Plastic is a brilliant invention. It’s light, flexible, and extroadinarily versitile. It’s the ultimate material for a society that values convenience and affordability. With these benefits comes a a huge price for our health and the environment:
– Every piece of plastic that was ever produced still exists
– Only about 25% of the plastic produced in the U.S. is recycled
– In the US, 1500 plastic water bottles are used every second
– Buried plastic materials can last for a minimum of 700 years
– Out of the 50 billion bottles of water being bought each year, 80% end up in a landfill, even though recycling programs exist
– More than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die every year from ingestion of or entanglement in plastics
Plastic is literally everywhere. It’s in our clothing, canned foods, electronics, medical supplies, makeup, and in our… store receipts?
As a result, plastic winds up in our soils, our oceans and our bodies. It will take thousands of years for your $1.00 water bottle to degrade, and in the process of degrading leach toxic chemicals harmful to humans and wildlife alike.
I am not naive to the fact that plastic has benefited our society, demonstrated best in our technology and medical advances, but of the 300 million metric tons of plastic we produce every year, 50% of it is single use products and is disposed of within one year! Surely we can do better.
Do environmentalists use plastic?
I consider myself an environmentalist; I don’t eat animal foods, compost, use public transportation, eat locally grown food, and avoid being a consumer in the larger sense of things. But I can’t help but cringe in disgust at the sight of my kitchen cabinet overflowing with plastic bags and recycled food containers.
I am embarrassed to admit that plastic remains a staple in my life. I find it ironic that my cruelty-free, vegan, organic, plant-based shampoo is sold in a plastic container. And why is my stainless steel eco-friendly water bottle made with a plastic nozzle (I hope it’s recycled plastic)?
Can I be an environmentalist and use plastic? Not really, so I’ve pledged
to reduce my dependence. As I made a list of plastic items I use on a daily basis I realized that it won’t be an easy transition.
Well, nothing worth doing is ever easy.
Why is plastic harmful for our health?
Your plastic water bottle has been sitting in the hot sun for hours. The water tastes terrible but it’s hot and you’re thirsty. So you drink it anyway. How are the chemicals from the plastic affecting your body?
I turned to PubMed, a search engine for biomedical literature, for the answers. What I found was disturbing:
BPA: are we ignoring the research?
BPA, a chemical that makes plastic more durable, was once fed to cows and chickens to gain weight before slaughter and now it’s pervasive in our food supply. BPA is found in food packaging, water bottles, canned foods, toys, and kitchen appliances. A recent study measured the BPA levels in over one hundred fresh and canned foods. Nearly all the canned foods were contaminated with BPA. The fresh food tested clean.
A whopping 92% of people have BPA in their bodies. Are these chemicals a real threat?
The European Union banned BPA in all products that come into contact with food. Sounds like Europe is taking the BPA threat seriously. In the United States, The FDA prohibits BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups, but continues to allow the presence of BPA in packaging and consumer goods.
Some plastic companies are voluntarily removing these chemicals from their products, but as of today, the FDA has no prohibitions on these chemicals in our everyday products. The good news is that states are taking it upon themselves to reduce plastic waste. In 2016, California banned all single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. Go California!
How is BPA affecting the human body?
BPA is a known hormone disrupter that mimics the molecular actions of estrogen.
BPA is linked to almost every modern disease, including cancer, diabetes, ADHD, liver problems, and neurological issues. BPA has been shown to alters male and female genital tract and mammary glands, resulting in reduced fertility. One study found that the chemical, altrazine turned male frogs female.
Is BPA-free better?
Take this claim with a grain of salt. The claim, “BPA-free” is a lot like the “sugar-free” craze. It wasn’t too long before we discovered that the ingredients in sugar-free products were more dangerous than the sugar in some cases. It’s the same as in the case of BPA-free products. BPS and BPF are shown to have similar hormone disrupting effects,
which isn’t surprising since these chemicals are very similar in structure.
Remember, there are no federal regulations trolling the plastic industry. It’s best to avoid all plastics. Stick to glass and stainless steal, which are leach-free materials!
What is the environmental impact of plastic on the planet?
Did you hear about that plastic island the size of california floating in the pacific ocean somewhere? Whether it exists or not we know that plastic is reaking havoc in our oceans. 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the ocean every year, and as a result, the animals are suffering.
