Let’s just cut to the chase: plastic and plastic packaging is harmful to the body and to the planet. And as a global population, we have become dependent on this supposedly disposable (or at least recyclable) fabrication of the fossil fuel giants.
Leaving the health problems out of it for a moment (though you can learn more below), let’s start with the planet – because all those plastic containers you’re throwing into various recycling bins aren’t being recycled at all. Or when we think we’re buying products made from consumer waste, that’s also not completely accurate according this NPR article.
And are we even really doing our part? That same article stated this:
“Overall, Americans recycle at the lamentable rate of 34.5 percent and recycle plastic packaging at the even measlier rate of 14 percent. So the majority of that food packaging is ending up in landfills, or on the street as litter, where it may eventually get swept into the ocean. There, our wrappers and cans and cups become a much bigger problem — a direct threat to marine life that may ingest it and die.”
The Environmental Impacts of Plastic Packaging
Less than 100 years ago, in the 1930s, plastic moved into the big leagues when chemical engineers learned how to make plastic from petroleum (polystyrene, acrylic polymers and polyvinyl chloride were all made in this way). Since 1950 only 9% of plastics ever created have been recycled.
Most of us under the age of 40 were taught the tune in schools to reduce, re-use and recycle. But I think most of us have forgotten the order – reduce comes first – and perhaps we were never taught what really came ahead of the whole shebang: remove!
Whether we recycle it or not, once a piece of plastic is created, it is with us forever. Every piece of plastic ever created on this planet since plastic started being created still remains in one form or another. According to Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2004 report, “an estimated four to five trillion plastic bags—including large trash bags, thick shopping bags, and thin grocery bags—were produced globally in 2002.”
Roughly 80 percent of those bags were used in North America and Western Europe. Every year, Americans reportedly throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags, which can clog drains, crowd landfills, and leave an unsightly blot on the landscape. About a thousand miles west of San Francisco is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (also called the Pacific Trash Vortex), a heaping floating mass of plastic debris twice the size of Texas.
Or how about this image from the Citarum River in the town of Java in Indonesia, now rated as one of the 10 most toxic places in the world. People once made a livelihood from fishing for fish in this river. Now they troll around looking for any valuable trash that can be sold.
More from my book UnDiet:
Plastic is not just in the obvious things like water bottles, bags, and hummus containers, but it also lines our tin cans, is in our shower curtains, and unless it’s packaged in unlined paper or glass with a glass lid, it has likely made contact with every packaged food item in our home. We are coming into contact with and producing too much plastic garbage.
Plastic has become an easy go-to solution, chosen most often for convenience, not necessity. When we really need to use plastic, we can; however, there are other options for our day-to-day lives that can help us to reduce our consumption and use of it. Think about this. What if you had to go a whole week, no wait, let’s just go a whole day, trying to consume or use things that have had no contact with plastic? I wish you luck—it’s tough, nearly impossible.
A little bit here and there is not the end of the world. A lot here and there will be though. In terms of our health, there are oodles of reasons we might want to avoid foods that come in, are heated in, or hang out for a long time in plastic.
Plastics don’t just affect us; they negatively impact the environment and the animals within it. Plastics break down into our environment, leaching chemicals into our waterways and soil.
Very little plastic can actually be recycled (especially those single-use items); instead, much of it goes to the landfill or is incinerated. Burning plastic contributes to air pollution, not to mention it’s a waste of precious fossil fuels.
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Plastic Packaging and Microplastics: Human Health Impacts
Despite plastic bag taxes and other such measures, the plastic problem isn’t shrinking (like the testicles of men who’ve been drinking too much plastic bottled water). It’s growing.
Flip over your fave food-storage container. What do you see?
What few of us ever think about is what plastic does to our health.
During the last several decades, we’ve learned a lot about how plastics and microplastics impact our health, as well as the health of the environment. The results are concerning, as increasingly it isn’t just a matter of us choosing to avoid purchasing or storing our food in plastic packages. These compounds are leaching into the environment, making it nearly impossible to avoid exposure through water, soil, food and more.
What are the main harmful compounds in plastics and plastic packaging?
Some of the main harmful compounds in plastic include:
- Bisphenol A (BPA): Polycarbonate, something you may have never heard of, contains within its chemical cocktail something called Bisphenol A or BPA, something you probably have heard of. BPA mimics our own hormones, estrogen to be precise (when they come from synthetic sources like plastic, we call them xenoestrogens), and has been linked to all kinds of sex-hormone-related cancers. One of its prime damaging effects is on the reproductive system.
- Bisphenol S (BPS): This was intended as the replacement for BPA, but unfortunately it has many similar effects.
- Phthalates: This umbrella term refers to a range of different types of phthalates, which are found in many plastics.
Read on to find out more about how these compounds affect our health.
Plastic Packaging and Human Health
Plastics are known endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with our endocrine system and our hormones.
Evidence indicates that exposure to chemicals in plastics is associated with:
- Reproductive changes, including declining semen count, early puberty, reproductive organ defects, infertility and compromised ovary function. Since the 1960’s, sperm counts have been cut in half and rates of testicular cancer have doubled in the last 20 years.
- Chemicals in plastics cross the placental barrier, and have been found in the placenta as well as meconium (basically your baby’s first poop, where they expel what they’ve digested in the womb).
- This study of 845 women in China found that higher urinary levels of BPS and BFS were linked to lower birth weight and lengths
Plastics can cross the blood brain barrier, potentially leading to nervous system dysfunction, and compromised memory, learning and behaviour.
Digestion and Gut Health
Thanks to microplastics, plastic packaging particles and their chemicals are now part of our food chain. The plastics we ingest are associated with gut dysbiosis and changes in our gut bacteria. Plastics can potentially lead to gut inflammation and infections, and trigger the immune system which can activate certain chronic diseases.
Plastic Packaging and Chemical Migration into Food
Plastic packaging is not inert; its chemicals can leach into our food, beverages, beauty care products, cleaning products and more. And as with beauty care products, we’re not exposed to a single compound in isolation at a low dose – we are persistently consuming them in ways that haven’t been yet tested.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration admits that these chemicals in plastic packaging can leach into our food from the containers they were stored in, but it hangs on to the claim that there are safe levels.
Many researchers advocate for stricter regulations on chemicals in plastics and plastic food packaging, because, as this study says, the current approach is “insufficient to protect public health. It relies too much on self-assessments by industry and assumptions that do not reflect contemporary scientific knowledge, lacks clear guidance, and cannot be enforced by authorities.”
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How To go Without Plastic food packaging
We’re not in the 1950s anymore – the Tupperware Party is over. These are some simple tips to help you reduce or eliminate your plastic packaging.
Store Food Without Plastic Packaging
I am pretty sure everything can be stored in mason jars. My fridge is proof. Instead of mixing petroleum – which is where plastic comes from – with your food, look for alternatives such as glass, stoneware ceramic and stainless steel. More on storing food without plastic here.
Get Up Close and Personal With Plastic
All plastics are marked with an identification coding system. This is the number surrounded by arrows (see graphic above). These codes may be different depending on where in the world you live, I’ve included Canada’s in the above graphic. This means that when you do need to use plastics, there are some options that are better than others. Stick with those numbered 1, 2, 4, and 5 – and just try to use them minimally.
Get to Know The Number 7 (Polycarbonate) Really Well
These are the plastics that tend to be very hard and clear, almost tricking us into thinking they’re solid, stable and glass-like. These plastic containers often have BPA in them and include things like food storage containers, water bottles and plastic tableware (think outdoor dining). You’ll also find this stuff in the lining of tin cans including canned fruits and vegetables, soda, beans and lentils. The more acidic the food in the can, such as with tomatoes, the more leaching that happens.
Skip The Plastic Wrap
No need to wrap food in plastic wrap. Seriously. There are re-usable options. Learn more about them in this post.
Stop Buying Things in Plastic and Plastic Food Packaging!
Start with the single use plastic items like water bottles, k-pods and takeaway containers. And then level up: stock up on reusable water bottles and keep extras in your car, at work, in your bag. In a pinch, find a tap and use it. Make more things from scratch. Bring containers when you’re ordering take-out or grabbing a coffee. No tote bag in your bag at the grocery store? Guess you’re only buying what you can carry.
This needs your attention, our collective global awareness and action. Ask the companies and businesses you love to switch to more sustainable packaging practices, and show off your favourite reusables. And see how and where you can reduce your use of plastic.