I first started to worry about plastic when I read somewhere that drinking water and eating food that has been packaged or stored in plastic containers is potentially harmful to our health. Memes and chain emails love to throw around words like ‘carcinogenic’ and ‘toxins’, setting off alarm bells in our heads even before we’re even halfway to being properly informed about an issue. Eventually this anxiety prompted me to investigate. Are there any real health risks for living such plastic-filled lives? What are the environmental consequences, and what can we do to reduce plastic’s negative impact on the world? Here’s what I wish I’d known when I came across that first alarming meme.
The environmental impact of a disposable plastic culture is self-evident as soon as you step out of your door and see the plastic bottles that wash up on our riverbanks, the plastic bags waving forlornly from the branches of trees, and the plastic packaging strewn by our roadsides. If you don’t believe that plastic waste is a problem, you only have to Google the North Pacific Gyre to see horrifying images of a floating plastic garbage patch the size of the state of Texas.
Are plastics all bad? Well, no. ‘Plastic’ is just the name we use for a group of natural, synthetic, or semi- synthetic materials with certain unique properties. Cultures have used naturally-derived forms of plastic including rubber, gum, and shellac for centuries. In many ways, the invention of man-made plastics has revolutionised healthcare and made modern medicine possible by providing cheap, readily available, and easy to sterilise containers and equipment.
The health risks of plastic: Separating fact from fiction
It makes intuitive sense that any material, no matter how durable, made up of a powerful mix of chemicals would eventually start to release those chemicals back into the environment—especially if heated. This is why people worry about putting plastic containers in the microwave or the dishwasher, or leaving plastic water bottles on the dashboard of their cars in hot weather. You may have even detected a nasty taste when you drink water or eat food that has been in a plastic container. But nonetheless, there isn’t a whole lot of scientifically credible evidence for the supposed health risks of common household plastics.
You’ll often see plastics advertised as being BPA-free. BPA (which stands for bisphenol A) is an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and the lining in many cans of tinned food since the 1960s. As the Mayo Clinic explains, “Some research has shown that BPA can seep into food or beverages from containers that are made with BPA. Exposure to BPA is a concern because of possible health effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate glands of fetuses, infants and children.” While this sounds alarming, they go on to explain that based on hundreds of studies, “the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that BPA is safe at the very low levels that occur in some foods.”
The leading UK and USA cancer research bodies tend to agree: “There is no convincing scientific evidence to substantiate these health warnings against plastics,” writes Cancer Research UK (and the American Cancer Society agrees).
In fact, it’s not so much the release of chemicals from plastic that we need to worry about as much as the bacteria that can collect in disposable plastic products, which is why the use of plastic as a throwaway form of packaging is highly problematic for our health, as well as for the environment.
So, what are some steps you can take right now in response to the concerns and lack of consensus on the plastics and health issue? It can’t hurt to buy BPA-free, non-PVC plastic, avoid heating food in plastic containers in the microwave, avoid leaving plastic water bottles and containers in the sun (and other hot places), and generally cut down the amount of plastic you use in your everyday life.
Plastic is bad for the planet
Although the health implications of plastic use in our homes may be unclear, the environmental issues (though not without some controversy) are more obvious. And when we help the environment, we also have an overwhelmingly positive impact on humans in the long run, too.
The main problem with plastic is what happens when we’ve finished using it. According to Ecowatch, “enough plastic is thrown away (not recycled) each year to circle the earth four times,” making up around 25% of mass in landfills in the US alone. Different types of plastic take different lengths of time to biodegrade; traditional research suggests that because petroleum-based plastics like PET don’t decompose in the same way that organic material does, they could be around cluttering up our planet and providing choking hazards for wildlife for hundreds of years (if not longer). It’s worth pointing out that glass doesn’t biodegrade quickly either, but the major difference is that glass doesn’t release harmful chemicals in to the environment as is breaks down.
enough plastic is thrown away (not recycled) each year to circle the earth four times
Although bacteria cannot generally turn plastic into other useful compounds the way it can with wood, food waste, and other natural materials, plastic can be broken down by exposure to sunlight and heat. In fact, researchers from Nihon University in Japan discovered that plastic waste in warm ocean waters can in fact break down in as little as a year. But this process also releases the chemicals that we were talking about earlier into the environment.
Plastic waste is harmful to many forms of marine life, which is also at risk from the invisible chemical waste created by plastics decomposing in ocean water. Ecologist Julian Caldecott writes that “small plastic fragments can attract and concentrate persistent organic pollutants, thereby becoming toxic as well as looking, perhaps, like extremely edible fish eggs.”
And then there’s the The Story of Stuff’s finding that tiny plastic beads in a lot of common personal care products (like face scrubs and even toothpaste) end up in our water systems, soaking up the surrounding toxins and becoming potentially up to “1 million times more toxic than the surrounding water.” These particles are often too small to be caught by our water filtration systems, and so are consumed by fish and, in turn, by us. We need to put pressure on our local authorities to ban the use of these pointless and harmful ‘microbeads,’ and always remember to check the ingredients on your toiletries and avoid buying products that list polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, or polymethyl methacrylate in their ingredients list.