When plastics are exposed to UV light, toxic chemicals, such as PCB and DDT, are leaked into the ocean. These chemicals are consumed by wildlife. As bigger fish eat smaller fish, these chemicals make their way up the food chain, bioaccumulating in larger fish species- fish that humans consume on a regular basis. Yes, you’re consuming plastic and other toxins when you eat fish! More than 100,000 turtles and sea mamals die every year due to ingestion or entanglement of plastic.
Plastic that ends up in the ocean and landfills is an obvious source of industry pollution, but we often overlook the pollution caused by the manufacturing process, which emits toxic chemicals into the air. Have you heard of trichloroethane, acetone, methylene chloride, methyl ethyl ketone, styrene, toluene, or benzene? Hold on, I need to fetch my organic chemistry book.
People are not only exposed to these chemicals during the manufacturing process, but also through using plastic packaging, which diffuses and omits harmful resins. The manufacturing of plastic is harmful for the workers too- they are heavily exposed to chemcials that have been identified as mammary carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.
Update: 5 garbage patches have been discovered across the globe. Thanks NOAA.
Can we eliminate plasic from our lives?
Until biodegradable plant-based plastic hits the market we’re stuck with good old-fashioned indestructable plastic. That’s why we need to collectively reduce our dependence on plastic- for our health and for the planet! While eliminiating plastic in your life is an intensive process that takes lots of research and planning, there are steps you can take today. Don’t feel intimiated or overwhelmed. Do what you can. Make a realistic time-line to start switching to healthier and eco-friendly materials.
10 simple changes to remove plastic from your life
1. Probably the most obvious step is to stop using plastic water bottles. Purchase a BPA-free stainless steel water bottle (I use one with a filter). Choose a water bottle that is not lined with plastic. Remember to avoid the plastic water coolers when you fill up!
2. When you order a drink, say “no straw please”. Over 500,000,000 plastic straws are used each day in the United States. Plastic straws instantly become a source of pollution and for a short lived convenience.
3. Carry a set of light wooden utensils and a folded tote bag during the day. You never know when you’ll be getting a bite to eat or purchasing some fruit from the corner produce stand.
4. Ask the cashier to email your receipt. Receipts may contain 250 to 1,000 times the amount of BPA in canned food.
5. Avoid packaged food and I’m not just talking about canned foods here. Your bag of potato chips may be lined with BPA too. Buy from the bulk section or use your own cloth or paper bags in the produce aisle. Purchase food products that are packaged in glass or cardboard.
6. Use home-made body products (perfumes, body scrubs, moisturizers). You’ll save lots of money and the products will be chemical free! Look for shampoo and soap bars.
7. Bring a to-go mug with you to the coffee shop. If you do purchase coffee in a plastic cup, forgo the plastic top.
8. Cook more! Not only is home cooked meals a healthier option, you’ll avoid using all those disposable containers from take-out restaurants.
9. RECYCLE (DUH!) Ok, this an obvious one but we have to take it seriously. Most do not recycle at home or at work. If you’re confused about what types of materials can be recycled check out this website: What Can I Recycle?
10. Purchase products made from recycle material! Pay it forward!
How did we get to this point?
In hindsight, plastic was an irresponsible invention (Why couldn’t we see this coming?!)
During World War II, raw materials were in short supply and plastic was the perfect material to mass produce. In 1927 America produced 20 million pounds of plastic. We never dreamed that we would be producing over 115 billion pounds by 2017.
These days society is more eco-conscious. We recognize that the transition to biodegradble materials will be necessary and we need to make the transition ASAP.
If we don’t, what will the planet look like in 100 years, or even 25 years? The good news is, we are not powerless against the plastic industry. As a customer, you drive supply and demand. You can vote for the type of world you want to live in with your dollar. Become a responsible consumer and go plastic-free 🙂
- What’s the problem with plastic?http://www.theworldcounts.com/stories/interesting-facts-about-plastic-bags
- The Facts: Plastic Oceans
- FDA: Bisphenol A (BPA): Use in Food Contact Application
- The FDA Declares that Bisphenol A is Safe, Despite Scientific Evidence
- History of Plastic
- 20 Mind Boggling Facts of Plastic
- Say no to plastic