Why are they so problematic, you ask?
Well, for starters, they’re everywhere.
Ever since the first synthetic plastic (derived from fossil fuels) was invented in 1907, plastics have become ubiquitous.
Take a moment to consider your own plastic usage. These are some of the most common forms that you likely encounter on a day-to-day basis:
- Bottles (both reusable and disposable)
- Coffee cups (styrofoam is plastic, too!)
- Coffee pods for Nespresso, Keurig, and other machines
- Disposable plates, spoons, knives, and forks
- Grocery bags
- Ziploc bags
- Takeout containers
- Trash bags
- Food packaging (glance in your refrigerator…almost everything is packaged in plastic)
According to the infographic below from the-scientist.com, “The average person in North America or Western Europe uses 100 kg [about 220 lbs] of plastic each year, mostly in the form of packaging.”
Since plastics make our lives more convenient, we rarely pause to consider the environmental and biological harm they cause, but we must.
The Environmental Harm of Plastics
First of all, consider this startling fact: 91% of plastic isn’t recycled. The majority of the plastic we “recycle” ends up in landfills, in the natural environment as litter, and in oceans.
The physical litter looks terrible…
…and it can harm living organisms, especially marine life.
Further, the chemicals used to create plastics disrupt the composition of our soil, air, water, and bodies.
The Biological Harm of Plastics
Did you know there are seven types of plastic? Most plastic products are labeled with a recycling code (the triangle made of arrows) that contains a number inside.
We generally reference these numbers solely for recycling purposes, but we should also reference them to identify a particular plastic’s health risk(s).
The chemicals leached from plastics have been linked to hormonal disruption, respiratory and skin irritation, menstrual problems and miscarriage, asthma, allergies, ADHD, and even cancer. These are the seven plastics and their potential chemical risks:
- #1: Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE or polyester)
- #2: High density polyethylene (HDPE)
- Currently regarded as safe
- #3: Polyvinyl chloride (V or Vinyl or PVC)
- #4: Low density polyethylene (LDPE)
- Currently regarded as safe, but may leach nonylphenol
- #5: Polypropylene (PP)
- Currently regarded as safe
- #6: Polystyrene (PS)
- Can leach styrene
- #7: Other (O)–all other plastics
- This category does not identify one particular plastic resin, so it can include plastics that may be layered or a mixture of various plastics. It includes the new bioplastics.
- From lifewithoutplastic.com: “Polycarbonate (PC) is an extremely common plastic in this category and is often associated with this category (sometimes a product will have the number 7 on it with the letters “PC” underneath) . . . But keep in mind that polycarbonate is not the only plastic in this category and if a product has a number 7 on it without the letters PC under it, the product could be made of polycarbonate or it could be any other plastic (and there are thousands!). The only way to know for sure is to ask the manufacturer or have the plastic tested.”
- Polycarbonate (PC) leaches bisphenol A (BPA)
Take Action! Mitigate the Negative Environmental and Biological Effects of Plastics
Is it possible to avoid contact with all plastics? Probably not. Is it possible to reduce our use of plastics? Absolutely.
Here are some (simple!) ways to cut back on your use of and exposure to plastics:
- Purchase glass containers to store leftovers. There are hundreds of options to choose from; they last forever!
- Buy a glass bento box to take food (like lunch) on the go. I recently purchased this one and love it. It’s a tad on the expensive side, but in the long run it’s cheaper than buying boxes and boxes of Ziploc baggies! Also, it will last forever!
- Invest in a high-quality stainless steel mug that can be used for both hot and cold drinks. I bought a Yeti, which I use for hot coffee in the mornings and cold water throughout the day. I carry it with me at all times, so I never drink from disposable coffee cups or water bottles. Many coffee chains–like Starbucks–even give you a discount if you bring your own mug!
- Instead of carrying your groceries in plastic bags, invest in reusable canvas bags. (Or, if you forget your canvas bags at home as I sometimes do, request paper instead of plastic at checkout!)
- Purchase some type of water purification system to be sure you’re not ingesting fibers from plastics in your drinking water. I used to use this Aquagear water pitcher, but I just invested in a Berkey to avoid storing my purified water in the plastic Aquagear pitcher.
- Avoid plastics #1, 3, 6, and 7 at all costs, especially when they’re in contact with something you’ll eat or drink. As you can see above, these are the numbers that are most likely to leach dangerous chemicals. (For more information, listen to this podcast in which the author of the book Estrogeneration details how our exposure to plastics can cause weight-gain, depression, infertility, and many other problems.)
- Whenever possible, buy products that are packaged in glass. When you’re finished with the product, you can keep the glass jars/bottles to store leftovers!
- Use glass and metal dishes instead of plastic plates, forks, knives, and spoons.
- Drink out of stainless steel straws. I love using straws! Now, I use these.
- Buy trash bags made from recycled materials. These are just one option.
- Cook and serve food with wooden spoons. Full sets are very cheap!
- Use cloth or eco-friendly diapers. I don’t have a baby yet, but I am intrigued by eco-friendly diapers and the cloth diapering movement, especially since traditional diapers may contain harmful chemicals.
- Most importantly: Be intentional. Instead of just taking the convenient plastic path of least resistance, make intentional life changes that will positively impact the environment, your own health, and the health of those around you.
- A quick, final personal note on intentionality… While typing this post, I did a lot of research and reflected more deeply on my current use of plastic. I do all of the bullet-pointed suggestions listed above, but I also make coffee using plastic, disposable Nespresso pods each morning. Apparently, Nespresso offers a free pod recycling program, so I may begin to do that. However, I’m now realizing that the plastic pods may be leaching chemicals into my coffee since they’re heated to such a high temperature in the coffee-making process. Instead of buying disposable plastic pods in the future, I may invest in a reusable, refillable pod like this. I can always do more to reduce both waste and risks to my health!
Do you have other ideas of ways to avoid using plastics? Please share!
In each blog post, I aim to bring you food for thought (pun intended. Note: my day job is teaching English), but don’t take my word for it! Click on and read all of the links above to become your own expert on this topic; knowledge is power. The more you know and understand the “why” behind each biohack, the easier it will be to stick to it and realize you can’t live without it!