The Harmful Effects of Plastic

What’s the Alternative?

A staggering eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the oceans every year; plastic from carrier bags, packaging, food containers and drink bottles. Once released into the environment, plastic waste leaches toxic chemicals which kills wildlife and contaminates the ecosystem. Marine animals eat the plastic which compromises their health and spreads these toxic chemicals through the food chain.

The chemicals in plastics have been linked to serious health conditions in humans, including birth defects, infertility, cognitive decline and cancer. Learn about the harmful effects of plastics and 7 ways to reduce plastic use to support your health and the environment.

The dangers of plastic food containers

Plastic containers and cling film are commonly used to store and package foods and beverages. The problem with plastic is that chemicals leach into foods and liquids. You should never heat food in plastic or leave plastic food or drink containers in the sun.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical found in polycarbonates, the plastic used for baby bottles, sippy cups, sports water bottles and canned food liners. BPA is a xenoestrogen, a chemical that mimics oestrogen in the body and disrupts hormone function. Xenoestrogens have been implicated in hormone and fertility issues, the early onset of puberty, hyperactivity, obesity, diabetes, immune dysfunction and certain cancers.

Plastics known to cause human health issues include:

  • PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) – this is the main plastic used for water bottles, soft drink and juice bottles, peanut butter containers, condiment and vegetable oil bottles. Even though it doesn’t contain BPA and is considered a “safe” plastic, PET is a known hormone disruptor and has been linked to stomach ulcers, diarrhoea and vomitting due to its antimony content. When sat on a shelf for too long or exposed to heat or sunshine, containers made from PET can leach a toxic metalloid called antimony into the food or liquid. This metal is very toxic to the body. [1]
  • PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) is the plastic used to make cling film, squeeze bottles, yoghurt pots and margarine tubs. Production of PVC involves the use of three toxic chemicals: chlorine, dioxins and phthalates. [2] [3] PVC toxicity is associated with birth defects and genetic changes in cells, digestive and liver issues, stomach ulcers, skin diseases and cancer. [4] [5]
  • DEHA (Di-ethylhexyl adipate) is used in fast food, meat and cheese packaging. DEHA has been known to disrupt hormones and impact the reproductive system; it’s also been linked to asthma and developmental issues. [6]
  • Polystyrene is used in Styrofoam food trays, egg cartons, takeaway food containers and disposable cups.
    Polystyrene contains two toxic chemicals called styrene and benzene which have been associated with cancer, nerve destruction and liver damage.When hot food or drinks are served in Styrofoam, the heat causes the material to break down into the food or liquid. These chemicals are absorbed into the bloodstream and tissues, often stored in body fat. [7]

The harmful effects of plastic on the environment

91% of plastic is not recycled; it either ends up incinerated (contributing to air pollution) or in landfills, lakes, parks and oceans. Around 8 million pieces of plastic find their way into oceans every single day. This figure is expected to double by 2034.

50% of the plastic produced is for single use such as carrier bags or disposable cups and cutlery. Most of this plastic ends up in the ocean, killing wildlife and damaging the ecosystem. Each year 100,000 marine animals and 1 million sea birds are killed by plastic pollution – either through consumption or getting tangled in the rubbish.

When plastics enter the ocean, they degrade into microplastics, contaminating the marine life and food chain. Eating fish or seafood contaminated with microplastics may increase your exposure to the toxic chemicals in plastics. [8]

It takes 1000 years before most plastic decomposes in landfills

How to avoid using plastic

Help to minimise plastic pollution by putting all your rubbish in the bin. Never leave empty plastic containers on the street, in nature or on the beach. Don’t use disposable cutlery, plates or cups as these add to plastic waste in the environment. Avoid using balloons as when released into the environment, they usually end up in the sea or being eaten by a sea bird. Even a small fragment of a balloon can potentially kill wildlife.

Here’s 7 ways to minimise your use of plastic:

  1. Use reusable beeswax wraps or vegan soy wax wraps as an alternative to plastic wrap/cling film.
  2. Buy from local markets and farm shops instead of buying packaged fruits and vegetables from supermarkets.
  3. Use glass or stainless-steel containers, water bottles and jars.
  4. Invest in a quality water filter. Filtered water is better for your health than bottled water and you’ll also save money in the long-term.
  5. Go shopping with reusable cotton canvas bags and keep some spare in your car to avoid getting caught short at the shops.
  6. Take your own reusable drinking cup to a café. Use reusable glass, steel or bamboo straws instead of plastic straws.
  7. Cloth nappies are much more environmentally friendly than disposable nappies which can take up to 500 years to decompose.

Reduce plastic waste

The over-production and use of plastics are both a health and an environmental concern. Plastics like BPA, PVC and polystyrene contain carcinogenic chemicals which have been linked to hormone disorders, immune issues, and cancer. Minimise the use of plastic by using canvas shopping bags and reusable glass containers, cups, and water bottles. Shop at local markets and take your own cup when having a take-out from a café. By avoiding plastic, you’re helping to preserve the environment and your health.