If You Won't Do It For The Environment, Do It For Your Health.
This is one of those topics that isn't so sexy. The plastic problem and the environmental mess we are in is a extremely concerning. I don't know about you but I always feel overwhelmed by colossal problems like this when I think about what I could possibly be do make an impact? Realistically, what can I really do as one person? Perhaps you don't really feel dialled into environmental issues. Maybe you care but you don't think there is much you can do, so you largely ignore it. I want to give you another lens to see the plastic crisis through, one that might make the issue less esoteric, and might move you to act. What if I told you that your health and health of your children depends on reducing and at best, removing plastic from your environment? Forget about the environment, do it for your health.
I want to talk about the plastics in our environment, how they affect our bodies and consequently why they are of concern. I'll then propose some solutions, most of which are not difficult to implement in your life.
Do not Let Plastic Touch your Food or Your Body
I want you to begin thinking about where plastic touches food that you eat and where it comes into contact with your body. These are the items containing plastic chemicals that you really need to be mindful about:
Plastic food containers
Plastic food packaging
Plastic water bottles - reusable and single use
Aluminum cans (almost all aluminum cans are lined with a plastic coating!)
Plastic food wrap
Cash register receipts
There is an increasingly large body of evidence coming to light which establishes a causal link between plastic that comes into contact with our bodies and health issues. We are talking about chemicals such as Bisphenol-A (BPA), BPS (one of BPA’s derivates) and phthalates. When we drink from plastic water bottles or make pasta sauce from canned tomatoes, we are ingesting plastic chemicals. Plastic food wrap, in addition to the concern of phthalates, has the ability to leach diethylhexyl adipate (DEHA) into the food it comes in contact with. When we handle paper receipts we can absorb BPA just by touching them. Obviously, if you work as a cashier, this is a lot more likely and of greater concern. Plastic, especially when heated, can leach these chemicals into our food and then they enter our bodies but there are also concerns that leaching happens even in the absence of heat. Acidic foods, like tomatoes, and citrus, have the ability to erode plastics and cause BPAs and phthalates to leach into our food. This is also why, when purchasing diced or pureed tomatoes, you want to stay away from traditional metal cans as they are lined on the inside with plastic (usually BPA). The acidity of the tomatoes will cause chemicals to leach out of the plastic liner! Personally, now that I know what I know, I cringe whenever my food touches plastic.
Of primary concern is the ability of these chemicals to mimic our hormones because their chemical structure is similar to some of our hormones, mainly estrogen. For this reason, they are called xenoestrogens or endocrine disrupting chemicals. Because of this, they are linked to breast and prostate cancers, infertility, obesity and PMS. If you are a woman, you need to be particularly careful as many breast cancers diagnosed are caused by excess estrogen in our bodies. Exposure to plastics is most definitely causally linked but certainly not the whole picture. Here are the basics on how xenoestrogens are able to disrupt hormones:
Your cells work with a lock and key mechanism with your hormones. Your body creates hormones that are designed to basically lock onto your cells and in doing so, produce certain hormone dependant actions in the body. Hormone disrupting chemicals can block natural hormones from "locking" onto cells or they can lock in and mimic a natural hormone, thereby interfering with natural hormone processes. Besides this, xenoestrogens can add to the total estrogen in the body, contributing to estrogen dominance.
So now you know the what and the why, let's talk about how you can lower your exposure to hormone disruptors by getting rid of plastics that come into contact with your body. These are top ways you can lower your exposure:
Do not heat food in plastic containers.
Avoid the use of plastic wrap to cover food for storing or microwaving.
Use glass or ceramics whenever possible to store food.
Do not leave plastic containers, especially your drinking water, in the sun.
If a plastic water bottle has heated up significantly, like in your car on a hot day, throw it away.
Don’t refill plastic water bottles.
Avoid freezing water in plastic bottles to drink later.
Avoid touching receipts - ask the cashier to place it in the bag for you or say no thank you to taking a receipt (thankfully many stores now offer email receipts). If you are a cashier or handle a lot of receipts, wear protective gloves
Like most people, I've been doing the opposite for most of my life. I did not have a clue about any of this. It's not like they teach you about environmental health in school and frankly, this information is just coming to light. I find that unless you've had a chronic disease or cancer and have taken your health into your own hands, you have no reason generally to learn about this. Now that I know better, I try and do better whenever feasible. It's something I'm paying more and more attention to, and trying to make changes in my household. I admit that it's not easy to make these changes. We are so used to convenience! The one thing I don't want this post to come off as is "higher than thou" because I’m definitely not perfect. The important part is that I understand what I’m being exposed to and I think everyone has a right to this information.
Healthier Swaps for Plastic Packaging
Progress over perfection. Here are the changes that I've made that I think are relatively easy to implement.
Replace all plastic food containers with glass - yes, they are heavier but it's worth it.
Kids lunches are now packed in glass (yup their lunch bag is heavier but they don't seem to care!) or stainless-steel containers.
Plastic ziplock bags can be replaced with paper snack bags and re-usable cloth bags or use a small glass container.
Plastic wrap is replaced with beeswax wraps - these are the ones I like: Obeego . This is a hard one, I do admit. You need quite a few of these in order to meet all your food wrap needs. They are really effective and they actually preserve food much better than plastic. I'll admit that we still have a plastic wrap roll (it's one of those big ones that lasts forever) and it does get used from time to time but I try to keep it away from touching food. I'm trying to phase it out.
I generally only buy canned beans or tomatoes from Whole Foods or from Eden Organic. Both those brands have BPA-free cans. If a brand is BPA-free, they always advertise it on the can.
Health Consciousness Helps the Environment
You might think its self-centred to suggest that you take care of your health before you think about taking care of the environment. Here's the thing though. People are always motivated to some extent to be healthier - we go to the gym, we try to eat healthy, and people are also inherently self-centred. Environmental health is just an extension of all the other things you do to keep your body healthy. And I truly think that if we could shift our focus to our own health as a primary driver of ridding our lives of plastic, then larger scale environmental change would accelerate. As the saying goes, change starts at home.