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Bioremediation, biomaterials, and plastic-free alternatives

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

Outline


The crisis of petroleum plastics

Plastics take 10-1000 years to decompose, averaging 450 years. In landfills, UV light breaks the bonds to form microplastics and then nanoplastics, which can contaminate groundwater and get consumed by humans in the form of drinking water or seafood consumption. They sink to the bottom of the ocean and get consumed by plankton, the cornerstone of the marine food chain. Persistent organic pollutants (PoPs) also adhere to microplastics with high affinity and can end up in our guts.


Bioremediation of plastics: State of the science

Thankfully, scientists are investigating microbes that have evolved a way to eat plastic. Wei et. al identified microbial enzymes, like cutinases and laccases, that can break down both plant and synthetic polymers. A study published in August 2019 found that certain bacterial strains indigenous to the marine environment were able to reduce the weight of polyethylene and polystyrene plastic by 7-11% in five months.


Although promising, this isn't a complete solution. The choices each individual consumer makes now can ripple into huge effects down the line, affecting the next 15 generations.


Insidious labeling: what's actually in plastics?

Plastics can have "indirect additives" that companies are not legally required to disclose.


"BPA free" doesn't mean non-toxic. Instead, companies may be using BPS, which is nearly as harmful as BPA.




BPA and BPS (top) mimic estrogen (bottom).


BPA, BPS, and phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) found in plastic. Endocrine journals widely acknowledge that these compounds are unsafe even at low doses. The introduction of fat, heat, or acid can cause these compounds to leach into food. Acidic foods such as tomatoes, juice, lemon, vinegar, and soups cause the most leaching of plastic.


Plastics may even contain heavy metals and PVC. A 2018 study sampled black plastics and revealed that some contained brominated flame retardants, chlorine, PVC, cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and antimony.


Health effects of plastic

Chemicals in plastic have been associated with fat gain, precocious puberty in girls, inflammation, cardiac arrhythmia, diabetes, decreased testosterone in males, lowered sperm count and quality, lower vitamin D, apoptosis, genotoxicity (DNA damage), breast and prostate cancers, and asthma, allergies, and hyperactivity in children.


There are steps we can take to eliminate plastic products from our kitchens and plates.


Food shopping, done smart

Here are some eco-friendly tips to cut down on single-use plastics.


glass

and lunch / takeout containers

cups


wood

spatulas


paper

straws,


1. Bring shopping bags and produce bags

Bring your own grocery bags to the supermarket. Bring your own containers for produce and deli, when possible. Many supermarkets now have biodegradeable produce bags; however, not all have caught on. For individual produce items, try bringing your own reusable produce bags.


2. Bulk refill

Refill herbs, spices, nuts, and lentils in bulk. Whole foods offers this option.

3. Glass water

Instead of buying plastic water bottles, get reverse osmosis water, sold in glass jugs at Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowe's.


4. Support farmers

During the growing season, ditch grocery stores and opt for backyard gardening, farmer's markets, or community-supported agriculture (CSA).


Storing your food: Alternative materials


1. DIY

A plate can be used to cover a bowl, eliminating the need for plastic wrap.


2. Glass

Tons of supermarket items come in reusable glass jars, such as pickles, jam, olive oil, pasta sauce, and salad dressing. These can be washed and reused. Mason jars are another option. Food and beverages stored in glass tend to taste best.


3. Metal

Stainless steel is a practical option for water bottles, and it is much preferable to "BPA-free" plastic refillable water bottles. It also lends itself well for straws or cups. Be aware that steel production requires mining and manufacturing, but most of it is recycled. Make sure the steel is of a high-quality grade, so it doesn't leach into food or drinks when exposed to heat or acidity. Also, be on the lookout for plastic lining.


Aluminum foil is not an eco-friendly option and is not recyclable.


4. Reusable beeswax wraps

Move over, plastic wrap. Bee's Wrap and ETee wraps are organic, biodegradable, and can be washed and reused up to 150 times.


5. Paper

Wax paper is not recyclable or heat-safe, but it can be composted. Meanwhile, natural (unbleached) parchment paper is heat-safe and can be used to wrap sandwiches and veggies.


6. Fabric

Dish towels, cloth napkins, or cheesecloth can be used to store herbs and produce that need some ventilation. Cloth napkins can be used to wrap sandwiches, fruits, and veggies. There are also fabric bowl covers.


7. Wood

Wooden bowls, spoons, and cutting boards are another option.


Conclusion

As always, ensure the products you are using are sustainably sourced and safe.


For specific recommendations of plastic-free brands, see this list by the blog Treading My Own Path.


As for my own journey towards plastic-free living, I have switched from a BPA-free water bottle to glass, which later shattered, before settling on stainless steel. Most days, I choose to bring lunch to work with my own silverware and Pyrex containers. Although they are imperfect solutions, this is a gradual process that makes use of what's already in my home. I am also encouraging my family to choose healthier, more sustainable options going forward.


Do you have any sustainability tips? Feel free to share in the comments!

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