Updated: Apr 6, 2022
I’m sure you’ve heard about issues with plastics. We know they don't break down. Plastic trash is found pretty much anywhere: from the oceans to national parks to your own backyard. We know plastics have chemicals in them and that we use way too much of it. But how bad are they really?
The short answer: Bad. REALLY bad.
Plastics are bad for the environment, bad for plants, bad for animals, and bad for humans (I know we are animals, but I want to emphasize that we aren’t immune from this).
Yes, plastics have created some amazing advancements in our world and there are plenty of life-saving devices created from them. Although there are some good things made from plastic, that still doesn’t make them good for us, though.
There are many overlapping issues here. Essentially, plastics are bad for us from manufacturing to disposal.
Creating plastic requires fossil fuels and chemicals.
Using plastic releases chemicals into the environment and people.
Dealing with plastic waste (recycling, burning, etc.) creates toxic gasses and solids that don’t break down.
Plastic not properly disposed of becomes environmental litter.
Plastics never break down.
Plastics are in nearly everything.
A few months ago, I talked about how your health is connected to the health of everything around you. The many issues surrounding plastic illustrate this point exactly. Our environment is suffering due to the excess of plastic waste which in turn affects humans. Here’s one graphic example of how this works. Our oceans are full of microplastics that are taken into the food web and ingested by ocean creatures that we eat. Similarly, our soils are becoming laden with plastics that are taken up by agricultural crops that we eat. Plastic is also in the water we drink. The result of all this? A 2019 study estimated that humans eat and drink the equivalent of one LEGO brick worth of plastic EVERY WEEK. These plastics may or may not have chemicals in them still. They may or may not affect how our body functions. They may increase the possibility of infections from bacteria stuck to the plastics themselves.
That’s disturbing friends.
In fact, a study that’s been hitting the news lately declares that microplastics have been found in human blood for the first time. No one has any idea what this means for human health, but I’m guessing it isn’t good.
The problem is that plastics never break down. They simply fall apart, making smaller and smaller pieces that float around the environment and end up in living tissue (plant, animal, and human). These tiny bits of plastics, called microplastics, have been found in every layer of the ocean. They are so small it is impossible to filter them all out. At least some of the microplastics in our environment come from waste treatment plants that cannot remove them out before releasing the water. Quite a lot of it comes from litter that slowly breaks down.
Microplastics aren't always an accident either. Some of them are intentionally manufactured to be in the products we purchase. Cosmetics are infamous for having microbeads included in the products for various purposes. They can also be used in abrasive products or textiles such as clothing. This means that simply by washing your laundry or taking a shower you may be releasing microplastics into the environment (or ingesting them yourself).
The other major problem is that plastics are simply everywhere. Take a walk around your house and try to find a single drawer or tabletop without any plastic on it. Even things that don't immediately look like plastic probably have some sort of plastic component. We wear plastics on our bodies. We cook our food in them. We wash with them and clean with them. We stick them our mouths and hold them on our bodies. We can't just be concerned about plastic out in nature. We live with every moment of every day.
In addition to the plastics themselves, all plastic products are created with chemicals. The multitude of possible chemicals used in plastic production is astounding. The Plastic Health Coalition estimates that the process of making plastic packaging could use up to 4,000 different types of chemicals, with at least 63 of those identified to be hazardous to human health. This is just plastic packaging, not any of the other types of plastic we use every day.
We ingest plastics and chemicals from plastics in so many ways. Water bottles are infamous for releasing chemicals into the water you drink. Heating plastic releases chemicals into your food (think of anything plastic you put in a microwave). And how many plastic things do we put in our mouths regularly? Mouth guards. Toothbrushes. Mouthpieces of all kinds. Plastic food utensils. Pens (ew). What is all that plastic releasing directly into our bodies?
Of course, we can’t talk about plastic without thinking about how we get rid of plastic waste. Most plastic cannot be recycled. Of all the plastic “recycled” by the general public, quite a lot of it is actually dumped in landfills anyway or used as fuel (a toxic process itself). A study of all the plastic ever created estimates that only 9% has been recycled. That’s because recycling plastic into something usable is more expensive than making new plastic. Most companies won’t invest the extra money. It’s also remarkably easy to contaminate a batch of recyclable plastic. Anyone leaving food residue in their recyclables will make it hard (or impossible) to recycle anything it comes in contact with. How many people do you know who never clean out their plastic before throwing it away? Yes, some plastic can and is recycled, but unless you are checking to make sure your recycling program is legit, there is a good chance it isn’t happening.
I want to emphasize that even if you do not live with a landfill nearby or a processing plant that burns plastic you ARE affected by it. There is no way to get around this. Plastics are in your home and your body. You get plastic chemicals on you and in your all the time. Yes, it all happens in micro amounts, but that is precisely why it is so hard to determine the exact effects on your body. We know instinctively that microplastics in your blood is bad, but exactly how bad and what they do is going to take some time to figure out. In the meantime, companies and people wanting to bury their heads in the sand can honestly claim that there is no scientific evidence stating that it is bad for you.
We know that this is ridiculous. Even if we don't know exactly what those plastics and chemicals are doing, we have ample evidence to prove that chemicals, even in small amounts, cause disruptions in biological systems. From a physical and energetic standpoint, those microplastics and chemicals are invading your body and making it harder for you to heal. They are causing tiny disruptions that, over time, build up to larger infections, illnesses, and dysfunctions. Our bodies have to work harder to expel the foreign substances and function somewhat normally. Even if we can't list exactly how every single chemical used in plastics are harming us. they are affecting everything and everyone on the planet in some way. So, although plastics are good for many things, we need to get a lot smarter about how we use and dispose of it.
At this point I hope you are not totally panicking. There's no reason to stay up at night worrying about this. I do hope you are concerned enough to want to do something to help fix this problem. Since we are all a part of it, it will require a lot of people to get on board to help make some real change. If you want to help work toward a solution, below are some ways to get started.
“It’s only one straw,” said 8 billion people. – Unknown
Everyone needs to start thinking about reducing their plastic use. That includes everything from refusing plastic bags at the store to avoiding hidden plastics in cosmetics and clothing. There’s so much to say here, but I’ll simply give you a few good places to begin exploring:
Go on Pinterest or Google and type “plastic free life” (or kitchen, or bathroom) and start learning more.
The Plastic Health Coalition has a simple app called My Little Plastic Footprint. Download it, create an account, and let it guide you through simple ways to reduce your plastic use.
Jump on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/TikTok and search for “plastic free life” and join communities swapping tips and resources for reducing plastic use.
For your own personal health, I suggest focusing on moving away from plastics in your kitchen and your bathroom to avoid additional issues from ingesting chemicals and microplastics.
As consumers reduce their own plastic waste, we will start to make a change in the world. But we also need to put pressure on big companies who manufacture, use, and sell plastic on a larger scale. In order to do this, connect with organizations who are fighting plastic waste from the top down. They can always use people willing to share their info, sign their petitions, get involved in campaigns, and donate money to create big change. Here’s a good list of nonprofits doing this work. Two of my favorites from this list are the Story of Stuff and 1 Million Women.
As you reduce your plastic use, you will also reduce your plastic waste. It’s unlikely, though, that you will eliminate it all together. I’ve been working on this for years and I still purchase and use plastic which means I still have plastic waste I need to deal with responsibly. My current favorite solution is to use the recycling options through TerraCycle that allow me to recycle plastic waste I cannot avoided. I’ve been impressed with this company and their dedication to finding ways to create revenue streams from plastic most companies don’t touch. Although the process still requires chemicals and some toxic side effects, they are doing their best to recycle responsibly and healthfully. I know their waste boxes seem expensive, but it is amazing how much you can fit in there if you are careful. My household of three fills about one kitchen waste box a year with plastic we cannot recycle any other way.
All that plastic out in the world right now also needs to be cleaned up. Picking it up and throwing it in a landfill doesn’t necessarily solve the whole problem, but in many ways it is our best solution right now. It keeps it all from breaking down into our soil and water where it travels through the food chain. As you go about your life, take time to (safely) pick up plastic on the beach, by the side of the road, in your yard, on the playground, or wherever you may be. By doing this, you also teach those around you that picking up litter is important and everyone should be involved.
I want you to know that even if you do every single thing on the list, you WILL still have plastic in your life. Be realistic and do as much as you can to stop using plastic without driving yourself nuts. I’ve been working on this for years and I’m still shocked at how much plastic moves in and out of my life (even more since COVID hit). All I can do is continue to work on it and know that I am helping without expecting perfection.
If you do everything on this list, will you be helping us solve the problem? YES! We need every single person to try to do what they can. If everyone takes tiny steps, overall it creates big change. That’s the power of the collective “we” working together to solve the problem. Every bit helps.
We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.
– Anne Marie Bonneau
You don’t have to make a dozen changes every day (unless you want to). Commit to one thing this week. Then do another next week. Then another the week after that. Even if you just do one a week, that’s still 52 changes you will make this year. Do it for yourself and for the world. It’s affecting us all and we all need to be a part of the solution. I’ve given you a lot of links and ideas above to get started. You can also check out my Sustainable Living board on Pinterest where I collect ideas for living plastic free (among other things).
I feel like I rushed through a lot of information here and there is still so much more I could say! If there’s more you want to hear or if you have questions, shoot me an email at email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you and learn more about how you are dealing with plastic in your life.