34 Facts That Will Make You Stop Using Plastic
Plastic is harming marine animals, ecosystems, and it's hazardous to human health. Plus, why you should rethink single-use plastic products.
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Plastic is everywhere
If you take a look around your kitchen or office right now, chances are you’ll notice you’re surrounded by plastic. There are water bottles, to-go coffee cups, straws, plastic grocery bags, food wrappers, take-out containers, single-serve coffee pods, disposable utensils, and produce bags. These are all examples of single-use plastic products, and they’re responsible for much of the pollution in our world and especially the ocean; a marine crustacean recently discovered living 20,000 feet deep in the Mariana Trench was named for the plastic content in its body: Eurythenes plastics. Depressing.
It’s certainly not realistic to remove all plastic from your life. But, taking a look at some stats down below may encourage you to reduce your single-use plastic footprint. This can be done by ditching straws, switching to reusable water bottles, and bringing cloth bags to the grocery store.
Plastic production is off the charts
The popularity of plastic, which began rising in the 1950s, is growing out of control—18.2 trillion pounds of plastic have been produced around the world, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Science Advances. And there’s no sign of slowing down, considering scientists say that another 26.5 trillion pounds will be produced worldwide by 2050.
Plastic ends up in our oceans
“Every piece of plastic that has ever been created will remain in the environment in some form, but once we conveniently throw out our trash at home, wind and runoff carry our waste from landfills and streets down the sewer and directly to the ocean,” says Mystic Aquarium’s chief clinical veterinarian Jennifer Flower. “With the average American throwing away 185 pounds of trash per year and globally producing over 320 million tonnes of plastic annually, the marine environment is taking a big hit from our daily disposal of plastic. Our plastic consumption is directly affecting marine life in the ocean including fish, which is a main source of food for humans as well. Often our society is so focused on making our lives more convenient in the short term, but in the long run, our health and the health of marine life are at the expense of those everyday conveniences.”
Most plastic is single-use
Did you know that roughly half of the annual plastic production—in 2016, this number totaled around 335 million metric tons—is destined for a single-use product? This includes items like plastic bags (which have an average lifespan of 15 minutes), packaging, water bottles, and straws. For instance, did you know that traditional liquid laundry detergents are usually packaged in high-density polyethylene (HDPE plastic jugs) and that 68 percent of these bottles are not recycled? Companies like Dropps are committed to reducing single-use plastic waste by offering laundry pods that are made of plant-based, biodegradable ingredients and shipped in 100 percent recyclable, repulpable, compostable cardboard box.
BPA mimics human hormones
BPA (bisphenol A) is a chemical that has been used in the production of plastics since the 1960s and often comes into direct contact with food, including plastic packaging, kitchenware, and the inner coatings of cans and jar caps. A 2015 study published in Roczniki Państwowego Zakładu Higieny shows that BPA interacts with estrogen receptors and play a role in the pathogenesis of several endocrine disorders, including female and male infertility, early puberty, breast and prostate cancer, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). There’s a reason you see so many products being marketed as BPA-free these days.
BPA linked to obesity
As a known endocrine disruptor, BPA can interfere with normal endocrine system functioning, including the serum levels of hormones that regulate metabolism. There is growing evidence, published in the journal Dose-Response in 2015, that BPA may play a role in the development of obesity both in utero and later in life.
BPA is bad for babies
A 2018 study published in Pediatrics reveals that using plastic containers to store or heat food in microwaves could pose a potential health risk to children. The American Academy of Pediatrics is calling for reforms after a report suggested that some chemicals found in food colorings, preservatives, and packaging material might pose a risk to children. The report cites “an increasing number of studies” that suggest certain food additives can disrupt hormones, growth, and development, as well as increase the chances of childhood obesity. The most concerning artificial additives? You guessed it: BPAs found in plastic containers and metal cans. Parents are urged to avoid using microwaves to warm food and beverages or placing plastics in the dishwasher.
BPA affects thyroid function
Thyroid hormones, which regulate energy in the body, are also altered by BPA. In November 2016, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published evidence linking BPA with autoimmune thyroid disorders (such as Hashimoto’s disease). Lab tests measuring BPA exceeded measurable detection limits in 52 percent of individuals with elevated thyroid antibodies. The toxic levels of BPA had caused their thyroid gland to be under autoimmune attack.
BPA may cause birth defects and miscarriages
A 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found evidence that BPA may negatively impact women’s reproductive systems and cause chromosome damage, birth defects, and miscarriages. In the study, the researchers found that monkeys exposed to BPA in utero experienced reproductive abnormalities that increased their risk of giving birth to offspring with Down syndrome or even suffering a miscarriage.
