If you’ve ever tried to avoid using plastic, then you know it’s everywhere. It’s inside our faucets, in our clothes, and even in aluminum cans. In fact, humans have produced more than 8 billion tons of it since the 1950’s, and instead of decomposing, it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles. There’s so much plastic, we’re actually inhaling it with every breath we take.
So it should be no surprise that we’re eating plastic, too.
The Microplastics We Ingest
According to one recent study, we eat between 39,000 to 52,000 particles of microplastic every year. Do you drink mostly bottled water? Add 90,000 to that number. (Compared with an additional 4,000 if you drink tap water.) No one knows exactly what the impact of ingesting that plastic might be – or how much the body can tolerate – but scientists are worried that microplastics could negatively impact the immune system.
I read several news reports in which industry experts downplayed those numbers, saying that plastics are safe because endocrine-disrupting bisphenol A (BPA) was the chemical bad guy and most manufacturers no longer use it. I was disappointed that journalists by and large didn’t effectively challenge this viewpoint. Had I been interviewing those people, I would have asked for and included their response to these three facts:
Many of the microplastics we ingest were produced before BPA bans took place, so we’re still ingesting it.
Studies have linked the chemicals used to replace BPA – bisphenol S (BPS) and diphenyl sulfone – to the same kind of genetic damage caused by BPA. In fact, the researcher who originally sounded the alarm on BPA described it as “déjà vu.”
This class of chemicals isn’t the only one we need to be concerned about. Styrene, another common plastic ingredient, has been linked to a whole slew of health issues including problems with the nervous system and cancer.
In the absence of a real conversation, we’re stuck with the industry’s rote response: manufacturers must meet strict safety standards when it comes to food packaging, therefore we’re safe. If that’s the case, why are we just now banning BPA despite indications that it was unsafe dating back to the 1970s?
When it comes to regulations, most are shaped in part by industry lobbies that don’t have consumers’ best interest in mind. And there’s always a loophole. In this case, it’s the “Generally Recognized As Safe” clause which allows manufacturers to designate chemicals as “generally recognized as safe” and use them in food packaging without providing peer-reviewed research to the FDA.
So much for those strict regulations.
That’s why I’ve implemented a plastic crackdown in our home that not only includes the choices I make in the checkout line, but also how I use and care for plastic items we already own. By making these small changes, I hope to slash the amount of plastic our family ingests and hopefully improve our overall health.
5 Ways To Eat Less Plastic
Don’t put plastic in the dishwasher. The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends hand washing plastic containers – or avoiding them altogether – due to concern that this could cause chemical leaching. And think about it: if the chemicals are indeed oozing out of our used takeout containers in the dishwasher, then the jets are spraying them onto everything else.
Don’t microwave plastics. The AAP recommends against heating plastics in general due to the above leaching concerns. This is twice as true when it comes to reheating takeout containers and other flexible plastics. Phthalates – the class of chemicals that makes them flexible – has been linked to reduced sperm count in men, and other reproductive challenges.
Don’t put plastic in the dishwasher. This one is a real eye-roller for me, but it makes sense. If heating plastics can cause them to leach chemicals and break down, then the ultra-hot water in the dishwasher is a horrible idea. What’s more, all those microparticles can potentially be sprayed onto your other, glass dishes by dishwasher jets.
Don’t re-use single use plastic containers. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service warns against re-using butter tubs, takeout containers, and other single-use plastic containers, as they are more likely to melt and leach chemicals into your food.
Know your recycling codes. Containers marked with recycling codes 3, 6, or 7 indicate the presence of styrene, phthalates, or bisphenols, all of which pose known health risks. If you’re concerned about leaching, it might be a good idea to avoid these altogether. One major exception: those that are also labeled “biobased” or “greenware,” as these don’t contain bisphenols.
Choose tap water. As I mentioned earlier, drinking bottled water has been associated with significantly higher consumption of plastic microparticles. In addition, some bottled water has tested high for contamination with PFAS chemicals (aka toxic chemicals used in firefighting foam). Unless you know your tap water is unsafe, it’s best to skip the bottle altogether and fill a reusable metal or glass container from the tap.
In addition, I’m continuing to reduce our family’s plastic consumption. I’ve shifted to using more reusable silicone bags as opposed to Ziploc (I like these and these), and am reaching for my glass Tupperware instead of the plastic wrap for storing food.
I’ve also become even more conscious about choosing food items that come in glass containers over coated paper or plastic. One thing Iearned from my Beautycounter business is how difficult plastic can be to recycle. Many items we throw into our recycling bins end up in landfills because they are too small, too dirty, or facilities simply don’t have the capability to recycle that particular kind of plastic. This has made me more mindful of glass or paper packaging that also includes small plastic twist-offs, as well as tiny plastic containers for things like spices, cosmetics, and pharmacy products.
While we still have a long way to go, these simple changes have made a big, cumulative impact on how much plastic waste our family produces. Our town has moved to biweekly split stream recycling, and I’m happy to report that our plastic bin is now less than halfway full when trash day comes around. Here’s hoping that more information and better options will help me reach my goal of an empty bin within the next few years!