The Toxic Effects of Plastic

the harmful effects of plastic

Every single piece of plastic that was ever made still exists on Earth today… And not only are these plastics polluting our beaches, our oceans, and the environment in general, they’re also polluting us. Here are some of the harmful effects plastic is having on our health.

This is because plastic takes anywhere from 10-1,000 years or more to break down, with glass bottles being estimated to take one million years (the exact time is unknown) if left to decompose in landfill.

When we talk about plastic “breaking down”, it’s probably more accurate to say it “breaks up”, because over time, plastic doesn’t degrade (it’s completely synthetic), instead it breaks up into millions of tiny pieces called microplastics which have been found all over the world; in our water, in our soil, in our food, in marine life, in placentas and newbornsEverywhere.

Not only are these plastics polluting our beaches, our oceans, and the environment in general, they’re also polluting us.

The first fully synthetic plastic – meaning it was completely artificial, not one of its molecules were found in nature – was created in 1907 by Leo Baekeland.

With the discovery of plastic, the distribution of food and water around the world has since become much easier (however this does pose problems in itself), yet more and more research and data collected from years of increased plastic use now advise that we seriously need to rethink how we use plastic on a daily basis.

For me personally, I strongly feel that for the health of our planet, and for the sake of our own health, it’s time we started dramatically reducing (even eliminating, where possible) the amount of plastic we use day-to-day. Here’s why.

The Impact Plastic has on Our Health

Some chemicals, like Bisphenol-A (BPA), have already been ousted from plastic products sold around the world due to the serious health effects it poses. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

When plastic breaks up into microplastics, these pieces become microscopic, allowing them to get into the body, bypassing the gut line barrier, where they enter the bloodstream. From there, the body absorbs the toxicity.

The chemicals found in these microplastics mimic the hormone oestrogen in the body, triggering hormone receptors over and over and over again, telling the body, in a basic sense, that we’re “pregnant”. In men, this has resulted in reduced sperm count, the development of “man boobs”, and a shrinkage in male genitalia (penis).

Plastic Free Mermaid did a really interesting interview on exactly this; the impact of plastic on the human body, which you can see here.

What is BPA?

BPA is a chemical added to plastics to make them hardier, but it’s also a know hormone disruptor. BPA has the ability to mimic oestrogen in the body, which can lead to weight gain, hormone imbalances, infertility, and cancer (over the long-term). This chemical also triggers the release of nearly double the amount of insulin actually required by the body to break down food. If these high insulin levels persist over the long-term, the body can become desensitised to insulin, and this can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain, and even type 2 diabetes.

High exposure to BPA has been linked to health problems like infertility, obesity, heart disease, allergies, asthma, liver problems, cancer, and neurological problems such as ADHD.

How Plastic Leaches into Products

Plastic can leach into food and beverages via three pathways:

  • Heat: For example, if you have a hot beverage in a plastic cup (e.g. a takeaway coffee cup), the plastic from that cup will leach into the beverage inside, which is then consumed, allowing plastic to enter the body.
  • Grease/fat: As plastic is lipophilic (meaning it’s attracted to fat, attracted to grease), anything greasy or fatty sitting inside a plastic container will have plastic chemicals leaching into that fat. Even face creams, body butters and other products with a high fat content that are packaged in plastic will have this same effect happen to them; the plastic will leach into the fatty cream and counteract the positive benefits of that product.
  • Duration: If a food or beverage has been sitting inside a plastic container for long periods of time, there is a very high chance that toxins will be leaching into that product.

A study conducted by the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention ) found that over 92% of participants tested had trace amounts of BPA and other plastic chemicals in their bodies (this included new born babies).

Why ‘BPA-Free’ Doesn’t Mean Toxin-Free

Due to the massive push against BPA in plastics by both the media and the public, manufacturers have set about removing this chemical from their plastic products. But, there is a twist. Manufacturers are now using Bisphenol-S (BPS), Bisphenol-F (BPF) and other similar chemical replacements which research has found to be just as bad, if not worse, than BPA, causing similar health problems.

