may contain the carcinogen aniline (methylene dianiline), which has been found in black kitchen utensils and should therefore be avoided.
Polycarbonate (PC) is a hard, durable and often transparent plastic. Products made of PC are, for example, CDs, mobile phones, food packaging, bottles, water jugs and toys in transparent plastic. PC contains the hormone-disrupting substance bisphenol A (BPA).
TPE/TPU/TPR TPR (thermoplastic elastomer/thermoplastic polyurethane/thermoplastic rubber) is a mixture of rubber and plastic, information on these is lacking, and the materials are based to some extent on health-damaging styrene and/or phthalates. This type of plastic is used, among other things, for bibs and toys.
Per- and polyfluorinated plastics, (PFAS) are used because they are grease, dirt and water repellent. There are several different variants, for example PFOS, PFOA, PTFE, FTOH. If the surface is scratched or exposed to high temperatures (250-300 degrees, for example frying pans and pans), harmful substances can be released. These substances break down extremely slowly in nature, and some of these substances become more harmful as they break down. These substances are found, among other things, in pans, frying pans and oven forms with Teflon surfaces, pizza boxes, bags for micro popcorn, all-weather clothing, shoes, bags and furniture with impregnation.
Polyurethane (PU) can contain additives of PFAS and the starting substance in PU (isocyanates) can be allergenic and carcinogenic. PU has partially replaced PVC as the additives are more tightly bound to the material, but the material is still not considered completely safe. PU occurs in clothing with plastic printing, rainwear, artificial leather, rubber mats and building materials (flooring and wallpaper.)