Article reposted from Natural Home & Garden magazine.
Design, craftsmanship and environmental impact are important to Jacob Deva Racusin and Ace McArleton, authors of The Natural Building Companion  (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012). This comprehensive guide to integrative design and construction focuses on natural building materials that leave a gentler footprint than current practices. While the industrial development of plastic in many ways made life easier, plastic production impacts every phase of the life cycle. Learn about the harmful effects of plastic on human health and the environment in this excerpt from chapter 2, “Ecology.”
Harmful Effects of Plastic
A sea change in building technology arrived in the 1950s with the “Age of Plastic.” Industrial development of fossil fuels into a wide array of plastics changed formulations in everything from insulation to mechanicals to paint, and plastic is still a ubiquitous component of every building assembly. Unfortunately, the impacts of plastic production in its many forms are heavy in every phase of its life cycle. While there is a common general understanding that plastics have negative ecological associations, a closer understanding of what types of plastics create what types of impacts will empower us to improve the toxic footprint of our buildings.
Plastics are not inherently bad, and they have many redeeming ecological features; in fact, many of the techniques we utilize in our designs involve targeted use of plastic products. Their durability and low maintenance reduce material replacement, their light weight reduces shipping energy, their formulation into glue products allows for the creation of engineered lumber and sheet products from recycled wood, and their formulation into superior insulation and sealant products improves the energy performance of our structures.
The feedstock of plastic is primarily petroleum- or natural-gas-derived, although bio-plastics are making inroads in the overall market share of plastic products. Obvious issues emerge regarding the finite amount of available petroleum resources, as well as the pollution associated with oil extraction and refinement; the massive Gulf Coast oil spill of 2010 is only one of the more notorious of the many ecologically devastating accidents that are not frequently considered in addition to the standard pollution impacts of extraction and refinement, which are extensive.