BPA increases blood pressure
Megan Casper, RDN, a dietitian and owner of Nourished Bite Nutrition based in New York City, says that consuming beverages from cans lined with BPA can raise blood pressure. In a 2015 study published in the journal Hypertension, volunteers drank the same beverage in glass bottles or cans. Two hours after consumption, researchers measured their urinary BPA concentration and blood pressure; BPA urine levels were higher in the canned group, and their systolic blood pressure jumped by an average of 4.5 mm Hg, compared to the glass bottle group.
BPA irritates your bowels
A 2018 study published in the journal Experimental Biology and Medicine found BPA has been associated with irritable bowel disease, by negatively impacting gut microbial amino acid metabolism. Irritable bowel disease is a collection of diseases that includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Exposure to BPA was also found to increase the levels of several compounds that drive colon inflammation.
BPA-free may be B.S.
While it’s tempting to believe BPA-free plastics will solve these problems, the truth is more complicates. A 2011 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found more than 450 BPA-free products going through ordinary wear and tear, such as microwaving, dishwashing, and sunlight exposure. More than 95 percent emitted chemicals that acted like estrogen—just like BPA. “So while BPA is on its way out, the fact is that the replacements to BPA just haven’t been studied well and may have similar effects,” says Casper. “In fact, BPS, a popular plastic replacement for BPA in water bottles, does not have to be labeled and, once ingested, behaves much the same way as BPA.” Find out more about the hidden danger lurking inside your BPA-free plastic products.
Heat and plastic don’t mix
“Heated plastic leaches chemicals 55 times faster, so whether you’re reheating a plate in the microwave, putting hot food in a storage container, or using a plate that’s been run through a hot dishwasher, you’re upping your chance of chemical leaching,” says Casper. If you want to microwave leftovers, choose a glass dish like Pyrex and leave the BPA-free lid off just to be safe.
Plastic promotes Alzheimer’s disease
“Plastic promotes the formation of toxic brain proteins linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Jennie Ann Freiman MD, author of The SEEDS Plan, a book inspired by her own mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. “The brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease are riddled with plastic deposits. Anyone with brain fog or impaired thinking should take note.”
Scratches in plastic can lead to leaching
Bits of plastic get into your food from containers through a process called leaching, and when plastic is scratched, it speeds up the leaching process. For that reason, be sure to throw out worn plastic items (such as food storage containers). To further avoid this toxic transfer, eat less canned food and more frozen or fresh food. Also, avoid using bottles and plastic containers that are made from polycarbonate (often marked with a number 7 or the letters PC) and phthalates (marked with a number 3 or PVC).
Plastic could take away natural serenity
“We associate peace, relaxation, and good health with our coastlines,” says Brian Yurasits, director of development at The TerraMar Project, which raises awareness for ocean issues. “People visit beaches and waterways to satisfy our natural inclination to be near the ocean,” says Yurasits. “If plastics become more pervasive in these natural places, then people won’t be able to get that same escape from reality and the stress-relief that they need.”
What recycling numbers really mean
What’s with those numbers on the bottoms of plastic products anyways? Based on the previously mentioned 2018 study in Pediatrics, researchers suggest steering clear of plastics with the recycling numbers 3, 6, and 7. Those numbers directly correspond to the chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system (phthalates, styrene, and bisphenols).
You’re eating plastic dust at every meal
No matter how clean you think your house is, a 2018 study published in Environmental Pollution reveals that you could be swallowing more than 100 tiny plastic particles with every meal. So where is it coming from? The soft furnishings and synthetic fabrics all around your house, which mix with dust and then fall on your dinner plate. The scientists concluded that the average person swallows up to 68,415 potentially dangerous plastic fibers a year simply through eating.
Plastic is here forever
The world has produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, according to the previously mentioned 2018 study in Science Advances. Shockingly, 6.3 billion metric tons of that has become waste, the majority of which is now accumulating in landfills and littering the ground, oceans, and air. If trends continue as they are now, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills by 2050.
Ocean plastic is rising dramatically
In 1975, the National Academy of Sciences study estimated that about 0.1 percent of global plastic production ended up in our oceans annually. In 2015, a team of researchers examined how much plastic waste coastal countries around the world produced and then estimated how much of that could potentially end up in the ocean. The results, published in Science, indicate that about 4 million to 12 million metric tons of plastic washed offshore in 2010 alone. Scarier still, the authors predict that the annual amount of plastic waste heading out to sea will more than double in the next ten years.
The Great Lakes are swimming in plastic
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the five Great Lakes provide 21 percent of the world’s supply of surface fresh water. “About 22 million pounds of plastic flow into the Great Lakes each year,” says Jaclyn Wegner, director of conservation action at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. “The Great Lakes are critical to the wellbeing of humans and wildlife alike. We rely on this water to be clean and accessible for people to drink and for animals to not only survive but thrive.”
