Green Chemistry Plastics

There was a time when recycling alone made a household or a company “green.” Now green chemistry requires adherence to EPA’s twelve Principles of Green Chemistry and the elimination of plastics labeled with the numbers 3, 6, and 7.  EPA defines green chemistry as environmentally friendly chemicals and processes that result in reduced waste, elimination of costly end-of-the-pipe treatments, safer products, and reduced use of energy and resources.

Plastics are produced from petroleum. As the demand for petroleum products grows and the cost of oil rises, plastics consume scarce energy and resources. In the last year, new plastic manufacturing resulted in biodegradable plastics from corn and potato starch. This meets the European standard that green chemicals should be derived from renewable feed stocks purified with only water, alcohol, or a mild treatment process. Green plastics will make United States products more competitive in the global economy.

Over half of plastics manufactured each year cannot be recycled; there are seven types of plastics used as containers, plastic bags, and baby bottles, “sippy” cups, and “sport” water bottles.  Only polyethylene terephthalate ethylene (PETE) and high density polyethylene (HDPE) can be recycled. PETE usually labeled #1 is used for soft drinks, water, detergent, and peanut butter containers. HDPE usually labeled #2 is used for milk, bleach, detergent, and shampoo containers. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), #3 is used for cling wrap, squeeze bottles, and window cleaner containers. PVC creates air and water pollution which includes dioxins. Dioxins are a known carcinogen and are associated with decreased birth weight and learning problems in children.

A good use for recycled plastic is adding ground up plastic containers into asphalt. The asphalt wears longer and is resistant to the creation of pot holes in winter. Heat in the summer months helps the asphalt and plastic particles to re-adhere.

Polystyrene (PS), #6 is commonly found in Styrofoam food trays and egg cartons. Styrene is leached from polystyrene plastic. Styrene may cause nervous system disorders and has been linked to adverse affects to the liver, kidneys, and stomach in animals.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is leached from polycarbonates, #7 plastic containers when they are heated. Heating plastic containers in the microwave and cleaning in the dishwasher should be avoided. Green chemistry would dictate the use of aluminum or stainless steel water bottles. The production of the metal water bottles is more environmentally friendly and their use lowers the risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, birth defects, and miscarriages.


D. Goleman, 2009, Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything

Smart Plastics Guide: Healthier Food Uses of Plastics, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP),