Our Serious Plastics Addiction
- Dec 22, 2022
- Kelly Harrington, MS, RD
We live in a throwaway society. The next time you’re in a grocery store, take a look around you and note the number of items packaged in plastic.
Humans are producing over 380 million tons of plastic every year, and some reports indicate that up to 50% of that is for single-use purposes – utilized for just a few moments, but on the planet for at least several hundred years. It’s estimated that more than 10 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year.
Most plastic simply cannot be recycled. U.S. households generated an estimated 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, only 2.4 million tons of which was recycled.
Your grandparents used products in reusable, recyclable, or degradable containers made from glass, metals, and paper. But today, discarded plastics are circling the globe at a significant human and environmental cost. This “out of sight, out of mind” mentality is suffocating our oceans and choking our wildlife — but the damage doesn’t end there.
Plastic chemicals are finding their way into your body and accumulating over time. The potential for catastrophic biological consequences for the human race is growing with every discarded bottle or bag.
Plasticizing chemicals like BPA disrupt embryonic development and are linked to heart disease and cancer.
Phthalates dysregulate gene expression and cause genital anomalies, especially in baby boys, that may pass down several generations. DEHP may lead to multiple organ damage. So, whether you look at environmental or biological effects, our careless use of plastics has created a monster needing immediate attention.
Dangerous Levels of BPA Found in More than 95% of People Tested
Perhaps the most well known plastic chemical is BPA (bisphenol-A), widely used in the lining of food cans, plastic water bottles, dental sealants, store receipts, and other products. Unfortunately, BPA is so prevalent that 95% of people tested have potentially dangerous levels in their bodies. BPA leaches out of can linings and into the foods they contain, such as soups and sodas.
BPA is an endocrine disrupter, which means it interferes with your body's hormonal system. An animal study found BPA damages chromosomes and interferes with egg development, which could lead to spontaneous miscarriage, birth defects, and Down syndrome. In other studies, BPA has been linked to obesity, insulin resistance, and cancer. According to Texas A & M geneticist Dr. David Busbee, less than one trillionth of a gram of BPA per one milliliter of food is sufficient to change the functioning and development of cells in your body.
Studies show adults with the highest levels of BPA in their urine are more than twice as likely to develop narrowed arteries and coronary heart disease as those with the lowest levels. A British health survey correlated higher levels of urinary BPA with an increased risk of heart disease. One study found eating canned goods increases urinary BPA concentrations more than 1,000-fold.
BPA studies have captured the public’s attention, and there is growing legislation to limit its use, as a result. The state of California declared BPA a reproductive health hazard. The message is clear: BPA is harmful and should be avoided.
BPS May Be Worse than BPA
As the public has grown increasingly wary of BPA, a slew of BPA-free plastics have hit the market, from water bottles to plastic toys. However, many companies are simply swapping out BPA for another bisphenol, bisphenol-S (BPS), which is now showing up in human urine at levels similar to those of BPA. Research suggests BPS has hormone-mimicking characteristics similar to BPA, but it may be significantly less biodegradable, and more heat-stable and photo-resistant, which means it may be even more toxic than BPA over time.
Phthalates: The Plastic Gender Disrupter
Another group of toxic chemicals coming from plastic are the phthalates. Phthalates function as plasticizers in everything from vinyl flooring to detergents, hoses, raincoats, adhesives, air fresheners, medical supplies, shampoos, kid toys, pet toys, and more. Phthalates belong to "gender-bending" group of chemicals that causes males of many species to become more female. Phthalates have been linked with chronic diseases such as allergies, asthma, and autism, and can cause inflammation for at-risk infants. Children have been found to absorb phthalates from crawling around on soft, flexible plastic flooring and plastic play mats.
One of the more pervasive phthalates is DEHP, used primarily in the medical industry. Manufacturers add it to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to make plastic equipment more flexible. In PVC, DEHP extends the shelf life of red blood cells, so you’ll find it in IV tubing, catheters, blood bags, nasogastric tubing and the like. Familiar with that “new shower curtain smell”? That’s the aroma of offgassing DEHP.
Unfortunately, every single person may have measurable phthalates in their bodies. Every phthalate tested disrupts gene expression. This disruption is not only harmful to the person exposed, but the effects may be passed on to future generations, as scientific study reveals.
What You Can Do Now
Discarded plastics are clogging up our oceans and threatening marine life from plankton on up. Massive islands of plastic waste now occupy the centers of the five major oceanic gyres. Our “disposable culture” has left a trail of destruction, in terms of both environmental and human impact. Chemicals like BPA, BPS, and phthalates disrupt the reproductive function and genetic expression of multiple species — including humans — causing infertility and potentially disastrous health effects like metabolic dysfunction, organ damage, and cancer.
There is no single solution to the plastic waste problem, but you can do your part by taking the following action steps that reduce your plastic consumption, which will benefit your health as well as the environment.
Reduce Plastic Use
Purchase products that are not made from or packaged in plastic.
Here are ideas...
- purchase vitamin supplements from companies who use glass jars
- always carry a reusable shopping bags for groceries and other purchases
- bring your own mug when indulging in a coffee drink — and skip the lid and the straw
- bring drinking water from home in glass or stainless steel water bottles, instead of buying bottled water
- store foods in the freezer and refrigerator in glass containers as opposed to plastic containers/bags
- add reusable eating utensils to your everyday carry
- take your own leftover container to restaurants
- request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning
- buy dried beans rather than canned beans
Recycle What You Can
Take care to recycle and repurpose products whenever possible.
Support legislative efforts to manage waste in your community; take a leadership role with your company, school, and neighborhood.
If you have a great idea, share it! Your capacity to come up with smarter designs and creative ideas is limitless, and many heads are better than one. Innovations move us toward a more sustainable world.
Return deposits on bottles and other plastic products, and participate in “plastic drives” for local schools, where cash is paid by the pound.
What Steps Do You Take to Reduce Your Exposure to Plastic Chemicals?
I would love to hear from you about how you navigate plastic exposure or what you do to reduce plastic consumption.
In health and happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods