Plastics are cheap, useful and ubiquitous. They’re also made almost entirely from mixtures of synthetic chemicals that don’t occur in nature.
In addition to the core ingredients, plastics can contain additives that color, scent, strengthen or improve the durability of a product. It’s impossible to know exactly which chemical additives are in any plastic container, nor to ascertain whether they’re safe.
While chemical compounds let plastics to do some impressive things, some are hazardous. They can contaminate air, water, soil and the food chain when released during manufacture or incineration.
Researchers worry about the health hazards of something that many of us do every day: using plastics to heat and store food. Studies show that a complex mixture of chemicals leach from plastic food containers when they’re heated or exposed to UV light. In laboratory studies these chemical mixtures mimic estrogen, with unknown consequences for human health.
Other reasons for concern: Corporations use hormone-disrupting phthalates to soften PVC plastic and add fire retardants to plastic electronic items. The synthetic estrogen BPA, once common in plastic water bottles and baby bottles, is still used in the linings of most metal food cans. And perfluorinated chemicals are widely used to create a greaseproof layer in fast food packaging and food containers such as pizza boxes and candy bar wrappers.
Thankfully, we can lower the amount of plastic-related chemicals in our bodies, our homes and the environment – as well as the risks they pose – by simply using fewer plastics in our daily lives.
Here are some easy steps to reduce your use of plastics:
- Cut back on processed and packaged foods. Prepare whole foods in your own kitchen and shop the grocery store’s bulk bins for non-perishable ingredients (bring reusable containers from home).
- Purchase a refillable, BPA-free water bottle instead of buying disposable plastic ones.
- Store food in glass. Reuse pasta sauce or salsa jars as a cheap and easy way to do this.
- Bring reusable cloth shopping bags to the market and support city and county programs that charge a fee for disposable shopping bags. Don’t forget to wash your bags periodically.
- Pack lunches in unbleached wax paper and reusable containers made of stainless steel, ceramic or glass.
- Choose natural fibers. Plastics hide in everything from clothing and toys to furniture and foam pillows. Look for products made of wool, cotton, hemp and other plastic-free, biodegradable fibers.
- Make your own cleaning products. Common, nontoxic home ingredients such as baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice do the trick and don’t require extra packaging.
Still having trouble avoiding plastics? Visit Know Your Plastics to learn how to choose the safest choices for your family and the environment.