Single-use plastic shows up in our everyday lives: it's in water bottles, shopping bags, grocery bags, straws, cups, forks, utensils, plastic wrap, and takeout containers. Plastic sneaks into our households in BPA-free refillable water bottles, spatulas, and lunch containers.
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.
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
1. Bring your own bags to the supermarket. Bring your own containers for produce and deli, when possible.
2. Refill herbs, spices, nuts, and lentils in bulk.
3. Instead of buying plastic water bottles, get reverse osmosis water, sold in glass jugs at Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowe's.
4. During the growing season, ditch grocery stores and opt for backyard gardening, farmer's markets, or community-supported agriculture (CSA). During cold months, buy at Trader Joe's, Costco, or local shops.
Storing your food
1. DIY: A plate can be used to cover a bowl, eliminating the need for plastic wrap.
2. Glass: Use mason jars. Alternatively, rinse and reuse glass jars from other food, such as pickles, jam, olive oil, pasta sauce, and salad dressing. This option is more expensive and fragile, but food and beverages stored in glass tend to taste best.
3. Metal: Stainless steel is another practical option for water bottles. 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.
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. Wooden bowls and spoons are another option.
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!