Recycling, at least in theory, seems like a pretty sound idea. Why let perfectly good materials that would otherwise have to be harvested, mined, cleared, or otherwise gathered rot away in a landfill if they can still be used for further manufacturing purposes? Unfortunately, sometimes impurities sneak into the mix and recycling isn’t quite the catch-all, green solution to every problem under the sun that some would have us believe.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is such an impurity that can get passed into recycled goods like toilet paper, napkins, food packaging, and other papers used for a variety of things — many coming into direct contact with people on a routine basis. Scientists are reporting to the American Chemical Society that the culprit is the common integration of thermal cash register receipts into the recycling mix; 94 percent of these receipts contain BPA. What’s the harm in a little BPA? Well, exposure can create or exacerbate health issues ranging from hormone disruption to obesity to neurological disturbance to possibly cancer. (Then again, name something that doesn’t cause cancer nowadays. Puppies? Doris Day movies? I think that’s about it, and the jury’s still out for the both of ‘em.)
Over eight billion pounds of BPA are manufactured each year, according to scientists Chunyang Liao and Kurunthachalam Kannan. Much of this material is used for plastics and food can linings, but it also shows up in thermal receipts as a coating that aids in the ink’s developing process, and this is the way that it most easily sneaks into the world’s recycling bins (except for Japan, which banned BPA in 2001) and into the world’s paper goods and, of course, the bodies of human beings.
This isn’t to say that we should abandon recycling, but we may want to examine better ways of screening out potential toxins such as BPA in recycling procedures. Penn & Teller, in the second season of their famous Showtime series, did an expose on the recycling industry and still had to conclude that, even with all of its inefficiencies and problems, there were some (they would say small) benefits to the process.
The researchers’ findings, Widespread Occurrence of Bisphenol A in Paper and Paper Products: Implications for Human Exposure, are published in Environmental Science & Technology.