Since large-scale production of synthetic materials began in the 1950s, humans have produced an astonishing 8.3 billion tons of plastic and more than half of that production was in the last 18 years.
Since large-scale production of synthetic materials began in the 1950s, humans have produced an astonishing 8.3 billion tons of plastic and more than half of that production was in the last 18 years. According to a study conducted by Science Advances, a staggering amount of plastics are acquired and discarded in the same year because nearly half of all plastics are used in packaging.
From single use products like grocery bags, food wrappers and plastic utensils to toys, storage containers, water bottles and even the lining of many canned foods, plastic is a part of our everyday life and nearly impossible to avoid. But researchers found that only 10 percent of plastic waste in the United States is recycled; and worldwide more than three-quarters of plastic waste ends up in landfills or natural environments. Plastics currently comprise much of the pollution and trash found in our environment, and thanks to its durability, it can stay there for centuries.
But we are doing more than just using plastic products. We are ingesting it, too.
Plastics do not biodegrade; they wear down into smaller and smaller particles called microplastics, and in some countries microplastics are manufactured for use in cosmetic products such as toothpaste and facial scrubs. Microplastics are also found in soil, beach sand, the air we breathe and our water. Even though these tiny plastic particles are less than one millimeter in dimension, they pose a significant environmental hazard when they find their way into our lakes, rivers and oceans. Because they are so small, microplastics escape water filtrations systems and end up in our food and water supply.
So what happens to the plastic we ingest? Scientists still aren’t sure about the amount of microplastics a body can tolerate or how much damage they do. One research review estimated that the average person ingests around 5 grams of plastic a week — roughly the equivalent of a credit card. Plastics are oily, which promotes the accumulation of containments that could make ingesting plastic particles particularly toxic throughout time.
Some plastics are known to be harmful. Phthalate, a chemical added to plastic to make it flexible, and bisphenol A (BPA), found in plastic packaging and food storage containers, can leak into our food and have been associated with cancers, reproductive problems and weakened immune systems. In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report saying that these chemicals may put children’s health at risk and recommended families reduce exposure to these plastics.
Reducing our dependency on plastics makes sense for the environment and our health. Following are some ways you can use less plastic.
Drink your water from the tap. Although all drinking water is one of the biggest contributors to microplastic ingestion, bottled water contains much more.
Don’t heat foods in plastic containers. Heated plastics have been known to leach chemicals into food, so transfer food to a glass or other non-plastic container to heat.
Avoid putting your plastic through the dishwasher, unless it is marked dishwasher safe. The heat from the dishwasher contributes to wear and tear of the plastic and increases the likelihood of chemical leaching.
Avoid plastics with known health risks, including BPA, phthalate and styrene. Look for recycling codes 3, 6 and 7 as indicators that your plastic contains one of these.
Buy less plastic wrapped foods.
Eat less canned foods, many of which are lined with plastic. The worst food in cans is acidic foods like tomatoes, as they can increase the amount of plastic and chemicals leached into the food.
Minimize household dust by vacuuming and cleaning regularly. Use reusable containers but don’t reuse single-use plastic containers, such as water bottles.
Choose natural fiber clothing. Nylons and polyester fabrics shed plastic microfibers that are flushed out in the washing machine into the environment. Choose a better tea bag. Over 95 percent of tea bags contain plastic. Look for ones that are sealed with a string, staple or are folded but not glued.
As the oceans become more contaminated by microplastics, so does sea salt. Look for salt made from rocks, such as standard table salt or Himalayan rock salts. Don’t litter and recycle your plastics whenever possible.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.