Microplastic impacts marine life
“The plastic that ends up in the Great Lakes can come in the form of macroplastics, like bottles and bags that are visible to us, or microplastics, which can be microscopically small,” says Wegner. “Microplastics can come from microfibers of synthetic materials, microbeads from personal care products, and other sources and can be easily ingested by animals like fish and birds.” When microplastics float on the surface or become buried in the sand, they are often mistaken as food sources for seabirds, turtles, and marine mammals, says Dr. Flower. This poses a serious threat to marine habitats, wildlife, and ecosystem balance.
Marine animals are suffering
Nearly 700 species of marine animals have been impacted by marine debris, most of which is plastic, according to a 2015 study in Marine Pollution Bulletin. “All of us can make choices to reduce our use of plastic, preventing it from becoming pollution that can harm a wide variety of aquatic animals from fish to seabirds to plankton,” says Wegner, who notes that for over ten years, the Shedd Aquarium has hosted beach cleanups as part of their Great Lakes Action Days program. This has helped the non-profit organization prioritize straws as a non-recyclable single-use plastic item to focus on in encouraging individuals and businesses to reduce their use. “Keeping straws and microfibers out of animals’ habitats is an important way we can protect and care for them.”
Straws are a serious problem
Companies like Starbucks are taking steps—the company says it’s banning plastic straws by 2020, citing environmental reasons. Still, says Wegner, straws are among top the 10 litter items collected at Great Lakes beach cleanups. But it’s not just the Great Lakes that is suffering, as volunteers at International Coastal Cleanups have picked up more than half a million straws and stirrers.
Seabirds are ingesting plastic
Marine life experts estimated that over 99 percent of all seabird species—and over 90 percent of individual seabirds—will have ingested plastic by 2050, according to a 2015 study published in PNAS. By comparison, in 1960, plastic was found in the stomach of less than 5 percent of seabirds, rising to 80 percent by 2010. The biggest threat from ingestion occurs when plastic blocks the digestive tract or fills the stomach, resulting in malnutrition, starvation, and death.
Plastic’s chemicals can harm marine life
“A further consequence of ingestion is that the chemical constituents of plastic, as well as the toxins they absorb in the aquatic environment, can enter the bodies of marine organisms upon consumption,” says Wegner. A 2013 study published in Current Biology shows that when animals ingest microplastic, it moves the plastic’s pollutants and additives to their tissues, resulting in some biological effects.
More plastic than fish
By 2050, environmental scientists estimate that there will be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the world’s oceans. This could seriously impact the world’s food supply. Also, not to mention, there are many health risks associated with having so much plastic in our food chain.
Biodegradable plastic doesn’t actually break down
A 2015 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology shows that special additives that claim to break down polyethylene (plastic bags) and polyethylene terephthalate (soda bottles) don’t work as planned when these products are left in common disposal situations, such as landfills or composting. There were no differences between the plastics mixed with the additives and those without that were tested.
The problem runs deep
Single-use plastic has officially reached the world’s deepest ocean trench, according to a 2018 study published in Marine Policy. A plastic bag was found 10,898 meters below the surface. Once in the deep-sea, plastic can endure for thousands of years and is a threat to delicate deep ocean ecosystems that were previously untouched by man. Don’t miss these simple, everyday ways to go green.
Coral reefs are dying
Yes, coral reefs are beautiful to explore while snorkeling and diving, but they are more than just eye candy—they’re living, breathing ecosystems that provide homes for 25 percent of all marine life. Plus, 275 million people depend directly on them for their food and livelihoods. Already struggling to survive climate change, reefs now have a new enemy: plastic. In a 2018 survey of 159 coral reefs in the Asia–Pacific region, published in Science, researchers estimate there to be 11.1 billion plastic items entangled in the corals. The plastic actually starves reefs of the oxygen and light they need and releases toxins that allow bacteria and viruses to invade. Another offender? Sunscreen. Be sure to check out these reef-safe sunscreens that help protect corals.
Laysan Albatross babies are dying
“One bird species, in particular, the Laysan Albatross, is particularly affected by plastic pollution,” says Sarah Callan, BS, assistant manager of the Animal Rescue Program at Mystic Aquarium. “With approximately 400,000 nesting pairs on Midway Atoll—a small atoll that is roughly 1,200 miles away from civilization—almost 90 percent of the chicks that hatch each year end up with plastics in their stomach. Sadly, many of the chicks are malnourished from a stomach full of plastic and don’t survive to the fledgling stage of life.”
