Today is Earth Day, and in the city of Los Angeles we celebrated by increasing the restrictions on plastic straws. Moving forward, single-use plastic straws will not be provided with beverages at restaurants, drive-throughs, or delivery services unless specifically requested by the customer (1). This “straws on request” policy goes beyond the rules passed recently by the state of California, with the intention of further reducing overall disposable straw use, as it is estimated that 500 million disposable plastic straws are used in the United States every single day (2). Locally, reviews of the California coastline ranked plastic straws as the 6th most collected item in beach clean ups. As a result, this legislation will hopefully make a small dent in the environmental crisis we currently face.
Plastics are ubiquitous in our environment. From plastic straws, utensils, containers, bags, lids, and bottles- it’s hard to imagine spending a day when we do not use at least one plastic product. But from an environmental standpoint, the issue is that plastics do not break down in the environment. Rather, plastic breaks into smaller pieces known as ‘microplastics’. These microplastics are carried into our oceans and bodies of water by wind and run-off, resulting in massive environmental impact. It is estimated that 165 million tons of plastic litter is currently in our oceans. It is poisoning marine life and if our use of plastic continues, there will be more plastic in the ocean than there will be fish by the year 2050 (2).
We have written in the past about the health concerns of our plastic use. Chemicals that are added to plastics in manufacturing are absorbed by the body. Compounds like bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and PBDEs are in the foods we eat, the beverages we drink, and the air we breathe as a result of the momentous amount of plastic in our environment. While we as a scientific community are only recently realizing about the severity of harm caused by these compounds, the manufacturing companies have known about the risks for decades. BPA is a perfect example. BPA is used in polycarbonate bottles and the linings of food and beverage cans. BPA leaches into food and drinks and enters the body. The CDC reported that 93% of individuals tested had detectable levels of BPA in their urine (3), so we know without a doubt that the BPA inside our products is resulting in BPA inside of us. These industries argue that these compounds are safe, and yet before it was used in plastic, BPA was used as an artificial estrogen. Its estrogenic effects was used to enhance the rapid growth of cattle and poultry. For a few years it was even utilized as estrogen replacement in women (4). Think about this. We are consuming- on a daily basis- a compound that used to be used to replace estrogen in women. Knowing this, it is completely unsurprising to hear that BPA is an endocrine disruptor, meaning that it disrupts the balance of hormones in the body. It can create an artificial estrogen dominance in the body, which can cause an indescribable number of chronic health issues. And that’s just BPA. Phthalates are another issue altogether, and the list goes on and on.
That is reason enough to try to steer clear of plastics, but in honor of Earth Day, it’s important to point out that the health of our planet directly impacts the health of its people. We should be as concerned for the health of the Earth as we are for our own health. The two go hand in hand. The good news is that eating foods that promote your health normally also promote environmental health. A plant based diet that uses materials that are sustainable for the earth will benefit everyone. So today and everyday, forgo the plastic straw- you don’t need the BPA and the ocean doesn’t need the microplastic.