Plastic items are ubiquitous in almost every facet of our lives. It may seem unavoidable, yet if you’re interested in reducing your plastic consumption there are ways to cut down or eliminate it: but only if you can recognize your plastic as plastic first. There are certainly obvious sources of plastics that we can immediately identify, like water bottles or other food packaging, and then there are many sneaky, hidden sources of plastics that we might not know about.
Why Avoid Plastic?
It may seem like plastics have been around forever, but they haven’t – manufacturers began creating and using plastic after World War 2 and production has multiplied exponentially since then. Some quick facts about plastic production:
- 8300 million metric tons (Mt) of virgin (new) plastics have been produced to date.
- As of 2015, 6300 Mt of plastic waste has been generated – about 9% of this was recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% has accumulated in landfills or the environment.
- An estimated 12,000 Mt of plastics will be in landfills or the environment by 2050, if we keep up with current production and demand.
While plastics may seem like a convenience in many consumer, industrial and professional settings, the health and environmental impact of these plastics is far more than inconvenient – it’s extremely detrimental and in many cases, devastating.
Environmental Impacts of Plastic
The challenge with plastics is once they are produced, it’s very difficult to make them go away. Their impact on the environment isn’t neutral – plastics remain in existence and their effects are long term. They don’t degrade; however, plastics will break down into smaller and smaller pieces. These are known as microplastics (see below) and they have their own range of problems. Estimates vary, but it can take anywhere from 10 to 1000 years for plastics to break down: a plastic bag may take 10 years, a plastic bottle or disposable diaper 450 years, for example.
A significant portion of plastics produced end up as waste, as noted in the section above. Plastics primarily end up in the landfill, or they are incinerated, and a very small portion (9%) are recycled. A significant portion of plastics end up in marine environments – an estimated 18 billion pounds of plastic flows into the ocean every year.
Plastic pollution they can have many negative effects on marine animals. Some animals may become entangled in plastic, others may eat plastics and become malnourished or suffer bowel obstructions, while some may experience reproductive issues from the hormone-disruptive chemicals in plastics (more on those below). Plastic waste can also leach into our waterways and soil from the landfills.
Incinerated plastics unleash several pollutants into the air, including carbon dioxide (a major contributor to global warming), the potentially cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and dioxins, a poisonous chemical that can lead to cancer, infertility and hormonal disruption. And what goes up, must come down – these air pollutants eventually settle into our soil and water.
The Issue of Microplastics
Microplastics are plastics that have broken down into minuscule pieces, many of which are invisible to the naked eye. Some microplastics are designed to be small for specific purposes, while others are the byproduct of larger plastics breaking down. They are found in a variety of places, including clothing (great video explanation), personal care products, cosmetics, tires, city dust, and they are fragmented from big plastic sources like plastic packaging. They threaten our oceans, personal health and food supply. Get an in-depth analysis of microplastics and what you can do about them here.
Health Impacts of Plastics
Plastics are insidious because we are exposed to them in many ways, like through pollution, soil, water and the food chain. There are an array of chemicals and additives in plastics, but there are a few key ones I’d like to focus on.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals that function as plasticizers – they help to make plastic soft, flexible and malleable.
Health Impacts: Phthalates disrupt the endocrine system, leading to impaired fertility (for both men and women), altered hormone levels and obesity, along with a host of other health effects from lower Vitamin D levels to irregular cardiovascular activity. In children, exposure to them may disrupt normal development, as well as increase the risk of allergic diseases and asthma, childhood obesity and behavioural problems.
There is a list here of dozens of scientific abstracts describing the potential negative effects of phthalates if you’d like to investigate further. The evidence, in my opinion, is undeniable.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
BPA is a chemical used to make hard plastics and resins. You’ll find it in baby bottles, water bottles, packaging, toys, can linings, thermal receipts and more.
Health Impacts: Like phthalates, BPA is a known endocrine disruptor and a xenoestrogen, something that mimics the production of estrogen in the body. Bisphenol A is one of the most-used chemicals in the world. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that 93% of Americans over the age of six had BPA in their urine.