So, even though a plastic product may say “BPA-free”, the substitute used for BPA isn’t much better, and hasn’t undergone nearly the same level of testing that BPA has. So the effects of these chemicals are still unknown.

Phthalates

Phthalates are another hormone disrupting chemical found in plastics, and are most commonly used in products like:

  • Cosmetics: Deodorants, perfumes, moisturisers, nail polish, liquid soaps, shampoos, conditioners, eye shadows, hairsprays, and more.
  • Household items: Detergents, carpeting, adhesives, air fresheners, plastic wrappers, floor tiles, food containers, shower curtains, and more.
  • Medical/personal-care products: Coatings of pills and supplements, gelling agents, stabilisers, lubricants, binders, emulsifying agents, and more.

These chemicals have been linked to many health problems such as difficulty losing weight, reduced testosterone, infertility in men, birth defects in kids, certain cancers, an impaired immune system, and many other issues. While diet is believed to be where phthalates are encountered the most, they can also be absorbed through the air and skin. Higher concentrations of phthalates have been recorded in indoor air compared with that of outdoor air.

The Impact of Plastic on the Planet

By now you may have already heard or seen just how much of a problem plastic pollution is right around the world. When we think back to how long it takes for plastic to actually break down (or break up), and the devastatingly high levels of plastic pollution found in areas uninhabited by humans (like the Antarctic), we start to gain a perspective on just how much of a problem plastic pollution really is.

It’s reported that over one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year, with around one million plastic bags used every minute. It can take up to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to degrade, and even then the plastic doesn’t really break down, it only breaks up into microscopic pieces which enter our waterways, make their way into our soil, and pollute the bodies of every living thing on Earth. It’s estimated that for every square mile of ocean, there are about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating around in it (most of which is on the ocean floor). Approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s.

But it doesn’t stop there. The plastics industry has said they’ll be tripling plastic production worldwide over the coming years.

Why?

Well, plastic is made from oil, a fossil fuel. Because of all the attention oil has had in relation to the climate crisis, these multinational corporations are trying to figure out where else can they put this “material” to continue making money before all the eyes go onto plastic as well.

The Worst Plastic Offenders

The top 10 worst offending brands when it comes to plastic pollution are:

  • Coca-Cola
  • Nestlé
  • PepsiCo
  • Mondelēz International
  • Unilever
  • Mars
  • Procter & Gamble
  • Colgate-Palmolive
  • Philip Morris International
  • Perfetti van Melle

Researchers have discovered that UV light and the salt in seawater cause microscopic pieces of plastic to emit toxic chemicals like DDT and PCBs. When these plastics are ingested by marine creatures, these chemicals can cause a range of symptoms associated with endocrine disruption.

Furthermore, these plastics and their toxic chemicals can also bioaccumulate in marine animals, accumulating more and more as they move further up the food chain, which can result in humans consuming populations of fish with large amounts of these microplastics and chemicals in them.

Where these Plastics are Most Commonly Found

Below is a list of some of the most common plastic chemicals and where they’re found:

Polycarbonate, containing Bisphenol-A (#7):

  • Water bottles.

Phthalates (DINP, DEHP, and other chemicals):

  • Vinyl clothing
  • Emulsion paint
  • Footwear
  • Printing inks
  • Many children’s toys and products
  • Product packaging
  • Food wraps
  • Blood bags and tubing
  • Vinyl flooring
  • IV containers and components
  • Surgical gloves
  • Breathing tubes
  • General purpose lab wear
  • Inhalation masks
  • Other medical devices.

Polyvinylchloride (#3 PVC):

  • Plastic wrap
  • Food packaging
  • Toiletry containers
  • Cosmetics
  • Cot bumpers
  • Floor tiles
  • Baby dummies
  • Shower curtains
  • Water pipes
  • Garden hoses
  • Inflatable swimming pools

It can be overwhelming and frustrating to see just how many day-to-day items contain plastics, but I’m a firm believer that any big change starts with little steps taken consistently.

