Updated: Jan 30, 2022
It's no secret that the deluge of single-use plastic is destroying life and mother Earth. Meager recycling rates are not sufficient to save the planet. If you are unsure of next steps to maximize environmental benefit, read on for practical ideas and a day-by-day calendar guide to going low-waste, and help do your part to preserve nature's beauty with your consumer power.
What's in plastic?
What are the ingredients in petroleum-based plastic? The following polymers, compounds, and atoms have been found in plastic:
Polystyrene (aka styrofoam)
Bisphenols: BPA, BPS, BPF
Brominated flame retardants
PVC and chlorine (used in pipes and cling wrap)
Heavy metals and metalloids: cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and antimony
Teflon and fluorine
Plastic is used in a variety of industries due to its versatility, flexibility, and durability. It is also widely used in medical devices, science and engineering labs, and pharmaceutical storage due to its long shelf life.
However, the vast majority of plastic use is derived from consumer activity. Small actions can have a monumental impact.
Environmental and Health Hazards of Plastic
Beyond their momentary convenience, single-use plastics inflict a lot of damage. Petroleum-based plastics usually enter landfills, are incinerated to release toxic fumes into the atmosphere, or enter the waterways. Plastic breaks down slowly, kills marine life, alters the soil microbiome, bioaccumulates in seafood, and contains endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
If the environmental effects don't seem proximal enough, the health effects are dire. Bisphenol A (BPA) is associated with myocarditis (heart inflammation), insulin resistance, fatty liver, neurotoxicity, impairment of brain development, infertility, vitamin D depletion (a major risk factor for COVID-19 mortality), gut dysbiosis, inflammation, DNA damage, mitochondrial dysfunction, breast cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, and asthma, with disruption to health observed even and especially at low doses.
With expanding awareness of the risks of plastic, BPA-free plastics emerged onto the market, which are purported to be safer despite a paucity of studies to support this assumption. On the contrary, there is evidence to suggest that BPS and BPF may be at least as harmful as BPA. BPS may have more severe effects on fertility than BPA. Additionally, BPS was more biopersistent than BPA in a pregnant sheep model. BPS and BPF have been found to be more deleterious to the soil microbiome than BPA. All three bisphenols have been detected in the urine of U.S. adults. Finally, vinyl chloride is linked to angiosarcoma of the liver, altogether suggesting that numerous ingredients in plastic display toxic effects.
If you are adequately convinced that petrochemical-based plastics don't belong in your body or in the ocean, here are 7 general tips to get started on a low-waste lifestyle:
1. Explore your bedroom, fridge, and bathroom.
Take inventory of the plastic you see around you. Can these products be packaged differently? Can a similar product made of different materials serve the same purpose? Ask yourself, How will I change my consumer decisions when it's time to restock?
2. When grocery shopping, choose glass or paper.
Buy items wrapped in cardboard, paper, or glass containers instead of plastic. Non-plastic alternative materials include glass, stainless steel, wax paper (which is compostable), beeswax, unbleached parchment paper (which is heat-safe), towels, cloth napkins, cheesecloth, and wood. Aluminum foil is not sustainable.
3. Beware hidden plastic.
Cans and milk cartons are also lined with plastic. Cans are typically lined with BPA. Choose whole, unpackaged foods whenever the option is available.
4. Only buy from ethical businesses.
Shop locally, eat organic, and support your local farmers' markets and orchards, which usually use cardboard. Look for businesses that source their materials sustainably and renewably. Consider buying into community-supported agriculture (CSA) for the next growing season.
5. Grow your own food.
The massive upsides to growing your own food are not only mindfulness of growing practices and minimized plastic usage but also enhanced self-sufficiency and food security. Even without land, seeds and dirt are enough to grow an indoor herb garden.
6. Use what you have before replacing your products.
I encourage people to reuse the items they already own for as long as practicable and then recycle. Consider donating perfectly usable items as an alternative to recycling.
7. Shop low-waste stores instead of Amazon.
As much as I have enjoyed two-day shipping, I'm not impressed with the amount of plastic packaging used and would rather wait an extra day or two and spare the soil.
For eco-friendly stores that boast elevated standards and higher-quality ingredents for reasonable prices, I recommend Wild Minimalist, The Earthling Co., Grove Collaborative, and Mighty Nest. For beauty products, I suggest Credo Beauty. Lastly, Branch Basics offers non-toxic cleaning products.
These curated websites save some time I've spent manually researching individual ingredients and help me discover new brands to love.
8. Overwhelmed by the options? Start small.
I get it; you care, but it's hard to make changes. Plastic has infiltrated every aspect of our lives--chances are high you're using a device made of plastic right now. It's in the cars we drive. We're all doing the best we can, and no one expects you to be perfect. Your simple actions make a huge difference.
Take it one step at a time. Start with the big four: bags, bottles, straws, and coffee cups. I've created a 31-day plastic-free July challenge to help you with this transition process with small daily acts.
If you take nothing else away from this challenge, the most critical items in a low-waste minimalist's arsenal are: (1) reusable shopping bags, (2) reusable produce bags, (3) stainless steel or glass water bottles, and (4) reusable coffee mugs.
Bonus points for (5) ditching cling wrap for reusable beeswax wraps or covering leftovers with a plate and (6) substituting zip-seal sandwich bags with wax paper. Your health and the Earth will thank you for ridding single-use plastic from your life.
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BPA Dose-Response is Non-Monotonic: The Endocrine Society's Second Scientific Statement on Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals
A History of Petrochemicals in the Consumer Market: Explosion in plastic pollution post-World War II seen in marine sediments
Say No to Receipts and Hand Sanitizer: Holding Thermal Receipt Paper and Eating Food after Using Hand Sanitizer Results in High Serum Bioactive and Urine Total Levels of Bisphenol A (BPA)
Well, That Was Unexpected: Natural occurrence of bisphenol F in mustard