7 Ways to Reduce Plastic in Your Life

by Ericka Naegle MS, RDNLifestyle
Plastic water bottle on the ground

Plastic is convenient and affordable, and it has become increasingly pervasive in our lives since its invention in 1907. Research shows, however, that in addition to the environmental hazards created by plastic, it can also have serious consequences for our health.

We have known for some time that some chemicals used to produce plastic are hazardous to humans. More recently, we have learned that small plastic debris, or “microplastics,” in the environment, can also enter the body through our food, water and air.

Here, we’ll explain the health concerns around plastics and offer some tips on how you can reduce exposure to plastic in your own life.

The Culprits

The dangers posed by plastic fall into two categories: chemicals and microplastics.

Several components of plastic production have been shown to be endocrine disrupting chemicals, meaning that they can mimic or interfere with the activity of our hormones (1). Their activity as endocrine disruptors has been linked to a variety of issues including problems with development, reproduction, the brain and the immune system (1). These chemicals include:

  • BPA, or bisphenol A: a component of polycarbonate, a hard, clear plastic often used to make water bottles, food containers and food packaging including food can lining. With time and/or exposure to high temperatures, BPA can degrade and leach out of plastic into food and water (2).
  • PVC, or polyvinyl chloride: a hard plastic often used in construction materials (flooring, pipes, siding), medical supplies and household items like plastic wrap and shower curtains (3). These products can “off-gas,” releasing harmful chemicals that can be inhaled.
  • Phthalates: these are chemicals used to make PVC pliable (3) and are also found in personal care products like fragrance and lotion (4). Phthalates can be ingested in our food, absorbed through the skin and inhaled from the air.
  • Dioxins: perhaps best known as the cancer-causing ingredient in Agent Orange, these are released into the air as byproducts of PVC production and waste incineration. They can settle into the food chain and groundwater, accumulating in our own fat cells as well as those of the meat we eat (3).

Microplastics are an emerging area of concern for scientists. They are small pieces of plastic that average less than 1 mm in size (5) and are primarily the result of the disintegration of other plastic products. They have also been manufactured for specific uses, however, including in cosmetics and medications.

Impact on Health

Relatively few experiments have been done to assess the danger of plastics to humans because of ethical concerns. However, epidemiologists and a large body of animal studies provide a lot of evidence for how plastics are hazardous to our health.

As mentioned above, BPA, phthalates, PVC and dioxin are known endocrine disruptors. BPA, for example, mimics the activity of estrogen and has been associated with miscarriage and polycystic ovary syndrome (2). Phthalates and dioxins impair function of the pituitary and thyroid glands, which regulate our metabolism, growth and development (2,3). Prenatal and childhood exposures to phthalates have been associated with altered sex-specific development in children (2).

Research has shown that exposure to these chemicals is not just associated with hormonal impacts, however. An analysis of 26 U.S. studies found that phthalates are associated with every major category of hazard examined, posing dangers to the reproductive, endocrine, immune, digestive, respiratory and nervous systems; they were also classified as carcinogens, or compounds that promote cancer (6).

Childhood exposure to phthalates has been linked to decreased cognitive development (7) and development of allergies and asthma (2). Adolescents with higher phthalate exposure have been shown to be at higher risk of insulin resistance, a risk factor for diabetes (8). When U.S. women were grouped according to the amount of phthalate metabolites in their blood, those with the greatest exposure to certain phthalates were found to be almost twice as likely to have diabetes (9). A similar study of U.S. men showed that increasing levels of phthalate metabolites were associated with increased incidence of insulin resistance (10).

Phthalates and BPA are also both potential obesogens, or chemicals that can promote obesity, including by impacting our weight set points, appetite regulation and production of fat cells (11). Increased exposure to phthalates has been linked to increased waist circumference in American men (10).

Microplastics are a newer area of research, so we know less about their potential effects. We do know that they are found in food, drinking water and the air, as well as in synthetic materials like packaging and textiles. It is estimated that globally, humans ingest between 0.1 to 5 grams of microplastics per week – or up to the weight of two U.S. pennies’ worth of plastic (5).

In the body, these particles can produce immune and inflammatory responses due to their physical presence, as well as leach out their chemical components (12). They have been shown to accumulate in the liver and kidneys of mice, altering energy and fat metabolism and causing oxidative stress. Researchers have also shown that microplastics can move from the gastrointestinal tract into the blood (5) and thus have the potential to impact a wide variety of tissues and organs.

What Can We Do?

