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In general, the chatbot paints plastics in a positive light, but it also raises a few contentious points that, perhaps unfairly, cloud their image.

Stephen Moore

February 14, 2023

6 Min Read
cyborgs looking at question mark
Donald Iain Smith/Stone via Getty Images

The ChatGPT artificial intelligence (AI) model developed by OpenAI has taken the world by storm, reaching 100 million active users in two months. This compares with the roughly nine months it took TikTok after its global launch and the more than two years for Instagram, according to data from app analysis firm Sensor Tower. I must admit to using the chatbot to compose an email for an upcoming business trip to Korea, and it worked quite well. With minimal editing, I was able to secure a couple of appointments.

We decided to put ChatGPT through its paces and pose a few questions on its view of plastics, and the results were somewhat interesting. Here are the unedited responses.

PlasticsToday: What role do plastics play in society?

ChatGPT: Plastics play a significant role in modern society, due to their versatility, low cost, and durability. Here are a few ways that plastics impact society.

  1. Packaging: Plastics are widely used in packaging due to their ability to protect and preserve products. They also help reduce food waste by keeping products fresher for longer.

  2. Transportation: Plastics are used in the manufacture of cars, boats, and airplanes, making them lighter and more fuel-efficient.

  3. Medical equipment: Plastics are used in the manufacture of medical equipment such as syringes, IV bags, and medical implants, allowing for safer and more effective medical treatments.

  4. Consumer goods: Plastics are used in a wide range of consumer goods, including toys, electronics, and household appliances.

  5. Construction: Plastics are used in the construction industry for pipes, roofing materials, and insulation, among other things.

However, the widespread use of plastics has also led to environmental problems, such as plastic pollution in the ocean and the release of toxic chemicals from plastic waste into the environment. As a result, there has been increasing pressure to reduce the use of single-use plastics and develop more sustainable alternatives.

PlasticsToday: What are some of the toxic chemicals released by plastics into the environment?

ChatGPT: Plastics can release toxic chemicals into the environment in various ways, including through the production process and when they break down over time. Some of the most common toxic chemicals released by plastics include:

  1. Bisphenol A (BPA): BPA is used to make polycarbonate plastic and is known to disrupt hormone function in humans and animals.

  2. Phthalates: Phthalates are used as plasticizers in many products, including toys, personal care items, and food packaging. They can interfere with hormones and are linked to health problems such as birth defects and reproductive issues.

  3. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs): PCBs are a group of toxic chemicals that were widely used in electrical equipment and other products. They are persistent in the environment and can cause health problems such as cancer, immune system damage, and developmental problems in children.

  4. Heavy metals: Some types of plastic can leach heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium, into the environment. These metals are toxic and can cause health problems, especially in children.

  5. Microplastics: Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are smaller than 5 mm and can result from the breakdown of larger plastic products. They can contaminate the food chain and harm wildlife and humans.

It's important to note that the toxicity of these chemicals can vary, and the extent of their impact on the environment and human health is still being studied. However, reducing the use of single-use plastics and properly disposing of plastic waste can help minimize the release of these toxic chemicals into the environment.

PlasticsToday: Which is better, plastic or paper packaging?

ChatGPT: It's difficult to say which is better between plastic and paper packaging, as both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of plastic packaging:

  1. Durability: Plastic packaging is often more durable than paper packaging and can protect products better during transportation.

  2. Lightweight: Plastic packaging is often lighter than paper packaging, making it more cost-effective to transport.

  3. Barrier properties: Plastic packaging can better protect products from moisture, light, and other environmental factors, helping to extend their shelf life.

Advantages of paper packaging:

  1. Recyclability: Paper packaging is more easily recyclable than some types of plastic packaging, reducing the amount of waste in landfills.

  2. Sustainability: Paper packaging is often made from renewable materials, such as trees grown in managed forests, and has a lower carbon footprint than some types of plastic packaging.

  3. Biodegradability: Paper packaging breaks down more quickly in the environment and is less likely to contribute to plastic pollution.

In the end, the choice between plastic and paper packaging often depends on the specific needs and requirements of a product, as well as local waste management systems and the availability of recycling facilities. Both types of packaging have their pros and cons, and it's important to consider the impact on the environment and human health when making a choice.

PlasticsToday: How certain are you of the claims you have made about plastics?

ChatGPT: As an AI language model, I am trained on a large dataset that includes information on various topics, including plastics and their impact on the environment. However, the accuracy of my responses depends on the quality and reliability of the information in my training data. While I strive to provide accurate and up-to-date information, it is always a good idea to verify my responses with multiple sources and consult experts in the field.

In general, the information I have provided about the role of plastics in society and the toxic chemicals they can release into the environment is well-established and supported by scientific research and official reports. However, some of the specific details, such as the extent of the environmental impact of different types of packaging, may be subject to ongoing debate and new findings may emerge in the future.

Our verdict

Overall ChatGPT gives plastics a fairly positive rap, particularly with paper packaging being cited as “more recyclable and more sustainable than only “some types of plastic packaging.” Further, plastics transgressors appear to be limited to polycarbonate and PVC when it comes to emissions of “toxic chemicals,” which would have been good to clarify.

It’s somewhat misleading to include PCBs, which are not even plastics but liquids — production of PCBs has been banned since 1979 in the United States and since 2001 globally. They were once widely used in the manufacture of carbonless copy paper, as heat transfer fluids, and as dielectric and coolant fluids for electrical equipment.

I went back and asked ChatGPT more specifically if polychlorinated biphenyls are used in plastics. Here’s the response:

No, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are not used in plastics. PCBs are a group of synthetic organic chemicals that were commonly used as industrial insulators and lubricants until they were banned in many countries due to their harmful effects on human health and the environment. However, some plastic products may contain other chemicals that are also harmful to human health and the environment, such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA).

ChatGPT does note that ongoing debate and new findings may emerge in the future that prompt it to change its view. We can only hope that these findings are based on solid scientific principles.

About the Author(s)

Stephen Moore

Stephen has been with PlasticsToday and its preceding publications Modern Plastics and Injection Molding since 1992, throughout this time based in the Asia Pacific region, including stints in Japan, Australia, and his current location Singapore. His current beat focuses on automotive. Stephen is an avid folding bicycle rider, often taking his bike on overseas business trips, and is a proud dachshund owner.

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