Plastics form perhaps one of the distinguished engineering materials of today. A plastic is “a material that contains an essential ingredient of an organic substance of large molecular weight…it is a solid in its finished state and at some stage in its manufacture” (Eckardt, 1976, p.103). Plastics appear in two categories: thermosetting or thermoplastics.
Over the last five decades, the production of plastics has immensely increased with Germany, the United States and Japan accounting for about 60% of the total monomers and polymers production all over the world (Zittling & Vanio, 1980, p.1179). Plastic material finds wide usage in many fields.
Consequently, people will more often than not find themselves exposed to them through water, air and or food while not negating likelihoods of occupational exposure. As Sitting and Vanio reckon, “there is close physical contact with manufactured products used in packaging consumer products, construction materials, transport applications, textile fibers for clothing and furnishings, rubber goods, adhesives, insulation, electronic and electrical products” (1980, p.1181).
More often than not, plastics come in handy in the production of packaging for all these products. Though the words plastic and resins have wide usage in the contemporary language synonymously, there exists an enormous difference between the two terms in plastic production technology. Resin is a homogeneous compound referred to as polymer used as the starting material in the forming process.
A plastic, in plastic technology, refers to the final product that comprises of the resin, fillers, pigments, plasticizers, and stabilizers among other additives. Chemical hazards, in the plastic industry, are more often than not associated with these additives together with the monomers rather than the finished product itself.
This is because the final plastic products are inert. The rest of the report concentrates on the introspection of the chemical hazards (problems) of plastics, effects of the hazards, and then wide up by looking at possible solutions.
In the plastic industry, there exist a myriad of untested and or suspected chemicals including elastomers in use. Consequently, there is a hefty need for control of occupational environment coupled with the distribution of various chemical in the plastic industry from various occupational sources.
A key occupational hazard in the industry is fumes generated when resins combined with various additives are subjected to high temperatures. Additionally, plastics more often require the printing and stampings using paints and dyes that comprise of fuming chemical compounds.
Even if it is a safety requirement for workers in the printing departments within the plastic industry to have their protective gear on, they still have exposures to occupational chemical health hazards.
Effects of occupational health hazards
Liver angiosarcoma is one of the hazards likely to afflict people working in the plastic industries. Acroosteolysis, produced by vinyl chloride, which is widely a constituent chemical component of materials used in the plastic industry, also poses impeccable occupational health hazards to the workers.
Eckardt (1976) reckons that “the discovery of these two quite different and distinct, clinical entities in both human and animal came as a rude shock to the industry, government and the medical profession” (p.103). This shock is perhaps vital since people believe that vinyl chloride causes some tumors among people: it is a carcinogen.
People view Vinyl chloride as a highly non-toxic chemical and hence recommended for general aesthetics in people. The claims that exposure to its fumes can cause occupational problems shed a green light on the necessity to “meager toxicology knowledge we have of many commodity chemicals that are used widely in substantial volume” (Eckardt, 1976, p.105).
On the other hand, when resin and the additives are subjected to high temperatures, there are fumes generated during the molding process. The nature of the fumes produced depends on the resin and additives used. However, according to the HSE Information Sheet, fumes produced by chemicals used in the plastic industry causes “severe irritation to the eye, nose and the lung” (2010, Para.5). Some of these effects are long term and more often than not irreversible.
Solutions of occupational health hazards
A probable solution is endeavoring to conduct an in-depth study of toxicology of commodities of high volume chemicals to come up with alternative chemicals that have no or lesser occupational hazards. Confinement of printing presses in specially made printing rooms with a plastics factory may largely serve to prevent the spread of the printing chemicals fumes to the entire factory.
However, to eliminate the possibility of exposing people to the fumes, complete automation of the printing presses is vital. Where automation is not possible, especially in cases of unit productions, staff should have appropriate safety gears accompanied by cute ventilation to permit the free and fast escape of toxic fumes generated by printing inks and paints.
Fumes generated from plastics during the molding process depend on the material used, the type of the molding process and the temperature of conducting the molding. A solution to control fuming predominantly depends on the regulation of the three parameters. As HSE Information Sheet posits, “Residence time, as well as the temperature, is critical in preventing fume production” (Para.1 4).
A more plausible solution is to check on the operating procedures (avoid purging), ensuring proper maintenance of the plasticizing machines, as well as having a highly reliable temperature control system and always use the recommended material.
Time of exposure
The time of exposure is also prominent in the determination of the permissible level of tolerance to nuisance. Hence, it is part of the solutions to occupational hazards of plastic industry chemicals. According to the HSE Information Sheet, “The maximum exposure limit (MEL) for styrene is currently 100 parts per million (ppm) averaged over an 8-hour day. There is also a short-term exposure limit (STEL).
