The Toxic Effects of Plastic

Did you know that every single piece of plastic that was ever made still exists on Earth today! Mind blowing, right!

This is because plastic takes anywhere from 10-1000 years or more to break down, with glass bottles being estimated to take 1 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), so what happens is it breaks up into millions of tiny pieces called microplastics, which have now been found all over the world; in our water, in our soil, it’s in our food, in fish, etc. which we then ingest and it gets into our bodies, which is toxic to our health.

So not only is it polluting our beaches, our oceans, the environment in general, nut it’s also polluting us.

The first fully synthetic plastic – meaning it was completely artificial, none 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 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 rethink how we use plastic in our day-to-day lives.

For me personally, I strongly feel that the health of our planet and our own health would be much better off if we dramatically reduced (even eliminated where possible) our level of plastic use, and 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 issues 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 our body, bypassing the gut line barrier, where they enter our bloodstream, and from there we absorb the toxicity. The chemicals found in these microplastics mimic the hormone oestrogen in our bodies, triggering our hormone receptors over and over and over again, telling our 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 our bodies, which you can see here.

What exactly is ‘BPA

BPA is a chemical usually added to plastics to help make them stronger and be able to withstand more, but it’s also a know hormone disruptor and has the ability to mimic oestrogen in the body, which can lead to weight gain, hormone imbalances, infertility, and cancer (over the long-term). BPA 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, which can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain and even type 2 diabetes in some people.

Research has further shown that high levels of exposure to BPA is linked to health problems like infertility, obesity, heart disease, allergies, asthma, liver problems, cancer, and neurological problems such as ADHD.

Furthermore, plastic has now been discovered to leach into our foods and beverages via three pathways;

  • Heat – for instance if you have a hot beverage in a plastic cup (e.g. takeaway coffee), the plastic from that cup is going to leach into the beverage within which you drink, and you now have plastic in your body.
  • Grease/fat – if you have a plastic container that’s holding something greasy, plastic is lipophilic (meaning it’s attracted to the fat, attracted to the grease) and will leach into that fat. Even face creams, body butter 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 cream.
  • Duration – if something’s been sitting on the shelf for ages in plastic, the toxins will be leaching into that.

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 media and the public, manufacturers set out to remove it from their plastic products. However, there’s a twist. Manufacturers are now using Bisphenol-S (BPS), Bisphenol-F (BPF) and other similar chemicals as replacements, which research has found to be just as bad as BPA, and cause 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 nearly undergone the same amount of testing BPA has had, so the effects of these chemicals are still unknown.

Phthalates

Phthalates are another hormone disrupting chemical also found in plastics, as well as products like:

  • Cosmetics; deodorants, perfumes, moisturisers, nail polish, liquid soaps, shampoo, conditioners, eye shadows, hairsprays, etc.
  • Household items; detergents, carpeting, adhesives, air fresheners, plastic wrappers, floor tiles, food containers, shower curtains, etc.
  • Medical/personal-care products; coatings of pills and supplements, gelling agents, stabilisers, lubricants, binders, emulsifying agents, etc.

They’ve 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 we encounter and receive most of our phthalate exposure, this toxic chemical can also be absorbed through the air and skin, too. Higher concentrations of phthalates have been recorded in indoor air compared to that of outdoor air.

BPA has been claimed by the FDA to “pose no risk at trace levels“, but the thing is, they’ve been studied at high doses, which showed little effect on the animals they studied it on (because the body recognises these toxins and removes them). BUT, what they’ve found recently is that BPA at low doses can have huge negative impacts overtime. Our body is less able to identify these toxins as foreign bodies, and so the effects at low dose are very different to what they found at high dose

The Impact of Plastic on the Planet

By now you may have already heard or seen just how much plastic pollution is occurring all 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 begin to get a perspective on just how much of a problem plastic pollution has become.

It’s reported that over 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year, with around 1 million plastic bags used every minute. It can take up to 1000 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, get into our soil, and pollute our bodies and our planet. It’s estimated that for every square mile of ocean, there are about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it (most of which is on the ocean floor). Approx. 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s.

But it doesn’t stop there. The plastics industry is said to be tripling production over the coming years, worldwide. Why? Well, plastic is made from oil, a fossil fuel, and because of all the attention on oil and 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 top 10 world’s most plastic polluting brands are:

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

Researchers have also found 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 can cause range of symptoms associated with endocrine disruption. These chemicals and plastics can also bioaccumulate in these marine animals, building more and more as they move further up the food chain, which can result in us humans consuming populations of fish with large amounts of these 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-today items we use contain plastics, but I’m a firm believer that any big change starts with one small step at a time. So rather than looking at reducing plastics as this HUGE thing, start with tiny changes, like making your bathroom products plastic-free, and build from there (I share many plastic-free alternatives to skincare, body care, hair care, etc. here)

BPA (Bisphenol A) has been removed from many items due to its health-harming effects. BUT, what’s not commonly known is most often, BPA-free items are replaced with other bisphenols (like BPS, BPF, etc.) which have been found to cause similar health effects.

Actions We as Individuals can Take

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

  • Reuse and recycle as much as possible!
  • Swap to using stainless steel water bottlesThese are great as replacements for disposable plastic water bottles. What’s more, fill your water bottle up from a stainless steel reusable water filter to help reduce 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. Shop at 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 of plastic exposure. Instead, switch to stainless steel or glass for storage. If you’re worried about glass containers breaking (which is understandable), silicon containers are another alternative.
  • 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 exposure and waste.
  • Switch to using glass and metal plates, dishes, bakeware, and silverware. Avoid using single-use plastic cutlery, plates, etc. While the convenience of not having to clean may seem alluring, the overall impact plastic has on our 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 lessen your child’s exposure to plastic and its toxic chemicals. Plus, they last way longer!
  • Switch to using cloth nappies instead of disposable ones. Now 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, 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. It’s important to check with a doctor before taking this or any new product, especially if taking any other medicine or supplement or if pregnant or nursing. Be sure to check ingredients to make sure there is no risk of an allergic reaction.

What are some plastic swaps you’ve made?! Share with us 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