Plastic, not so fantastic after all
Convenience and cost efficiency have led to plastic being one of the most widely used materials today. Over 300 million tons of plastic is produced each year, and half of that is for items that are only used once. In the last 10 years we have produced far more plastic than in the entire previous century. Annually approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide. In 2014 the U.S. sold over 100 billion plastic beverage bottles, with 57% of them being for water. Plastic is everywhere you look, and in everything you use. It is used in home and vehicle manufacturing, electronics, furniture, toys, and the packaging of food and other goods. There is no denying the fact that there are many benefits associated to plastic. However, the strong drive for convenience in America is once again coming at a great cost to our health and environment.
The impact of plastic on the environment
Did you know that it takes 500 to 1000 years for plastic to degrade? This means that every single piece of plastic that you have used in your entire lifetime still exists on this planet today. A study conducted by UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) group found that more than 4.8 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans from land each year, and that figure may be as high as 12.7 million metric tons. There is a collection of garbage off the coast of California that is twice the size of the state of Texas. There is enough plastic thrown away each year to circle the entire earth 4 whole times.
Our planet is made up of many natural ecosystems. These ecosystems benefit us by decomposing waste, providing us with clean air and water, climate regulation, crop pollination, and disease control. For these ecosystems to function properly, it requires collaboration from every living species on this planet. Unfortunately, plastic is negatively affecting this harmony. The pollution from plastic is beginning to destroy even the smallest living species on the planet called plankton. Plankton are the very first species found on the food chain. Without plankton we would no longer have fish in the ocean and rivers. If fish ceased to exist, then we would not longer have the animals that survive on them as a food source. If the cycle continued, life as we know it would no longer exist. In addition to this, 1 million sea birds, and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually from the plastic that is floating around in our oceans. The time for change is now!
The impact of plastic on health
So lets talk about the various chemicals found in plastic.
Many plastic items contain phalates, which are substances added to plastic to make it more flexible. You can find them in many kids toys like teethers, floaties, and other inflatable items. It’s also found in product containers and vinyl. Phthalates migrate into the air, into food and into people including babies while in their mother’s womb. Phthalates can be released and absorbed simply through surface contact with the item, and especially where mechanical pressure is applied such as a baby chewing on a teether. New research has linked phalate exposure with weight gain, insulin resistance, hormonal imbalances, and reproductive problems for both men and women. Children may be especially vulnerable to exposure, because they have a much lower body weight. This means that the overall dosage they are receiving is much larger.
2. Bisphenol A (BPA)
Bisphenol A is a chemical used to make hard clear plastic. You find it in water bottles, other beverage bottles, kids toys, condiment containers, tupperware, kitchenware, food packaging, and the lining of cans, cartons, and jars. You might be asking why it matters that BPA is found in these items, because you aren’t actually eating or drinking any of the plastic itself. Unfortunately, BPA leeches into whatever food or beverages contained within it. This can occur at any temperature, but is maximized when the contents are heated. So any time that you drink tea or coffee out of a plastic container, eat hot food on plastic dishes, warm food in the microwave with plastic tupperware or packaging, or drink from a plastic bottle left in the car, you are exposing yourself to unsafe levels of BPA. BPA is absorbed, metabolized by the liver, and then primarily eliminated through the urine. It is estimated that 93% of humans over the age of 6 yrs would test positive for BPA in their urine. The problem with this, is that prior to excretion, BPA mimics estrogen in the body, and can attach itself to estrogen receptors. When this happens, it results in either an increase or decrease in the production of estrogen. This has led to the development of various endocrine disorders for both men and women. These disorders include fertility complications, early puberty, hormone dependent tumors such as breast and prostate cancer, abnormal menses, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and other metabolic issues.
BPA Free? Think again.
So you may have already heard about the harmful effects of BPA, and feel rest assured, because you have switched to buying all BPA free items. Well unfortunately, manufacturers have swapped out the bisphenol A for bisphenol S (BPS). It was originally believed that the BPS would be a safer alternative, because it was thought to be more resistant to leeching. Today, nearly 81% of Americans test positive for BPS in their urine, and once in the body, it is having similar affects as BPA . A study conducted by Cheryl Watson Ph.D. at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that even extremely small amounts of BPS can alter a cell’s normal functioning, which could potentially lead to diabetes, obesity, asthma, birth defects or even cancer.