Currently, 250 ppm averaged over 15 minutes” (Para.19). Styrene is one of the chemicals used in the plastic industry that causes eyes, nose and lungs irritations coupled with neurological defects such as nausea, drowsiness, dwindled concentration and headache.
Plastics made items are durable. This means that they break or rather degrade slowly back to the original state when discarded into the environment. Consequently, they pose a formidable threat to environmental cleanliness. Although plastic may be disposed of by burning them up, this option compounds the environmental problems posed by plastics since burning plastics such as PVC emits toxic fumes that pose health hazards to people.
Also as Productivity Commission posits “manufacturing plastics often creates large quantities of chemical pollutants” (2008, p.107). More precisely, the use of CFCs in the process of extrusion of polystyrene amicably contributed to the depletion of the ozone layer and hence the reason behind their banning.
One can successfully explain the effects of plastics on the environment based on the problems they present to the environment. These effects range from producing non-biodegradable environmental plastic landfills, posing health hazards to the fauna through the release of toxic fumes when burnt to depletion of the ozone layer when fumes arising during the manufacturing process are released in the air.
Also as Chun et al. posits, “Aside from trying to get rid of plastic, creating it can be costly to the environment as well since it takes large amounts of chemical pollutants to create plastic, as well as significant amounts of fossil fuels” (2003, p.30). However, from a different dimension, plastics are essential since while used to replace some metallic components of vehicles, they make them lighter hence reducing consumption of gasoline, which upon combustion, generate CO2, which causes harm to the environment.
Recycling may help in reducing landfills of non-biodegradable plastics. Recycling involves re-melting the plastics and subsequently re-molding them into some other products. Unfortunately, the quality of the plastic product reduces with each recycles.
According to Plasticsindustry.com, “To assist in the plastic recycling program, the Plastic Bottle Institute of the society of plastics created a method for marking plastic bottles to determine what plastic makes it” (2011, para.7). Unfortunately, there exist many plastics types.
Since the identification process of plastics is not easy or even possible to automate, according to the nomenclature set by plastics bottles institute of the society of plastics, the recycling endeavors face challenges. The identification process requires individual inspection of every container for the code.
However, given that the process takes place in factories where one may manage the fumes arising on heating plastics, recycling is effective in reducing both environmental pollution and non-biodegradable landfills.
Introducing biodegradable plastics
As previously discussed, plastics contain chemicals, which when burned, are harmful to the environment. The main goal thus is to look for an alternative for disposing of plastics without burning them. Introduction of biodegradable plastics happens to be one of the alternatives.
A lot of research has been going into the creation of plastics that can naturally degrade much faster than conventional plastics. Although it does not fully degrade, the addition of starch into the chemical makeup of the conventional plastic makes it break down faster.
Concerning Productivity Commission (2008), a second strategy entangles “genetic engineering of a bacterium capable of synthesizing biodegradable plastic” (p.248). Unfortunately, as per this technology, it is incredibly expensive.
Presently, according to Plasticsindustry.com, “BASF does make biodegradable polyester called Ecoflex, used for food packaging applications…carbon gets locked up in these biodegradable plastics and is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide” (2011, para.8). A major drawback of biodegradable plastics is that sunlight is required for the degradation process to occur. Consequently, the plastic that is buried cannot degrade.
In the plastic industry, various chemicals come in handy. These chemicals present various hazards to workers and the environment. On heating, some of the plastic compounds produce toxic fumes, which expose the workers of industries to occupational health risks.
Fumes generated by plastics while burnt as a way of coping with the problem of plastic landfills formed from the disposal of used plastics exposes people to chemical health hazards. The paper has scrutinized the various effects of various problems posed by the plastics industry. Finally, it has also suggested some solutions that are vital for mitigating the identified problems.
Chun, Y., Stuart, I. Yaniger, C., Jordan, D., & George, B. (2003). Most Plastics Release Estrogenic Chemicals: A Potential Health Problem That Can Be Solved. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2(3), 25-67.
Eckardt, R. (1976). Occupational and Environmental Hazards Health Hazards in the Plastic Industry. Environmental Health Perspectives, 17(3), 103-106.
HSE Information Sheet. (2010).Controlling fumes during plastics processing. Web.
Plasticsindustry.com. 2011. Plastic and the Environment. Web.
Productivity Commission. (2008). Chemicals and Plastics Regulation. Melbourne: Productivity Commission.
Zittling, A. & Vanio, H. (1980). Chemical Hazards in the Plastics Industry. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, 6(5), 1179-1186.