We’ve all seen it: plastic bags tangled in trees waving like the victory flags they are. Because if you think about it, we’ve been at war with plastic for the last few decades, and from the look of grocery stores and the environment, plastic has won. Think about your daily routine. Where’s the plastic? If you’re like me, it’s everywhere. From the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep, I am quite literally surrounded by plastic. This is both good and bad. Plastic has allowed us to achieve amazing things and pursue new technologies. If it weren’t for plastic, we wouldn’t have the advanced medicine, green technology, or computers that we have today.
Photo Credit: smchealth.org/bagban
A problem arises, however, when we become wasteful of plastic. Referred to as “single use plastic” it is the bottles, bags, and packaging that can be seen littering the streets and water ways. Single use plastics create a problem for society in more ways than one. We are so addicted to its convenience, we fail to see its short comings that have potentially harmful impacts on human health and the environment. From concerns of chemical leaching to concerns of environmental degradation, plastic has us at its mercy.
So what exactly is so bad about plastics? Environmentally speaking, they are both directly and indirectly harmful. Plastic is petroleum based, and it is estimated that about eight percent of all oil harvested goes towards making it. Oil harvesting, as we all know, is a potentially dangerous and destructive process that can sometimes result in oil spills, causing major loss of life, possibly lowering biodiversity. And while most plastics are recyclable, according to a study done by the EPA in 2012 only about nine percent of all plastic produced was actually recycled that year. The rest winds up in landfills or water ways where they can potentially leach harmful chemicals into the environment, including drinking water.
Directly, plastic is responsible for the death of thousands of animals a year. Over 180 species of animals have been found to eat plastic, and when their stomachs get full of the toxic stuff, they die. Sea turtles are notorious for eating plastic bags because they look like jelly fish, their favorite meal. Recently stories of whales succumbing to plastic’s invasion have circulated in the media. In 2013 a sperm whale washed up on the shores of the Netherlands with 37 pounds of plastic in his stomach, which ultimately caused his death. When they’re not in animals’ stomachs, discarded plastics that wind up in the ocean leach chemicals, of which the effects are unknown.
This brings up another short coming of plastic: just how safe is it? Plastic has really only been around (for consumer use at least) since the 1950s. As such, studies on how chemicals in plastic affect humans are relatively new. None the less, this is a very heated topic that has received much attention lately. A lot of the attention has been focused on BPA, a chemical found in the lining of canned foods and in polycarbonates, or plastic number seven. This chemical is concerning because it is an endocrine disruptor, which means that it can affect your hormones. Specifically, BPA mimics estrogen, and has been linked to higher risk of breast cancer, birth deformities in boys, and autism. A study done by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that over 93% of Americans have BPA in their urine.
Another concern is a group of chemicals called phthalates. Phthalates are very similar to BPA in their possible health concerns, however, they are much more wide spread in the environment. According to an article by Maia James, founder of Gimme the Good Stuff, you couldn’t avoid phthalates even if you wanted to. That’s because aside from being used in plastics like PVC (plastic number 3), they are also used in fragrances, soaps, shampoos, deodorants, make-up, and cars, among other things. What’s worse, most of the time they are part of a product’s fragrance, not the actual product itself. Because of this, companies are not required to include phthalates in the list of ingredients. So you could be wearing phthalates and not even know it. Again, phthalates are linked to developmental abnormalities in baby boys, so the widespread use of them is pretty scary.
The last chemicals of concern are styrene and benzene. These chemicals can be found in plastic number six, polystyrene, commonly called Styrofoam. Polystyrene is the plastic that makes up coffee lids, take out containers, and Solo cups, just to list a few items. The chemicals styrene and benzene can leach from polystyrene, especially when heated. This is problematic as many people eat and/ or heat their food in polystyrene, allowing these chemicals to leach into the food. Styrene is associated with various neurological and gastrointestinal problems and can even lead to an increased chance of getting leukemia and lymphoma; while benzene is actually listed as a known carcinogen and reproductive toxin in California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
So you can see why plastics are so controversial. On one hand, they are a great convenience to our very busy life style—who among us can live without their mostly plastic phone? On the other hand, they may be slowly killing us (and quickly killing animals). Reports on their health effects are controversial and the results seem to depend on who is doing the study. Studies done by the FDA find that small amounts of these chemicals are safe for consumption, while studies done by schools and researchers find that they are dangerous. Who should we believe?
Whether you believe plastic poses health risks or not, one thing is certain: not all plastic is necessary and improperly disposed plastic is a threat to wildlife. This brings me back to single use plastics. Over 1.6 billion gallons of oil a year are used to create plastic bags alone. Can you imagine that number if plastic bottles were factored in? Single use plastics are an unnecessary use of our finite resources, and therefore we should all work together to eliminate them. By making smart consumer decisions we can take single use plastics out of our lives and out of our environment, so that when we walk down the street, won’t have to see any of plastic’s unsightly victory flags in our trees anymore.
For more information on plastic, recycling, and how to reduce single use plastic consumption, please visit these websites: