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Talking Rubbish: You Think You Know What’s Plastic And What’s Not

by | May 31, 2019

The pervasiveness of plastic is no surprise to anyone: plastic shopping bags, food and cosmetic packaging, earbuds, nappies… it’s everywhere. Plastic is polluting our beaches and oceans, affecting sea and human life. Microplastic particles are found in tap water – and even human poop. Besides the better-known plastics, you’ll be surprised to know that there is plastic lurking in the least likely of places.

Earlier this year, a groundbreaking study shone a light on the fact that plastic is toxic and harmful at every stage of its lifecycle. The study focused on the potential health effects of plastic: the damage to the reproductive, endocrine, immune and cardiovascular systems. According to Von Hernandez, report co-author and Global Co-ordinator of the Break Free From Plastic Movement,  “The heavy toxic burdens associated with plastic — at every stage of its life cycle — offers another convincing argument why reducing and not increasing production of plastics is the only way forward.”

In your efforts to use plastic more responsibly (and to be better armed to demand responsible packaging) don’t forget there is plastic in:  

Cosmetic Creams

Synthetic polymers in personal care products gained wide acceptance in previous years due to the fact that they can perform a variety of functions. From increasing thickness and smoothness in creams to helping keep hair conditioned and in place, to improving the appearance and smoothness of the skin. These synthetic polymers are essentially plastics that should be avoided if we want to avoid absorbing them. Some names to look out for are:

  • polyethylene glycols (PEGs) and carbomers
  • polyimide-1, polyquaternium-11, and PVP/VA copolymers
  • polyquaternium-6, polyquaternium-7, and polyquaternium-11

Wet Wipes 

Wet wipes are often advertised as, or thought, to be flushable. They aren’t. Wet wipes are a single-use-plastic that clog sewers and contribute to micro-plastic pollution in rivers and the ocean.  Most wet wipes are made in part with plastics like PET and polyester and should rather be avoided. In the UK, there are reports about wet wipes changing the shape of riverbeds as they get caught amongst the mud and debris at the bottom of rivers. In April 2018, “More than 5,000 wet wipes were found “in one area of the Thames foreshore near the iconic Hammersmith Bridge.” So called biodegradable/compostable wet wipes are now available in South Africa and around the world. One example is the Pure Beginnings range made from bamboo fibre. Be cautious about claims of ‘compostability’: to biodegrade, products need the right environments. Make sure these items are disposed of correctly – such as into a compost heap – and look our for composting certifcations.

Tea Bags 

Most tea bags we buy at the grocery shop contain hidden plastic. The bags are usually made from natural cellulose and pulp but sometimes combined with a specialist plastic. At the very least, most tea bags are sealed with a plastic glue. This means most tea bags are not biodegradable and should not go on your compost heap. It also means most teabags are leaching small amounts of chemicals from the plastic into our tea. The simplest solution to avoid plastic in our tea, is to make the switch to loose leaf tea – which can also be bought unpackaged at places like Nude Foods and the Tea Merchant. Some tea brands may not use plastic, so ask brands for information about their teabags. You can also put pressure on brands to stop adding plastic to teabags.

Chewing Gum 

According to BBC Science FocusChewing gum is basically plastic doped with flavours and colourings.” Apparently, until WWII, a natural latex derived from sapodilla trees was used to give chewing gum its chewyness. But since the dawn of the plastic age, synthetic elastomers, such as polyvinyl acetate, are preferred. Alternative? Try using peppermint essential oil if you’re using the gum to freshen your breath. If you’re in the mood to chew, perhaps some dates or nuts will (kind of) do the trick.


Seen the hashtag #GlitterisLitter? Well, it was started for a good reason. Glitter is essentially an unnecessary microplastic that poses a threat to our health and the environment and is very difficult to clean up due to its small size.  According to an article on Bloomberg, glitter is “typically made from sheets of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, backed with a thin layer of aluminum and cut into tiny pieces. The aluminum poses little environmental threat, but the PET plastic could persist for 1000 years.” Mirrormoon Eco Glitter in South Africa now offers a plant-based biodegradable and aqua-degradable alternative for when we need to add a little sparkle to our day.

Image credit: Stock Adobe

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