In many ways, we wouldn’t have this plastic problem if we simply didn’t use as much of it, throw away as much as we do, or if we – when we really do have to throw it away – disposed of it in the right way. Using less of it, as well as recycling and only using recycled products when we do use plastic, can have a radically positive impact on the environment. After all, plastic is much lighter than glass, and so plastic packaging arguably has a smaller carbon footprint when it is transported over great distances.
recycling and only using recycled products when we do use plastic, can have a radically positive impact on the environment
So if you do buy plastic goods, try to buy items with the recycling code #2 (HDPE); HDPE is a commonly recycled plastic that supposedly doesn’t leach chemicals as much as other kinds. Most disposable recycled plastic packaging is #1 (PET), however, so you want to recycle these items after use, rather than reusing them. It’s also good to avoid using plastic bags and polystyrene foam, as both have very low recycling rates. Here at A Better Place, we try to feature as many cleaning and beauty products that use recycled (and recyclable) plastic packaging as possible.
Replacing plastic in our everyday lives
Changing legislation and creating tax breaks and other incentives for companies taking positive steps are undeniably important factors in the fight against plastic pollution, but as an individual consumer you have a lot more power to create positive change than you might think.
You may have heard of biodegradable plastics like polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from corn. These have become more widespread in recent years, with big companies like Wal-Mart committing to make a significant percentage of their packaging from PLA. As this informative article from the Smithsonian Magazine discusses, the pros of PLA include the fact that it is made using a renewable source, unlike normal plastic, which “uses an estimated 200,000 barrels of oil a day in the United States.”
PLA also has the ability to biodegrade—though only under conditions that many waste disposal plants aren’t currently set up to provide. Critics worry that labelling plastic as biodegradable will encourage consumers not to recycle or to think about how they dispose of the plastic. Martin Bourque, the executive director of the Berkeley Ecology Center, a nonprofit recycling organization, expressed his dim view of PLA convenience packaging in Smithsonian Magazine: “Yes, corn-based packaging is better than petroleum-based packaging for absolutely necessary plastics that aren’t already successfully recycled, and for packaging that cannot be made of paper,” he says. “But… my worry is that PLA legitimizes single-serving, over-packaged products.”
It seems clear, however, that while it’s important to be aware of the problem of overpackaging and seek to educate people about how to dispose of their plastics, encouraging the development of lower-impact alternative materials can only be a good thing. While we need to radically change our attitude towards waste, we will never be able to cut out plastic from our lives altogether, so working towards less harmful alternatives is important.
encouraging the development of lower-impact alternative materials can only be a good thing
Soma water filters are just one example of an innovative (and beautiful) alternative to plastic in kitchen wares: they use replaceable filters “made entirely from biodegradable materials, including coconut shells, silk, and a plant-based casing.” The Swedish design-inspired home wares company, Jangneus, produces elegant dishcloths made from natural fibres (cellulose and cotton) that you can throw on your compost instead of in the bin when you wear them out. You can buy washable and reusable cloth covers for your food to use instead of cling film, and there are plenty of sturdy and long-lasting glass and ceramic alternatives to Tupperware available, too, as well as recycled plastic toothbrushes and beautiful reusable water bottles.
Let’s prove that the future is plastic-free
If you’re throwing a party, you might want to consider shopping for your decorations and supplies at the Susty Party online store (nontoxic, compostable party tableware made in American nonprofit factories) if you’re in the US, and Little Cherry (eco-friendly and fairly traded party wares) if you’re based in the UK.
One of the most difficult areas in which to avoid plastics is when purchasing products for babies and children. We have included many great plastic alternatives in our Nursery section, including the Swedish nappy brand, Naty, whose products are all made from renewable, GMO-free, natural materials (their nappy bags are 100% biodegradable, too). We also feature some lovely toys and useful kids products, including ones made from sustainable wood and natural sustainable rubber (which like biodegradable plastic, does eventually biodegrade, but as with PLA it’s important to reuse, recycle, and ultimately dispose of it in the right way). These cute training cups and other fun feeding utensils from JJ Rabbit are made from plant-based materials and are ultimately biodegradable, too, while US-based brand Re-Play makes great recycled plastic feeding essentials. Their website also has some really useful information about how to identify recycled plastics, and which ones are the safest in terms of chemical content.
If we opt for plastic-free, recycled materials, and plant-based plastics with a lower chemical afterlife whenever we buy new products, we will collectively create a bigger demand for products like this. Where there’s a demand there’s money to be made – which means that businesses will have more incentive to develop better plastic alternatives. Let’s prove that there’s a gap in the market, and that the future (in our homes, anyway) is plastic-free.
For more helpful information about the different types of plastics and their alternatives, especially in kitchen and children’s products, check out these useful lists and links from greentogrow.com.
Author: Sophie Caldecott