Plastic revolutionized the world, but it did so with consequences. In recent years, more attention has been given to the potential dangers of plastic to human health and the environment. However, plastic remains one of the most widely used materials for everything from packaging to construction to consumer goods to manufacturing.
Because it’s virtually “everywhere,” this makes it extremely difficult for one to live a life without exposure to plastic, even for those who already do all they can to live a clean life for their own health and that of the environment. Even removing plastic from your life might not be enough to completely eliminate your exposure, since food manufacturing and production relies upon plastic. As a result, much of the food you eat already has some plastic contamination before it even gets to you.
Before learning some key steps you can take to reduce your toxic load, even if you cannot get it all the way to zero, let’s review why it is so important to live a life without plastic.
The Dangers of Plastic
Numerous studies have found a connection between plastic exposure and numerous health problems. Plastic is made up of several different chemicals, many of which potentially cause problems through leaching into food or becoming part of dust particles.
Phthalates, a group of chemicals that make plastics more flexible and durable, have been linked to problems with the neurodevelopment of children. A systematic review found that there is an association between higher levels of plastic metabolites in urine with lower IQ, problems with hyperactivity and attention, poor social communication, and other cognitive and behavioral problems.
You have probably heard a lot about another toxic component of plastic: BPA, or bisphenol A. BPA has been the subject of many studies that demonstrate its connection to a variety of health problems, which has led to many restrictions on its use.
A systematic review and meta-analysis found that those who have higher levels of BPA metabolites in their urine have a higher chance of having hypertension, diabetes, and general or abdominal obesity. It has also been linked to reproductive issues, ADHD in children, asthma, cardiovascular disease, immune disorders, and thyroid problems.
Is BPA-Free Plastic Safe?
The solution to living a life without plastics is not simply switching the “healthier” BPA-free options. Although the dangers of BPA have received the most press, it is by no means the only problem-causing molecule in plastics. Studies have found that some BPA-free plastics have similar estrogenic activity as plastics with BPA. Many BPA analogs have also been linked to endocrine problems, issues with reproduction, possible neurotoxicity, and more.
Almost all plastic products have some type of compound that can be categorized as having estrogenic activity, regardless of the retail source, product, resin, or BPA-free designation. In some instances, BPA-free products actually leach more chemicals with estrogen activity, which cause adverse health problems, than BPA-containing products. Additionally, phthalates have been linked to several health problems, as stated above.
Tips for Living a Life Free of Plastic
It is difficult to completely rid yourself of your toxic burden thanks to the ubiquity of plastic. The majority of plastic exposure comes from ingesting it, rather than through non-food sources such as thermal paper, dust, or medical devices. Therefore, the most important action to take is to reduce how much food or beverages you consume that might have some level of contamination from one or more of the toxic chemicals in plastic.
The following are a few tips on how to reduce your toxic burden for a healthier life by living a life as free of plastic as possible.
Switch to Glass Containers: There is no shortage of ways that you come into contact with plastic through your food, but one of the main ones is through storing food in plastic containers. A simple solution is to switch to glass containers. There are plenty of options on the market to fit your needs and budget.
A study looking at baby bottles found that glass was a good alternative to plastic baby bottles, since they had no BPA or plasticizers and also did not leach heavy metals. Based on this information, it would stand to reason that glass would be a good substitute for any plastic containers you might have.
Buy In Bulk: Look in your pantry and refrigerator; what do you see? Probably lots of food in plastic packaging. Removing processed foods is one way to reduce this, but many healthy items like rice, cereal, quinoa, and beans also come wrapped in plastic. However, when you buy the same items in bulk, you can often forgo the plastic container, especially if you bring your own reusable container to the grocery store. One study found that eating foods that were not canned or packaged in plastic for just three days led to lower urine levels of plastic metabolites, specifically BPA and DEHP.
