The Other (Scary) Side To Plastic Usage

We know about the damage plastic bags are causing environmentally, but what about to our health? PAT PILCHER explores the health ramifications of our plastic obsession.

With the single use plastic bag ban soon to come into effect, should we be smugly congratulating ourselves and feeling that we’ve done our bit to help the environment? Sadly, plastic bags are just the tip of the Tupperware-berg, and there is a much bigger problem which still exists.

While doing our grocery shopping, I was pleased to see a growing number of people bringing reusable bags with them. Many supermarkets are also working to discourage plastic bag use by charging a fee for heavier reusable bags – made out of plastic, sigh.

Either way, the ban is good news regardless of how plastic industry PR types spin it. While you’re probably well acquainted with the environmental issues associated with plastic, there’s a lesser known but really scary side to the use of plastic.  

It isn’t rocket science that most plastic bags end up at landfills where they leach chemicals into groundwater, streams and the wider environment. What isn’t so widely known is the fact that plastic packaging also leaches many of these chemicals into the food they’re storing. Perhaps the most widely known example of this comes from a compound called Bisphenol-A which is more widely known by its acronym, BPA.

BPA comonly gets found in polycarbonate plastic products including water bottles, baby bottles, and food storage containers. Here is where things start getting scary. In studies conducted in the USA, BPA was in the urine of nearly all test subjects. This finding is particularly worrying as BPA is effectively a synthetic estrogen. In practice, this means it can be highly disruptive to animal tissue, resulting in fertility issues and changes to breast and prostate tissue.

Another chemical found in the lethal cocktail leaching out of plastics is phthalates. These get added to plastics to give greater flexibility. Because of this, phtalates often get used in things such as clingfilm and shower curtains.  Phthalates also happen to be endocrine disruptors, altering the human body’s ability to produce hormones. The known health risks typically associated with phthalates are asthma in children, lower IQ’s for a developing fetus, and ADHD. They’re also under investigation as a possible cause for infertility in males.

The third and potentially nastiest chemical commonly associated with plastics is styrene. It gets used in styrofoam, which all over the world get used for disposable cups and takeaway food containers. Scarily, styrene leaches out of plastics when exposed to heat. In a nutshell, your coffee or Chinese takeaways could be a source of unwanted chemicals.

There are a large number of illnesses linked to exposure to styrene. At the less serious end of the spectrum are respiratory problems, memory and hearing loss issues, but at the other end is an increased risk for certain cancers such as leukemia or lymphoma. The US state of California is now debating how styofoam packaging should be labeled to let the public know of the potential health risks. In New York, sytrofoam containers are already banned.

If that lethal list of plastic nasties hasn’t already scared the bejesus out of you, consider the wider impact of plastics on the environment. Even though you’ve carefully disposed of plastic bags, take a good look around you next time you visit your local tip. If it’s a windy day, the odds are good that you’ll see a lot of plastic bags being picked up by the wind and blown around.

Many of these end up in waterways and eventually oceans, resulting in heartbreaking pictures of seals, sea birds, turtles and other ocean life entangled in them. Friction and exposure to sunlight eventually sees many plastics breaking down into smaller pieces. These are commonly known as micro-plastics. At their largest, they’re usually 5mm. At their smallest, they’re thinner than a single piece of human hair.

Micro-plastics have been steadily accumulating in oceans for a long time. Scientists estimate that there are at least 300,000 plastic items per square kilometre of the ocean and at least 100,000 plastic particles per square kilometre of the seabed.

In short, if you’re wondering why you should be worried about plastic, there’s plenty of good reasons.

What I find particularly galling with supermarkets selling heavier plastic bags are the huge numbers of flattened cardboard boxes most supermarkets have stacked around the back. Why throw them out if they can be reused by customers to transport their shopping home? Unlike plastics, cardboard is made up of wood pulp and biodegrades.

Sadly, the plastic bag ban only solves a small part of the plastic problem. Wandering up and down supermarket aisles reveals the massive volume of food packaged in plastic. Given the leaching issues associated with this, there is plenty of cause for concern and the situation needs to get treated as a public health emergency. It isn’t just the obvious plastic containers either. Many cardboard containers and paper bags are plasticised so they don’t break down when wet items are placed in them. Then there are jars whose lids are plastic and a lot of what often looks like glass is actually plastic.

Even more frustrating still, is the sensless and gratuitous use of plastic by so many supermarkets. It makes a mockery of the single use plastics ban. Case in point: The fruit and vege that is so often pointlessly packaged in plastic. Last week a photograph did the rounds on Twitter of mandarins that had been peeled and placed in plastic containers. Then there are cucumbers covered in shrink-wrap. It makes no sense at all when their skins are usually washed or peeled. And try getting baked goods in anything but plastic. Sigh.

So, what to do? For a start, vote with your wallet. If goods packaged in plastic don’t sell while competing products packaged in biodegradable or recyclable materials fly off the shelves, it’d be fair to assume that manufacturers might eventually start to change how they package up produce.

Where there are no non-plastic alternatives, talk to the retailer and/or the manufacturer. Most value customer feedback. If enough people provide feedback that plastic simply isn’t cool and is a potential health issue, the odds are good that they’ll start actively investigating less harmful alternatives.

Another option is to change shopping habits in favour of plastic-free alternatives. As a family, we’ve cut back massively on the amount of supermarket shopping we do. Nowadays, we purchase fruit and vegetables from local markets and meat from an old school butcher who encourages people to bring containers instead of supplying everything in plastic bags. Doing so has saved us a tonne of money. We also make use of an outfit in Wellington called the Nude Grocer. Everything they supply is in labelled glass jars, paper bags or cardboard boxes. There’s next to no plastics used anywhere.

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