BPA sticks around and accummulates, acting as a hormone disruptor and can increase the risk of hormone-dependent cancers, polycystic ovary syndrome, infertility, metabolic diseases like obesity and Type 2 diabetes, early puberty and may negatively affect child behaviour and cognition.
Bisphenol S (BPS)
BPS is commonly used to replace BPA.
Health Impacts: As governments and scientists began to realize and educate people about BPA’s harmful risks, BPA was banned in certain items like baby products and consumers began to demand alternatives. One of these BPA-free alternatives is BPS, and it turns out that it has similar endocrine-disrupting effects as BPA and isn’t a better option.
There is a growing body of evidence that focuses on BPS, showing that exposures to it are on the rise and that it causes neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity, and oxidative stress, may promote the progression of breast cancer, and affect fetal development.
Brominated Flame Retardants
This group of chemicals make items less flammable.
Health Impacts: Exposure to flame retardants may cause diabetes, neurobehavioral and developmental disorders, cancer, reproductive problems and altered thyroid function. Children are particularly sensitive to it, and this is concerning.
Types of Plastics
Some of the common types of plastics you’ll find in products:
- Polyurethane Foam
Obvious Sources of Plastic
These are the places where we obviously know we are using plastic:
- Plastic wrap, plastic bags, and other food wrap
- Food packaged in plastic
- Water bottles
- Packaging for personal care products
- Plastic plates, cups and cutlery
7 Hidden Sources of Plastic and How You Can Avoid Them
Some sources of plastics aren’t as obvious. These hidden sources of plastic are ones we may not think of immediately, but it’s important to realize what they are and pay attention to them.
Coffee Cup Lid
Not only are these typically made of plastic, but the hot liquids in the cup cause condensation on the underside of the lid, where it then drips down into your drink along with any chemicals in the plastic.
What To Do About It: Skip the coffee cup lid, or bring a reusable mug.
Top of Your Kettle
Many kettle tops are made of plastic and like a coffee cup lid, the boiled water condenses and then drips back into the water. Also, after you boil your hot water watch out for those tea bags – a new study shows that many tea bag brands shed billions of microplastic particles into your cup.
What To Do About It: Choose an electric stainless steel kettle with a stainless steel lid, or find a stoveop ‘whistling’ kettle made of steel, cast iron or enameled ceramic.
Thermal receipts are a major source of BPA and BPS, and we absorb these chemicals quickly when we handle receipts.
What To Do About It: Say no to paper receipts and get an electronic one instead. If you must get a receipt, wash your hands well after putting it away. If you work as a cashier, use gloves when handling receipts.
A lot of clothing items contain plastic and microplastics, which shed when we wash our clothes and contribute to ocean pollution.
What To Do About It: Shop vintage clothing or purchase clothing made of natural fibers such as organic cotton, wool, flax, hemp, bamboo, etc.
A recent study found that 90% of table salt is contaminated with microplastics. Salt comes from evaporated seawater and if the oceans are polluted with plastic that is eventually going to show up in our salt supply.
What To Do About It: Avoid using table salt and try Himalayan salt instead. Use a lower amount of salt and opt for herbs, spices and naturally salty foods to add flavour to dishes.
Research indicates that fishes and other types of seafood are eating plastic in the ocean, and that plastic is ending up in seafood samples. There isn’t a lot of research yet about how ingesting microplastics through seafood will directly impact our health, and hopefully that will begin to be tested and emerge soon.
What To Do About It: Be mindful of seafood consumption, choosing small portions when eating it.
Cardboard Takeout Containers
Many cardboard or paper takeout boxes are lined with a plastic resin or coating and they can’t even be recycled in most places.
What To Do About It: Go out to dine, buy takeout from restaurants that use sustainable, recyclable or biodegradable containers, or bring your own glass or stainless containers for takeout.
Obvious and hidden sources of plastic are affecting our health and the environment. Plastics haven’t been around that long when you consider the amount of time humans and animals have been living on this planet.
At this point, we don’t know what the long-term health effects of obvious and hidden sources of plastic will be a hundred or five hundred years from now. If we don’t take action to curb our plastic consumption, I fear there won’t be a healthy world for future generations at all. Our choices matter and making a conscious effort to reduce plastics goes a long way.