Floating garbage piles
Marine debris in the Pacific accumulates into something called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—the largest of the five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the world’s oceans. Located halfway between Hawaii and California, this mass of plastic debris takes up over 600,000 square miles of ocean, which is twice the size of Texas. At the time of sampling, there were more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch that weigh an estimated 80,000 tonnes, according to The Ocean Cleanup.
Plastic bags banned
Because 2 million single-use plastic bags are distributed per minute around the world, many U.S. cities and states, along with countries worldwide, are banning and/or taxing their use, according to the Earth Policy Institute. Washington, DC, was one of the first cities to implement a tax on the bags and uses the revenue collected for the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund. San Francisco has completely banned them and reports a 72 percent reduction in plastic bag pollution. In 2017, Kenya implemented a countrywide ban, while Australia did so in 2011. China has banned them too.
Plastic emits methane
A 2018 study published in PLOS One found that some of the most common plastics release the greenhouse gasses methane (the primary component of natural gas) and ethylene (a hydrocarbon gas) when exposed to sunlight. Researchers noted concerns over the scale of plastic production and waste, as these could contribute to greenhouse gas emissions over time—and these can impact climate change.
Beauty products count, too
There are more single-use plastic products to consider in your daily life beyond straws, water bottles, and grocery bags. For instance, more than 80 billion plastic bottles are being disposed of around the world every year just from shampoo and conditioner alone. This is why environmentally conscious packaging is an important and growing trend. Companies dedicated to sustainable beauty practices, like Ethique (the French word for ‘ethical’), have prevented the manufacture and disposal of more than 350,000 plastic containers worldwide. They’re the world’s first completely zero-plastic, zero-waste beauty brand; their concentrated face, hair, and body products last two-to-five times longer than their traditional bottled counterparts, and dissolve completely—even the sleeves they arrive in are 100 percent dissolvable and compostable, meaning zero consumer waste. Adults aren’t the only people who can make a difference! Kids can save the planet in 5 minutes or less by doing any of these 45 easy things.
- Science Advances: “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made”
- Jennifer Flower, DVM, MS, Mystic Aquarium's chief clinical veterinarian
- Plastic Oceans: “The Facts Are Overwhelming”
- Roczniki Państwowego Zakładu Higieny: “Health Risk of Exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA)”
- Dose-Response: “Human Bisphenol A Exposure and the “Diabesity Phenotype”
- Pediatrics: “Food Additives and Child Health”
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: “The Association of Serum Bisphenol A With Thyroid Autoimmunity”
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Bisphenol A alters early oogenesis and follicle formation in the fetal ovary of the rhesus monkey”
- Megan Casper, MS, RDN, owner of Nourished Bite Nutrition based in New York City
- Hypertension: “Exposure to Bisphenol A From Drinking Canned Beverages Increases Blood Pressure: Randomized Crossover Trial”
- Experimental Biology and Medicine: “Bisphenol-A alters microbiota metabolites derived from aromatic amino acids and worsens disease activity during colitis”
- Environmental Health Perspectives: “Most Plastic Products Release Estrogenic Chemicals: A Potential Health Problem That Can Be Solved”
- Toxicology Letters: “Bisphenol A is released from polycarbonate drinking bottles and mimics the neurotoxic actions of estrogen in developing cerebellar neurons”
- Jennie Ann Freiman MD, author of The SEEDS Plan
- Poison Control: “BPA and the Controversy about Plastic Food Containers: Plastic Containers: Are They Harmful?”
- Brian Yurasits, director of development at The TerraMar Project
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: “Endocrine Disruptors”
- Environmental Pollution: “Low levels of microplastics (MP) in wild mussels indicate that MP ingestion by humans is minimal compared to exposure via household fibres fallout during a meal”
- Science: “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean”
- EPA: “Facts and Figures about the Great Lakes”
- Jaclyn Wegner, director of conservation action at the John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago
- Marine Pollution Bulletin: “The impact of debris on marine life”
- Ocean Conservancy: “Fighting for Trash Free Seas®”
- PNAS: “Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing”
- Earth Day: “Fact Sheet: Single-Use Plastics”
- Environmental Science and Technology: “Evaluation of Biodegradation-Promoting Additives for Plastics”
- Marine Policy: “Human footprint in the abyss: 30 year records of deep-sea plastic debris”
- Science: “Plastic waste associated with disease on coral reefs”
- Sarah Callan, BS, Assistant Manager of the Animal Rescue Program at Mystic Aquarium
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: “Discarded Plastics Distress Albatross Chicks”
- The Ocean Cleanup: “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”
- Earth Policy Institute: “Plastic Bags Fact Sheet”
- PLOS One: “Production of methane and ethylene from plastic in the environment”