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Society’s love affair with plastic is coming to an end. It is now undeniable that its hazards outweigh its benefits of convenience, and that something must be done to limit its adverse effects on human health and the environment.

We’ve become dependent on plastic to sustain our modern lifestyle, but now it’s polluting our oceans, our landfills, and even our bodies. 40% of plastic is used only once and then discarded—and each piece will take at least 450 years to biodegrade (some experts worry that more durable types of plastic will never completely break down).

Plastics contain toxic, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which inevitably end up in our bodies and waterways. Phthalates, BPA, and other plastic constituents have been linked with hormonal changes, reproductive dysfunction, premature cell death, and many other health issues.[1] And don’t think that “BPA-Free” plastic is any safer—studies have demonstrated that these alternatives are every bit as toxic.[2]

And plastic is in nearly everything, including kitchenware, paper products, shampoo, and dairy products. There have even been seized shipments of rice made from potatoes and synthetic plastic resin.

Despite these clear dangers, we’re having an awfully difficult time kicking our plastic habit. Seeing the inaction of corporations and consumers alike, some governments are stepping in and regulating the use of plastic. Jamaica is at the forefront of this movement—starting January 1, 2019, all Styrofoam, single-use plastic bags, and single-use plastic straws will be banned countrywide.

Plastic bans are a positive step (but we need to do more)

We’ve produced 9.2 billion tons of plastic since we started churning it out around 1950—and we’ve thrown away 6.9 billion tons of it. A United Nations report estimates that the world uses 4 trillion plastic bags and 500 billion disposable plastic cups every year.[3] Half a million straws are used (and thrown out) every single day.[4]

It’s no wonder that there’s a plastic island the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean (other estimates suggest it could be as big as Russia).

Marine plastic pollution is an especially pressing issues for island nations, where beaches and waterways are becoming increasingly clogged. Jamaica is not the first country to enact a plastic ban, but by proposing such an ambitious timeline and including all common single-use plastics in their legislation, the country hopes to inspire other nations to take decisive action.

It’s heartening to see that many other countries are taking similar steps. Taiwan also announced one of the farthest-reaching plastic bans in the world—one which will include all single-use bags, cups, straws, and utensils, and which will be in full effect by 2030. Kenya has already enacted the harshest plastic ban in the world: as of 2017, anyone caught using, producing, or selling plastic bags faces a $38,000 fine or up to four years in prison. Vanuatu, the United Kingdom, Australia, Zimbabwe, Canada, France, New Delhi, Morocco, Rwanda, and a handful of US cities are also jumping on the bandwagon.

While aspects of Jamaica’s plan still need to be clarified—such as the use of plastic products in packaged exports, and disability-based exemptions for the use of straws—the country is serious about hitting its goal. A member of the Jamaica’s ministry of economic growth and job creation explains the steps that are being taken to prepare the country for the ban: “We’re moving towards a ban on single-use plastic, but while we do so, we’re also working on a Plastic Minimization Project in collaboration with United Nations Environment, and with the support of the Government of Japan, to reduce and manage plastic marine litter from the land-based activities, in an environmentally sound matter.”

Meanwhile, scientists are hard at work developing plastics that will biodegrade quickly. The growing enthusiasm around plastic bans and regulations is much better news, though—biodegradable plastics may be a small step in the right direction, but many experts think they don’t represent a workable solution. Some of these supposedly eco-friendly plastics don’t even biodegrade like they should, and those that do run the risk of releasing toxic constituents into the environment at an even faster rate.

Most importantly, simply switching to plastic that disappears more quickly reinforces the same old habits of excessive consumption and wastefulness. What we really need is a shift in the culture of consumption, one that prioritizes thoughtfulness, carefulness, and concern for how our actions impact the planet.

You don’t have to wait for a plastic ban to do your part

Bans and regulations will obviously accelerate our collective shift away from plastic, but you don’t need to wait to take action. Start reducing your plastic usage today, for the good of your health and the planet.

Here are just a few suggestions to get you started: switch out plastic kitchenware for glass, avoid buying bottled water (and get a water filtration system instead), bring your own to-go cup to coffee shops (some restaurants will even let you provide your own non-plastic to-go container when placing your order), get reusable grocery totes, and recycle any plastic that you do end up using.