Rather than focusing on the enormous task of trying to cut out plastic waste completely, start with small changes, like making your bathroom products plastic-free, and build up from there (I share many plastic-free alternatives to skincare, body care, and hair care here)

Actions We Can Take as Individuals

One change each of us can make is to reduce the amount of plastic products we buy and use each day. This will help minimise our individual impact on the plastic pollution crisis, reduce our exposure to these toxic chemicals, and in the long run help us save money! Here are some great places to start:

  • Reuse and recycle as much as possible.
  • Swap to using stainless steel water bottles. These are great replacements for disposable plastic water bottles. Filling up your water bottle using a stainless steel reusable water filter can also help to reduce your exposure to harsh chemicals that may be present in the water supply.
  • Stop purchasing foods packaged in plastics. See my guide for sustainable, zero-waste grocery shopping. This will help to reduce the amount of plastic waste we contribute to landfill each year, as well as reduce exposure to plastic chemicals that may leach into our food and beverages. Shop at local farmers markets and bulk food stores, and use reusable bags to carry your items.
  • Replace food storage containers with reusable ones. Thin plastic storage containers, plastic wrap, and plastic bags are some of the main sources for plastic exposure we encounter on a daily basis. Instead, switch to stainless steel or glass containers for storage.
  • When out and about, bring your own reusable metal/glass bottle or thermos. Avoid takeaway cups and Styrofoam containers, as they’re major sources of plastic waste.
  • Switch to using glass and metal plates, dishes, bakeware, and silverware. Avoid using single-use plastic cutlery, plates, and utensil sets. While the convenience of not having to clean may seem alluring, the overall impact plastic has on the planet and our health is just not worth it.
  • In place of plastic toys, buy wooden or metal toys for the kids instead. These will help to reduce your child’s exposure to plastic and its toxic chemicals. Plus, they last way longer!
  • Switch to using cloth nappies instead of disposable ones. This may seem a little gross, but before you disregard it completely, cloth nappies are nothing like they used to be! For instance, our washing machines are much more high-tech, we have advanced fabrics and designs, and if all else fails we have a wealth of knowledge and information available to us online! Using cloth nappies may not be for everyone, and if this is the case for you, there are some eco-friendly disposable nappy options available now, too.

As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor before trying or using any new products. I am not a doctor. All opinions expressed are my own personal thoughts and feelings of the products mentioned. Check with your doctor or health practitioner if you are uncertain about trying out any of the products, recipes or tips mentioned in this post.

What are some plastic swaps you’ve made? Share in the comments below.

Lots of love,

🖤 Vanessa

Sources:

4Ocean Team. (January 20, 2017). How Long Does it Take Trash to Decompose. 4Ocean. Retrieved from https://4ocean.com/blogs/blog/how-long-does-it-take-trash-to-biodegrade

The History and Future of Plastics. Science History Institute. Retrieved from https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics

Wells, Katie. (July 30, 2018). The Dangers of Plastic. Wellness Mama. Retrieved from https://wellnessmama.com/23757/plastic-dangers/

Nelson, Kathryn. (July 23, 2021). Mermaid Interviewed by Julia Wheeler & Paul DeGelder on DirtDowUnder.com. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/G0ap-_XyfcA

Calton, Jayson, PhD, Calton, Mira, CN. The Micronutrient Miracle. Victoria: Nero, 2015. Print.

Axe, Dr. Josh, DC, DMN, CNS. (July 16, 2018). BPA Toxic Effects & Symptoms: How BPA Destroys Your Body. Dr. Axe.  https://draxe.com/bpa-toxic-effects/

Ruggeri, Christine, CHHC. (August 10, 2015). Phthalates, Fat-Promoting Chemicals, Are Hiding Out Here… . Dr. Axe. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/phthalates/

Wells, Katie. (August 23, 2018). Cloth Diapers 101: How to Get Started. Wellness Mama. Retrieved from https://wellnessmama.com/61634/cloth-diapers/

10 of the World’s Most Polluting Brands. (November 17 2019). Pollution Solutions. Retrieved from https://www.pollutionsolutions-online.com/news/waste-management/21/breaking-news/10-of-the-worlds-most-polluting-brands/50721

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