Increased awareness of the dangers of BPA has led to its elimination from many products. In 2012, it was banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in baby bottles and infant formula packaging. Some states have banned BPA for use in all reusable food and beverage containers. Phthalates, on the other hand, are still used in a wide variety of products. A 2014 study found that while exposure to certain phthalates was in decline, exposure to others was on the rise, likely because manufacturers were replacing specific phthalates with others in response to public concern (13). The FDA has not taken action to limit the use of phthalates in the U.S. The United States and several other countries have banned the use of microplastics in “rinse-off” cosmetics, such as toothpaste and body scrub, due to concerns about environmental contamination, but they can still be found in other products.

Plastics and their byproducts are found in almost every aspect of our life, from our food and water to our household products to the very air we breathe. Here are some steps you can take to reduce the plastic in your life:

1. Eat a plant-based diet

Studies have found that diet is the most significant contributor to both BPA and phthalate exposure (14). An analysis of data from a large U.S. population study found that those who ate fast food most frequently had the highest levels of phthalates in their urine and that greater consumption of fast food meat was associated with higher levels of urinary BPA (14). Another review article found high phthalate concentrations in poultry, cooking oils and “cream-based” dairy products (i.e. ice cream and cheese, but not milk or yogurt) and observed that people who ate diets high in meat and dairy had twice the phthalate exposure as those who ate diets rich in fruits and vegetables (15).

Fruits, vegetables, grains, and eggs are consistently reported to be low in phthalates (15), so prioritize those foods.

2. Eat shellfish in moderation

The oceans are polluted with microplastics that make their way into seafood. Data is limited on how much plastic is consumed when we eat finfish, as we generally don’t eat the organs that are suspected to accumulate most microplastics. Mollusks like mussels and clams, however, filter the ocean water and are eaten whole, so we ingest any microplastics they contain. An analysis of 26 studies found shellfish to be among the foods highest in microplastic content (6), though the authors were not able to study more common sources of protein like poultry and beef, so we don’t know how they compare to other animal proteins.

3. Eat fresh, rather than packaged food

Packaging has been found to raise the phthalate content of normally low-phthalate foods (15). In a study where participants’ diets were restricted to foods in limited packaging, urinary levels of BPA and phthalate metabolites reduced by more than half (16).

Choose fresh instead of canned, jarred or frozen foods. When buying packaged foods, choose glass over plastic containers. Bring your own cloth produce bags to the store or farmers market to avoid the disposable plastics.

4. Store and prepare foods wisely

A small study that tested for microplastics in the stool of participants found microplastics in 100% of samples. The authors reported that this was likely attributable to high use of plastic containers for food and beverages among those tested (17). Heat increases the likelihood that chemicals will leach from plastic into food.

Choose bamboo or wood cutting boards instead of plastic ones, and avoid plastic wraps, plastic baggies, plastic containers and Styrofoam. This includes melamine dishes, which are often used with children.

Heat and store food using ceramic or porcelain dishes, glass containers and reusable 100% food-grade silicone baggies (18). Swap out plastic wrap with sustainable cotton and beeswax paper.

5. Avoid bottled water

Drinking water is the number one source of ingested microplastics in the world (5). While some plastics are found in tap water, bottled water is estimated to be one of the greatest contributors of microplastics to the American diet (6). A team of researchers estimated that if Americans got their recommended water intake exclusively from bottled water, they would ingest an additional 90,000 microplastics per person per year, compared to 4,000 microplastics annually from tap water (6).

Choose reusable water bottles and other beverage containers made from glass or type 304 stainless steel rather than plastic (18).

6. Check – and potentially replace – your personal care products

Plastics and plasticizers like phthalates are found in many cosmetics and other personal care products. Studies have linked aftershave, cologne, lotions, powders and shampoos to increased exposure to phthalates (2), which can be absorbed through the skin. Toothpaste may contain propylene glycol and other synthetic plastic compounds that may dysregulate hormones and even cross the blood-brain barrier (19).

Skin Deep is a searchable database from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that rates the safety of cosmetics and their ingredients. Search for your products and replace any harmful ones with EWG-recommended products.

7. Protect your home environment

A recent study looked for 45 different chemicals in American household dust and found phthalates present at many times higher concentrations than other hazardous chemicals. One team estimated that water, seafood and indoor air account for a significant majority of our microplastic intake (6). Some of the sources for these indoor pollutants are the synthetic fabrics used in clothing and household items like upholstery and carpets (20).

Wipe up dust using a damp cotton cloth to avoid inhalation, use air purifiers with HEPA filters and prioritize natural over synthetic fibers when buying clothing and household textiles.

We cannot eliminate plastics or their byproducts from our lives, but with the above steps, we can take action to limit our exposure to harmful chemicals and microplastics.


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