Oh, that prophetic line from the movie The Graduate. There’ve been a lot of stories lately about plastic in our environment, thanks to the hundreds of millions of tons produced globally each year.1 Because it’s so convenient, plastic is a tough habit to break. So why bother? Plastics and their additives cause problems at all stages in what we call their lifecycle and for our health. And plastics that contain halogens (chlorine, bromine, and fluorine), like vinyl (PVC), nonstick products, and those containing flame retardants, are even more problematic from start to finish.
What is the lifecycle of plastic?
- First, there’s the production stage. Most plastic is produced from fossil fuels, like petroleum and natural gas. When these are extracted from the earth, they can contaminate air and water resources.
- Then there’s the consumer stage. Look around your home and in your shopping bags to see just how many products are either made from or are wrapped in plastic. Another source that you can’t see is what leaches into your food during processing.
- Finally, there’s the disposal stage. Though much plastic is interred in landfills, many tons have escaped and is now circling our oceans or spoiling beaches. Though developed countries like the U.S. successfully capture 99% of plastic waste, countries in East Asia and the Pacific lose around 60% to littering or improper disposal.1 Also, incineration of trash containing halogenated plastics generates very toxic molecules like dioxins.
The lifecycle stage that has the most impact on you and your family’s health is the middle one, i.e. what makes it into your home and your body. You may wonder how something ‘inert’ like plastic, meaning it doesn’t decompose or damage products, can be toxic to you? It’s not like you intentionally chew on the wrapping that your sandwich came in, right? Though most plastics are very large molecules that your body can’t absorb, there are smaller molecules associated with them that are absorbed into your bloodstream from the food you eat or across your skin. These include additives like phthalates that make plastics soft and pliable, components of hard plastics like bisphenols, or grease-proof linings made from perfluorinated chemicals. And recent studies have shown that the fish we eat for dinner may now be contaminated by microplastics, another route of exposure for us.2
These smaller molecules are the chemicals that are problematic for your health, particularly for children and developing fetuses. For example, phthalates have been shown in animal studies to impair male sexual health, with similar problems showing up in humans who were exposed to higher levels of these chemicals during gestation.3 BPA, and it’s substitutes, have been shown to cause genetic damage and interfere with estrogen receptors in animal studies.4
How do these chemicals get into your food? Studies have shown that processed foods contain higher levels of phthalates than whole, unprocessed foods. For example, processed cheese products were recently analyzed for phthalates. Cheese powder contained higher levels than regular cheeses, though they were also contaminated by these chemicals.5 In other words, the more food is handled prior to getting to you, the higher the levels of plastic components it will likely contain. And a recent study showed that people who eat out more often had higher levels of both phthalates and BPA in their bodies.6 Finally, storing your food in plastic creates more opportunities for these chemicals to leach into your food. These molecules are especially prone to breaking off or leaching out of plastic containers when you heat food in them.
There are some great resources about breaking the plastic habit – I’ve added links to a couple at the end of this blog if you want to dive into a plastic-free (or at least, less plastic-filled) life. I recommend that you try going plastic-free for a month. You’ll discover how many ways you use plastic in the kitchen and shift your practices to reduce your exposure for the long term.
Finally, though it may seem overwhelming to try to reduce plastic in the world, particularly when its use is so prevalent by manufacturers, stores, and restaurants, there are some things you can do to have an impact. First is not buying products that are processed or heavily packaged. Second, let companies know you want them to reduce their use of plastic. Trader Joe’s, which is a heavy user of plastic, finally listen to consumers and has promised to reduce packaging.
Here are a few easy ways to break the plastic habit in your kitchen:
- Eat more whole, unprocessed food.
- Replace plastic storage containers with glass and stainless steel and bags with mesh or fabric. On a budget? Reuse glass jars from sauces/condiments or invest in some canning jars, though these don’t work for reheating your food. I reheat and store leftovers in a dish covered by a plate.
- Never cook in plastic. Use heat-resistant glass, stainless steel, or cast iron. Be careful about using non-stick pans, even when they claim to be “green”.
For more info, check out these resources for great suggestions on reducing plastic from your life, especially in your kitchen:
- zerowastechef.com has great resources for eliminating plastic and other waste in your life.
- https://myplasticfreelife.com/, Plastic-Free, Beth Terry
- Occurrence of Microplastics in Commercial Fish from a Natural Estuarine Environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin, volume 128 (575-584), 2018.
- BPA Substitutes May Be Just as Bad as the Popular Consumer Plastic. Science, September 13, 2018.
- Recent Fast Food Consumption and Bisphenol A and Phthalates Exposures among the U.S. Population in NHANES, 2003-2010. Environmental Health Perspectives, volume 124 (1521-8), 2016.