So what can you do about it?
I can completely understand how overwhelming it can be to learn about all of this information. I felt rather hopeless at first, and felt like there would be no way I could escape these toxic chemicals. I was left wondering whether or not my weight gain, hormonal acne, and estrogen dominance could be linked to 30+ years of plastic use. Well there is no way of knowing for sure, but I can tell you that I am determined to spend the next 30+ years making up for it. So here is a list of things I have done to help eliminate plastic from my life.
1. Drinking Containers
I have replaced all drinking containers in my home with stainless steel or glass. My personal water bottle is a 40 oz stainless steel Hydro Flask. I love this flask, because it is vacuum sealed in order to maintain temperature. I fill it 2 times a day with alkaline well water and ice cubes, and take it with me everywhere. These flasks have become so popular, that you can find cheaper options as well such as Hydro Cell. There are lots of options for portable coffee and tea mugs too. Check these Cruisers out.
For glass options, which is always the most toxin free option you can go with, they have started making large glass bottles with shatter proof exteriors. Some options include Xtremeglas, Lifefactory, Purifyou. For larger home water jugs, I replaced the 5 gallon plastic jugs with 5 gallon glass carboys. I use these caps and handles for them. To dispense the water I use a 2 gallon glass drink dispenser. Since the spigot on this dispenser was plastic, I replaced it with this stainless steel spigot. I also threw away all plastic cups and replaced them with glass ones. My husband wasn’t too happy about this, because one of his favorite cocktail cups happened to be plastic. Sorry honey! Now you know exactly what is being used every day in my own home. For additional information on how to make sure you are drinking clean water, I have a blog about it here.
2. Kitchen Items
I like to make food ahead of time and store it in tupperware in the refrigerator for the week. Little did I know the toxins I was exposing myself to considering most of the food items that went into these containers were hot. So the plastic tupperware had to get thrown out and replaced with glass. Initially I thought it was going to be kind of a hassle, but I really prefer my glass tupperware these days. A couple of good variety packs of glass tupperware are this 18 piece set and Vremi. For larger storage containers I use these Pyrex storage containers. You will note that the lids are still plastic, so I avoid putting the lids on until the food has cooled, and I make sure that I don’t fill the containers to the top so that the lids aren’t resting on the food. I also use these beeswax wraps to cover the tops of my containers when the food is hot. These wraps are a great alternative to sandwich bags, and plastic wrap. I use them for cheese, sandwiches, cut veggies, etc.
3. Packaged Food
In general, packaged food is something that we should avoid as much as possible, because it has been processed. Food processing strips the food of vital nutrients, adds in chemical preservatives, and contributes significantly to unnecessary waste. However, I know it is impossible to be perfect, and packaged food comes into our diet here and there. So where possible spend a little more and buy items in glass if the option is there. This includes various condiments and canned food. For everything else, transfer things into glass containers when you get home. This way you are shortening the timeframe that the food is coming into contact with the plastic, and you are making sure that the heating process is done in glass instead.
You can greatly decrease the amount of plastic bag waste by using reusable grocery bags. They even have reusable produce bags now as well. All you have to do, is remember to keep them in your car and actually bring them into the store with you. It took me a couple of months to create this habit. For bags that I use around the house for throwing old food away, doing the litter boxes, and trash bag liners, I have started using 100% compostable bags. They come in various sizes for your convenience, are made of plant material, and are completely biodegradable.
5. Kids Items
Its unfortunate that plastic is so harmful, because kids probably get exposed to it even more than adults. Since parents don’t want to use glass with their children, kids are left to drink out of plastic, eat off of plastic, and play with plastic. Some alternative options for dishes include tempered glass, stainless steel, and bamboo. There are glass options for baby bottles and stainless steel options for sippy cups. For items like teethers, pacifiers, bottle nipples, and toys, look for food grade silicone. With the information we have available at this point, silicone seems to be a much more stable material in comparison to plastic. With everything else, do the best that you can. Its impossible to be perfect, and you will drive yourself crazy by trying, so rest assured that every little bit helps.
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Affiliate Disclosure: In the spirit of full disclosure, there are affiliate links in this article, which means that I may get a commission if you decide to purchase any such product. I only recommend products and services that I use and love myself.