 


References

[1] https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Michael_Kamrin/publication/24033387_Phthalate_Risks_Phthalate_Regulation_and_Public_Health_A_Review/links/0a85e539507ade9976000000.pdf

[2] https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)30861-3

[3] https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25496/singleUsePlastic_sustainability.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[4] https://www.earthday.org/2018/03/29/fact-sheet-single-use-plastics/

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Plastic has solved many of the problems of industrial society. It’s lightweight, cheap, and easy to produce; no wonder it was once considered a marvel of modern science. Those days are over, though, as we now know that plastic triggers nearly as many problems as it solves.

Its non-biodegradable nature (once hailed as durability) has allowed it to clog our land and oceans, and its toxicity presents a grave threat to human beings, as well as the greater ecosystems of which we are a part.

One of the most common toxic plastic constituents is bisphenol-A (BPA). It can easily be used as a building block of resins, as well as a variety of plastics. It’s also a dangerous endocrine disruptor—that is, it mimics the body’s natural hormones and disrupts normal endocrine function as a result.

Because hormones regulate nearly every aspect of the body, it didn’t take long for researchers to discover the problems that BPA can cause.

A review of relevant medical literature reveals that seventy-five studies link BPA to “adverse perinatal, childhood, and adult health effects,” including cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, reproductive issues, asthma, developmental issues, birth defects, compromised gut flora, immune dysfunction, and more.[1]

And these risks affect nearly all of us—even a decade ago, the CDC reported in their National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey that 93% of all the urine samples they analyzed contained detectable levels of BPA.[2]

Such unequivocal data has prompted a widespread campaign to replace BPA-containing plastics with safer alternatives. But researchers are worried that these new plastics are just as bad for us.

How we accidentally discovered that BPA alternatives pose health risks

A recently published study demonstrates that BPS and other BPA variants have biological effects similar to those of BPA.[3] The strange part is that researchers made this discovery accidentally, while attempting to study the reproductive effects of BPA in mice.

Geneticist Patricia Hunt of Washington State University and her research team separated the mice into two groups: one that received doses of BPA through a dropper, and one that did not (the control group). Before long, the control group became almost indistinguishable from the BPA group, with both exhibiting adverse genetic effects.

After much confusion, Hunt finally figured out what was happening: both groups of mice were housed in plastic cages that were leaching bisphenol S (BPS), a widely used replacement for BPA.

This finding shifted the focus of the study, and the final published version reported on the multi-generational genotoxicity of both BPA and “replacement bisphenols.”[4]

The finer details of this genotoxicity are very worrisome: Hunt and her team report that BPA and its analogues can fundamentally disrupt the passing of genetic material during reproduction, and that the effects of such disruption (birth defects, lowered sperm count, reduced egg quality, etc.) can be passed down to future generations.

And toxicity aside, the study results also point to an equally worrisome phenomenon in chemical engineering—namely the tendency to replace chemicals of concern with structurally similar ones. The practice is so common that scientists have a name for these replacement chemicals: regrettable substitutes.

Subsequent studies have come to show just how regrettable BPA alternatives are—evidence overwhelmingly suggests that bisphenol S (BPS), bisphenol F (BPF), bisphenol AF (BPAF), tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), and other structural analogs of BPA are all endocrine disruptors and reproductive toxicants in animal models.[5]

How to minimize your toxicity risk

The study above reveals two worrying truths about the plastic industry.

First, it shows that, when rolling out replacements for plastic compounds that have been deemed toxic, manufacturers are always most likely to choose “regrettable substitutes.” Using structurally similar compounds is dramatically more cost-effective, and this practice isn’t technically prohibited by any existing regulation.

Secondly, the study reminds us that we have no way of knowing the risks of new plastic chemicals until a thorough examination is conducted—and manufacturers are simply not required to conduct any such safety evaluation before bringing their products to market.

The wise move when it comes to plastic products, then, is to assume that they’re toxic until proven safe. Experts particularly recommend avoiding plastics with recycling numbers 3, 6, 7, which all contain chemicals worthy of concern.

The absolute best course of action is to minimize your use of plastic altogether. Plastic is an ecological nightmare anyway, so any attempt to decrease your reliance upon it is beneficial for both your health and the environment. Ditch single-use plastics like grocery bags, takeout containers, straws, and coffee cups—they make up a significant percentage of all discarded plastic, and are easy to replace with reusable alternatives.

If you do still use plastic receptacles or kitchenware, try to avoid the most toxic types listed above, and don’t ever put plasticware in the dishwasher—the heat tends to leach toxic chemicals, which are then redeposited on the rest of your dishes.

 


References

[1] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0890623813003456

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18197297

[3] https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)30861-3

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29925041

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