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Pondering Plastics

on December 3, 2012

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Take a look around you and there’s a 99.9% chance that you will find something made of plastic within a 12-inch reach.  Plastics surround us, and in many cases, have served invaluable purposes ranging from protecting things in our home to our babies in the car.  When I think back to plastic, I have fond memories of becoming a recycling bin lunatic child, rinsing out every piece of plastic I could get my hands on to recycle.  One’s head could spin trying to remember the different types of plastic as well (yes, those little numbers written in the recycling sign on the bottom on the containers serve a purpose) – from PET, PETE, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, PS, to PP, what the heck did I know about what I was eating and drinking out of on a daily basis?  In 2002 alone, about 107 billion pounds of plastic were produced in North America.  However, when one looks at the composition of plastic and how overly used it has become, caution needs to be raised about the levels of environmental and health pollution that now exists.  Namely, we need to be aware of plastics used in food storage and preparation, in addition to plastics that come into contact with our bodies and products we use.

Generally speaking, despite being affordable and easy to produce, plastic is toxic to produce, use, and dispose of.  Some common plastics release harmful chemicals into our air, foods, water supply, beverages, and toiletries.  Our increasing use of plastics is causing an enormous amount of evolving pollution – every bit of plastic that has ever been created still exists (except for the little bit that has been incinerated, which releases toxic chemicals).  There are literally giant floating plastic islands of waste in our oceans, where sea life (some being the fish we eat) and water sources are exposed to toxicity.  Thanks to a fabulous term called “Chemical Migration”, even more scary are the health risks associated with leaching chemicals from plastics, ranging from direct toxicity (as in the cases of lead, cadmium, and mercury), carcinogens (as in the case of diethylhexyl phthalate [DEHP]), and endocrine disruption, which can lead to cancers, birth defects, immune system suppression and developmental problems in children.

There is a ridiculously huge amount of information about the dangers of plastic on the internet, in books, and broadcasted throughout the world, but here are a few basics to keep you, your family, and your home a healthier place.  The process of making plastic begins with carbon from petroleum, natural gas, coal, or biological sources, so not only do we need to worry about these products leaching into whatever is stored in them, but it increases our dependency on fossil fuels, which will strike up a great debate at a dinner party.

The issue of plastic safety is a hot one today – I mean, look at all of the products labeled “BPA Free” (especially on baby and children’s products).  Thinking about it, have you ever drunk out of a plastic water bottle that made your water taste like it was pumped out of a chemical factory?  What about microwaving something in a plastic container just to have it emerge looking like it was a melted science experiment gone bad?  (I always loved trying to scrub red sauce stains out of those disposable plastic containers….).

So, how do we protect ourselves against exposing ourselves to the harms associated with plastic?  The best place to start is to try avoid using plastic as much as possible.  This means, take a look around your house and take inventory of what’s plastic – I bet you’ll be shocked.  See what you can replace with non-plastic items.  So even if you are not ready to make the plunge to expunge your home of plastic, try to adopt at least one suggestion below, as every little bit helps.

For example:

  • Buy food in glass or metal containers.  Many companies make non-plastic water bottles, lunch containers, baby food containers, and children’s dishware.  You have to remember, each time you eat or drink something off/out of plastic, you are potentially taking in the chemicals that were used to make that plastic.
    • Try to use glass or metal baby bottles.
  • Avoid heating food in plastic containers, or storing fatty foods in plastic containers or plastic wrap.  This includes Ziploc bags.
  • Do not allow babies or children to chew on or play with plastic items or teethers that are not marked “BPA free.”
  • Try to use natural fiber clothing, bedding and furniture.  Plastic items also off-gas chemicals into the air.
  • If you do use plastic products, please be sure to recycle them so they are properly disposed of or repurposed.
  • Be aware of your toiletry products that are stored in plastic – whatever you put on your skin gets absorbed into your body within 60 seconds.  Check the bottom of the container and choose products that come in safer-grade plastics.
  • Avoid all PVC and Styrene products
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