Still, we are also now finding that many of the 'alternatives' are not necessarily any better for us, and in fact, some research finds eco-friendly options like plant-based plastics more dangerous than we thought initially. When it comes to utensils and products in our homes and our lives, we need to take a good look at all that goes into making them.
Plastic Pollution Is A Serious Problem
Just in its general production, plastic releases dangerous phthalates, dioxins, ethylene dichloride, cadmium, lead, vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals. Chlorinated plastic releases toxic chemicals into the soil and then in turn, they seep into groundwater or drinking water. Our ecosystem is globally interconnected, and this seeping causes serious danger to all the species that drink the water.
As if that's not scary enough, many of those toxic chemicals leech into the food or water that we are using plastic to contain. Ever wonder why you hear, "Don't heat plastic or wash in the dishwasher?" It's because putting plastics in heat-even the 'dishwasher safe' plastics (as if there is such a thing) can be quite dangerous for the entire family. Yes, even if you put them on the top rack. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is significant concern about chemicals in plastics. That's because many of the chemicals considered 'Generally Recognized as Safe' by the FDA were recognized as such under antiquated and archaic regulations from the 1950s. We know more, so we aim to do better today. It's hard in a world of marketers who'd tell you otherwise, though.
And do we even have to tell you what plastics do to our ocean habitats? It's a global tragedy on an epic level.
As For Me And My House
In my house, we only permit BPA-free toys, sippy cups, and other plastics while trying to minimize our use of plastic altogether. Doing so is supposed to spare us from hormone-disrupting chemicals found in bisphenol-A. But these plastic items still aren't safe (if by safe we mean products that don't leach other hormone-disrupting chemicals). Research now indicates that nearly every plastic product (including BPA-free) is made up of chemicals that stimulate estrogenic activity (EA) in human cells.
Estrogen made by our bodies in the right quantities at the right time is a good thing. But chemicals with EA have been linked to a whole slew of frightening problems like increased rates of asthma, obesity, premature puberty in girls, infertility, reproductive cancers, and a number of neurodevelopmental disorders.
To perform the study, University of Texas researchers purchased 455 widely available plastic products. Although most were labeled "BPA-free" it wasn't possible to determine exactly what chemicals they contained. Apparently this is proprietary information closely guarded by industry. To determine if the products had estrogenic effects, researchers exposed extracted versions to solvents meant to mimic food and beverage items these plastics were likely to contain. Then, they exposed these extracts to a type of human breast cancer cell that's highly receptive to estrogen. Cells that multiplied in the presence of plastic extracts indicated that those particular chemicals were estrogenic.
The results? Nearly every plastic product they tested leached EA chemicals. Some BPA-free products actually released more EA than other plastics. That included eco-friendly plastics made from plant products, which apparently released EA due to the additives used.
A more recent study by University of Calgary scientists indicates that bisphenol-S, found in many products with the "BPA-free" label, might actually be more harmful than BPA itself. Researchers exposed zebra fish, a good model to study human brain development, to bisphenol-S (an ingredient found in many products deemed "BPA-free"). The results showed abnormally timed growth of neurons in the embryos, the same growth surges found when embryos are exposed to BPA. The disruption of prenatal cellular activity appeared to result in hyperactive behavior. In fact, early abnormal growth of brain cells was specific to male hormones, perhaps indicating why more boys than girls are diagnosed with certain neurodevelopmental disorders.
Researcher Deborah Kurrasch was surprised by the results, especially since the dose used was "a very, very, very low dose, so I didn't think using a dose this low could have any effect." Another researcher in the study, Hamid Habibi, said "Finding the mechanism linking low doses of BPA to adverse brain development and hyperactivity is almost like finding a smoking gun." They recommend pregnant women limit their exposure to products containing bisphenols and say this and other studies support removing bisphenols and structurally similar chemicals from consumer products.
Ninety percent of Americans show trace amounts of BPA in urine, breast milk, and umbilical cord blood. Why are potentially dangerous plastics used in toys, food packaging, and beverage cups (as well as in healthcare)? The Food and Drug Administration considers compounds safe until proven otherwise.
Resources & Further Reading on This Topic
- Eliminating Plastic From Our Lives
- Nine Ways To Reduce Plastic Use
- Leaning Disabilities Linked to Environmental Toxins---Take Action
- Unacceptable Levels
- Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too
BioPlastics To The Rescue?
So what about bioplastics? Bioplastics are plastics that are made from plants or other biological material instead of petroleum, another fossil fuel. They're made by extracting sugars from plants like sugarcane and corn, and then converting those into polylactic acids (PLAs). Bioplastics can also be made from polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) that are engineered from microorganisms. PLA plastic is the new up and coming plastic commonly used in packaging food and PHA is found more in medical devices where traditional plastic once held the court.
The thing is, PLA often comes from the same big facilities that are making ethanol. If one of the arguments for bio-based plastics is the value in it reducing our carbon footprint (and it is), we need to remember that plant-based plastic and oil are both resources that require 'foods' in some form.
And therein lies debate. The growth of plants for plant-based plastics can also lead to pollution from fertilizers, and somewhat as concerning to many humanitarians, the diversion of land from the production of food for the hungry of the world. There's huge debate over the humanity of using food-based plastics in an already and increasingly food-scarce world.
Not to mention, depending on how it was made, discarded bioplastic has to be sent to a landfill, recycled like many traditional plastics or sent to a specific compost site. The sad truth is, it most often ends up in landfills. Without intense heat, bioplastics won't degrade in meaningful timeframes, meaning that landfills will still fill. And if they end up in the waters of the world, they'll be similar to petroleum-based plastic. They'll break down into micro-sized pieces and can last for decades, still threatening marine life.
What Can We Do?
As always, be mindful. Look at the packaging what you're buying comes in. Consider how you can use glass or stainless instead of plastic anything. Stop buying bottled water. Yes, we mean it. Stop buying bottled water. Invest in a nice stainless water bottle and refill that baby wherever you need to. Don't use straws (unless you need to, and if you do, we understand. Consider carrying your own reusable?). And check out some of our articles on the impact you can make with just a few different choices!
Related articles for your consideration:
What We Learned Going One Week (Almost) Plastic Free!
Practical Ways Your Family Can Reduce Plastic Waste
Paper or plastic? Neither, if you Worry About the Planet.
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