Every day, billions of obvious plastic offenders like plastic bottles, straws, plates, cups, takeout containers, utensils, etc., contribute to a big global mess, piling up ever higher in our recycling cans, trash dumps and, sadly, in our oceans – we’re looking at you Pacific Garbage Patch. We are all drowning in plastic! Even if you try to avoid it, the stuff still manages to worm its way into our lives in a range of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Not only does it pollute the environment, but plastic is horrendous for your body, which is why I urge you to include a plastic purge on your spring cleaning to-do list. The more of it you can remove from your day-to-day, the better it will be for your health and the planet’s as well. For a few thoughts on why you need to keep this nasty stuff out of your body and home, and some tips on how to go about it, start here:
Plastic holds stuff – as it unleashes its toxins into you.
When it comes to holding stuff, plastic is darn good at it. Your cauliflower is probably wrapped in it; your spinach is likely bagged in it; last night’s leftovers are sealed with it; and most of your cosmetics and medications come packed inside bottles made of it. It is everywhere, literally everywhere. And while eliminating it is a worthy goal, it’s tough to find everyday basics that aren’t enclosed in plastic. But, if you care about your health, you’d be wise to start looking for ways to clear this stuff out of your life. Reducing your exposure to the toxins baked into plastics – that leach out of them and into you – is essential for your long-term wellness.
The chemicals in plastics can make you very, very, even life-threateningly sick.
Trouble is, there’s a mountain of evidence showing that the chemicals found in plastic, like phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA), are endocrine disruptors that interfere with the healthy function of key hormone systems and are just all-round toxic – with huge downsides that have been an open secret for decades. Among the chief concerns: BPA’s estrogen-mimicking effects which have been linked to a cavalcade of health problems, including reproductive issues, birth defects, breast cancer, heart and liver disease and neurological disorders.
Though BPA is easier to avoid these days with the advent of BPA-free products, many BPA-free chemical alternatives are unknown commodities and may well be as dangerous as the BPA-originals (if not worse!). Remember, “BPA-free” doesn’t mean healthy, safer or toxin-free, so the wisest path is to get serious about cutting exposure to plastic as much as possible, BPA-free or otherwise.
As for phthalates – a family of chemicals that includes all sorts of nasties like BBP, DBP, MEP, BzBP and DEHP – the picture is similarly ugly, with links to endocrine disruption, increased breast cancer risk, and, in animal studies, a higher incidence of physical abnormalities in the male offspring of exposed mothers. Phthalate exposure is also associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes, the onset and exacerbation of asthma and increased risk of obesity – making them a must-to-avoid too.
Where are you most likely to run into phthalates on the daily? A lot of them will be in your personal care products, while BPAs are commonly found in food storage and drink containers, like water bottles.
Ready, set, purge!
To limit exposure at every turn, it helps to know where the bad guys hang out – and they lurk in places far beyond your average take-out soup container. If you’re expecting the government to protect you from the chemical onslaught, think again, as most of the laws regulating everyday chemicals are not only weak, they’re also really, really old. In fact, one of the key laws on the subject, Toxic Substances Control Act, dates back to 1976! So, where are you most likely to cross paths with plastic’s all-too-plentiful toxins? Here are a few everyday items to redline wherever possible:
- Hard plastic sports bottles – like the ones many cyclists use
- Plastic food storage containers – like Glad and Ziplock storage containers
- Plastic food wrap – like Saran Wrap, Glad Wrap, Cling Wrap
- Deli containers – cheap, often non-recyclable, polluting, the worst of all worlds
- Plastic bags – not for cooking, not for reheating, not for food storage
- Plastic dinnerware, plates, utensils – bad for the earth, bad for you, and don’t even think about heating or re-heating food in this stuff
- Certain tea bag brands – make sure yours are not on the plastic-lined list
- Paper cups – most are lined with a thin plastic liner to prevent leaking
So, rather than wait for legislation to catch up, take matters into your own hands and start purging on your own – and phase in as many healthier, non-plastic (or lots less plastic) alternatives. Where to start? Here are a few painless ways to do it:
- Shop at farmer’s markets, where most, if not all the food is ‘au naturale’ – no plastic wrap, no bags, just the whole food, virtually straight out of the ground.
- Ditch highly processed foods, packaged ‘convenience’ foods – not only do the contents pollute your health (think crappy ingredients plus loads of salt and sugar) but also the earth by generating mountains of plastic packaging.
- Avoid fast food – not just because it’s crap, but also because some studies have shown that fast food fans have higher phthalate exposures, possibly due to all the plastic used to produce and serve fast food.
- If you do buy food in plastic containers, before you put the food away, decant items into metal or glass containers to store in the fridge or pantry.
- Packing your lunch? Think glass or metal containers, which don’t leech toxins into your food – or, ultimately your body.
- Eating on the go? Wrap meals and snacks in wax paper or unbleached parchment paper instead of plastic.
- Invest in several sizes of glass Mason jars for food storage and transport – Ball, Kerr and Anchor Hocking are among the most classic, very durable go-to’s.
- Heading to the gym? Glass or stainless steel drink containers are the healthier and eco-friendlier way to go.
- Heading out for a picnic? Bamboo plates and utensils are an alternative that’s kinder to the earth and you – just be sure yours in made without melamine, an unhealthy binder that’s used as a binder to hold the bamboo together.
- Big fan of smoothies? Invest in a blender with a plastic-free glass blender jar. And, if you’re into food processors or do a lot of chopping, look for a processor with a glass bowl option.
- Love to sparking water? Make your own with a ‘bubbler’ and store your fizzy water in glass containers instead of buying the plastic bottle stuff.
- Got toddlers and young ones? As they are especially vulnerable to the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, reduce exposure by avoiding plastic ‘sippy cups.’ As their dexterity grows, as soon as it’s feasible, transition over to (or alternate with) small Mason jars with silicone ‘straw top’ toppers that fit securely over the jar opening to protect against spills.
- Heating up leftovers in the microwave? Then do it in microwave-safe glass or ceramic containers – and absolutely NEVER in plastic containers, which tend to leech even more toxins into your food when heated.
- While you’re microwaving, skip the plastic wrap cover and either go without a top, or loosely cover with a microwave safe glass lid, and tilt it to the side to allow steam to escape while heating.
- Ditch old, ED-flaking plastic cooking utensils, strainers, salad spinners and cutting boards for steel or sustainable bamboo versions.
- Got laundry? Phase out the plastic gallon jugs and transition over to powdered laundry detergents and/or ‘soap sheet’ detergents in zero-waste and compostable packaging.
- Upgrade your shower curtains – and while you’re at it, your bathtub mat – all that vinyl is loaded with phthalates, and showering in it is not a healthy way to start your day!
- Use EWG’s Skin Deep® cosmetics database and Guide to Healthy Cleaning to find personal care and cleaning products that are free from phthalates as well as other harmful chemicals.