Plastic is both a godsend and a nightmare when you consider its many uses. For starters, there are countless plastic perks, explains Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. Plastic allows for lighter-weight car parts that boost gas mileage and lower a vehicle's carbon footprint; computer housings; and even disposable syringes that make it possible to draw blood without spreading infectious diseases. Even polystyrene, aka Styrofoam, has an upside. "It's a fantastic insulator and very long lasting, as we know," Freinkel says. "So that's a great material when used in a house, where it's going conserve energy for decades, but not so great when used in a cup to keep coffee hot for 15 minutes."
The takeaway? When we use plastic for unnecessary conveniences, we're putting not just the planet in peril—but ourselves, too.
Check out the latest plastic news, including these 7 freaky reasons to give it up!
1. It sometimes harbors other toxic, secret ingredients.
A recent study looking at black plastic travel mugs and kitchen utensils found an alarming percentage contained brominated flame retardants, a toxic class of chemicals linked to cancer. Researchers believe electronic recycled waste, which often contains these harmful flame retardants, is winding up in plastic consumer products, including things we eat and drink from.
Do this instead: Nix plastic food containers and instead opt for food-grade stainless steel, ceramic, or glass.
2. It's exfoliating the Great Lakes.
A truly ridiculous use for plastic: Adding plastic microbeads to facial scrubs and other personal care products for exfoliating purposes. "The fact that we wash our faces with plastic bits that are designed to go down the drain, where they will almost inevitably end up in waterways, to persist for centuries, is emblematic of the carelessness with which we use plastics," Freinkel says. "Plastic can be great stuff, but all too often it gets used in stupid ways that are designed for our convenience, but with no attention to the costs of that convenience."
Tracking the research, Freinkel found that a 4.2-ounce tube of a leading facial cleanser contains 356,000 plastic microbeads. That helps explain why scientists recently discovered as many as 450,000 bits per square kilometer—a record-breaking number—when sampling water from the Great Lakes.
Do this instead: Make your own nontoxic exfoliator. Mix ½ cup of aloe with just enough brown sugar or baking soda to create a gritty but not sharp texture.
3. Your veggies are drinking it up.
Plastic is a go-to component on many vegetable farms, used in cheap, lightweight plastic greenhouses. Recent testing in China found that leafy greens grown in plastic-film greenhouses were more lightly to contain higher levels of phthalates, hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to weight gain and behavioral problems. Greenhouse plastics are often coated in phthalates to extend the life of the plastic by protecting it from sun damage.
Do this instead: Ask your favorite farmer if he or she uses lots of plastic in the farm's veggie production; grow your own vegetables without plastic, and then can or freeze the extras in glass canning jars to enjoy after the growing season.
4. It makes guys less manly.
A 2012 study appearing in Environmental Health Perspectives found men with the highest concentrations of certain phthalates, common plastic ingredients, had significantly lower free androgens and healthy reproductive hormones compared to men with the lowest levels.
More reason for men to veto plastic? A University of Chicago study released in June 2013 found that early exposure to bisphenol A (BPA), a common chemical used in polycarbonate water bottles, mimics estrogen in the body and could sensitize prostate stem cells in a way that promotes prostate cancer later in life.
Do this instead: Opt for food-grade stainless steel or glass water bottles, and never heat plastics in the microwave or dishwasher. The higher temps could accelerate leaching of other harmful plastic chemicals that could throw your hormones into an unhealthy frenzy.
5. Some bottled water chemicals are so potent, they're like hormone-replacing cancer drugs.
A recent German study published in the journal PLoS One detected 25,000 chemicals in bottled water, finding that some inhibited estrogenic activity by 60 percent and androgenic activity by 90 percent. (The latter hormonal effect is on par with the prostate cancer drug flutamide.)
The researchers also detected particularly potent chemicals known as maleates and fumarates, compounds used to manufacture the form of plastic resin used in plastic water bottles.
Do this instead: Opt for tap water. As far as regulations go, community or municipal tap water requires much more stringent, regular testing than bottled water.
6. Even fleas are eating it.
A recent study looking at an Italian lake and published in the journal Current Biology found that plastic pollution isn't just a problem for ocean critters like sea turtles. They found water fleas and even worms are eating microplastic pollution. Since plastic readily absorbs other toxic pollutants in the water, "plastic debris can act as vector for alien species and diseases," a study author writes.
Do this instead: Cut out ridiculous plastic uses. The study authors said that based on the size of the plastic particles recovered inside the freshwater critters, the particles most likely originated from plastic people throw away. Stop using plastic bags, and instead use reusable cloth and washable totes and bags. Find a high-quality stainless steel coffee mug instead of buying coffee in a disposable cup every morning, and buy fewer personal products in general, since many are packaged in plastic—and even contain harmful plasticizing ingredients.
7. Plastic chemicals are fueling adult diseases in kids.
According to a May 2013 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, we can blame the odorless, colorless plastic additives known as phthalates for rising blood pressure rates in children and teenagers. Phthalates readily leach from food containers and mix with food, meaning it's not just calories that can affect a child's health when it comes to food.
Do this instead: Cut back as much as possible on processed foods. Try to cook whole foods from scratch as much as possible. Avoid the fad bubble tea drinks—the tapioca-like pearls in the drink are thought to harbor phthalate chemicals.
For more reasons to kick your plastic habit, read 5 More Disturbing Facts about Plastic.
Published on: October 7, 2013
Updated on: October 7, 2013