Get Produce Directly From Farms: It is also common to find produce in pre-packaged plastic bags or wrapping in the grocery store. You can say no to pre-packaged produce and bring your own cloth bags to put your produce in when you buy them from the store to cut down on plastic. Additionally, you might be able to reduce your plastic exposure through buying directly from farms, either at a farmer’s market or CSA delivery.
Some of these farms might still use plastic, but it is still easier to limit your plastic exposure. Because the items are grown locally and sold close to their harvest, they will have been stored for less time in the plastic.
Forgo Straws: This is a simple solution to getting rid of plastic: just say no to straws. Drinking from straws make it easy to drink your chosen beverage, especially when you are on the go. However, they provide a conduit of non-durable plastic through which you drink your beverages, which means it is highly probable that plastic is leaching into your drink with every sip. If you must have your straws, opt for reusable varieties made from glass or metal.
Carry Your Own Cutlery: Another commonplace to come into contact with plastic is when you use plastic cutlery for eating on the go. Simply bring your own non-plastic cutlery with you to avoid this exposure to plastic. You can find options made to carry with you that are made of bamboo and other non-plastic materials.
Remove Items from Packaging Right Away: It is inevitable that you will buy something that is covered in plastic. Perhaps it is bread or your favorite peanut butter. Maybe you love having tortillas but do not have the time or skills to make your own. When this happens, simply transfer them to a glass or other non-plastic container as soon as you get home. Some plastic chemicals might still leach into your food, but it will be less than if you keep it in the packaging to accumulate over time.
Do Not Heat Plastic Containers: Heat increases the breakdown of the plastic, so more toxic chemicals leach into your food. This happens faster with plastic containers that have undergone prolonged use, most likely because they become slightly damaged and are less tolerant to the heat. So, if you do use plastic containers, do not heat any food in them.
Wash Your Hands: Believe it or not, simply regularly washing your hands can reduce your exposure to harmful plastic chemicals. A study on Taiwanese girls aged between 4 and 13 years old found one of the most effective strategies for reducing the number of phthalate metabolites in urine was simply frequently washing hands.
The study took place over a period of one week and reviewed seven different behavior modifications meant to reduce the level of phthalate metabolites in the urine. The study subjects were children who might have more hand-to-mouth contact than adults, but adults might still experience some hand-to-mouth interaction that might increase their level of plastic exposure. Therefore, it is good advice for everyone, especially since hand washing also reduces your exposure to germs.
Do Not Drink From Plastic: There are many situations in which you might come into contact with plastic through your beverages. When you buy a drink to go, it is most likely in a plastic container. Even hot beverages typically have a plastic lid, even if the cup itself is made from other materials. You might also have a plastic water bottle, even if you use a reusable one. Plus, it is common to buy milk, juice, and other beverages in plastic containers.
In the Taiwanese study above, another highly effective strategy for reducing plastic metabolites in urine was avoiding drinking from plastic cups. To do this, use glasses at home and opt for a glass container to carry your water around with you. Additionally, bring your own reusable, preferably glass, container with you to get your favorite hot or cold beverage when you are out and about.
Consider Your Personal Care Products: There is another, often overlooked, way that you are exposed to plastic: your personal care products. Just think about the containers in which your shampoo, conditioner, makeup, lotion and other items are stored. Most likely, it is some type of plastic.
In the same Taiwanese study, the researchers found that reducing the amount of shampoo and shower gel used also led to a marginally significantly lower level of certain phthalates in their urine. Therefore, choose brands that use glass containers or buy reusable glass containers and fill them up with your favorite products to reduce your exposure.
I’ve listed my favorite personal care product brands in the Resources section of my book, Whole Detox.
Implement as many of these solutions as possible, and you will find your toxic burden go down significantly. You might never achieve a completely plastic-free life, but it is worth it to get as close as you possibly can. In fact, I recently had a full workup of my body fluids to see if I had levels of harmful chemicals, like plastics and parabens. Fortunately, all of my efforts paid off as I was in the “green” for my results. No alerts could be found! So know that your attempts at going plastic-free will pay off! And, further, your health—and that of the environment—will thank you.