Reducing Plastic in Our Diets
People make and waste millions of tons of plastic per year, and most of it ends up in the ocean. What happens to used-up plastic is a whole separate conversation, though. What about plastic that you’re using now?
We are exposed to a lot of plastic in a lot of different forms. Sometimes we realize we’re using plastic, and other times we may not be aware that plastic is involved with what we’re doing.
Plastics breakdown into microplastics—putting xenoestrogens into our bodies.
With any plastic in any context, you get some amount of breakdown into microplastics - tiny fragments of plastic that you may not be aware you’re ingesting here and there.
The best defense against ingesting microplastics is to be aware. Simply knowing where it lurks and doing what you can to avoid it is enough to drastically reduce your unintentional consumption of hidden microplastics.
Here are six sources of plastic and easy ways to avoid them.
Microplastics in salt.
Sea salt is made by evaporating ocean water. Since we know that ocean water is full of microplastics, it only makes sense that evaporated sea water will leave some behind.
What to use instead: Use pink Himalayan salt to season your food.
Bonus points: it’s pretty on your countertop, and you get a small mineral boost with every sprinkle.
Microplastics in tea bags.
CNN covered a new study from McGill University in Canada that found that a single tea bag can release over 11 billion (that’s with a B) particle-sized microplastics into your mug.
Not all tea comes with a spot of nylon, though. What to watch out for:
- Pyramid-shaped tea bags are made entirely of plastic mesh, so those will be the biggest offenders.
- Flat mesh or paper tea bags with sealed, instead of folded, edges. Manufacturers seal these edges with polypropylene.
What to use instead: Look for paper tea bags with a drawstring or a staple.
Or, you can buy loose tea and use a tea infuser. Loose-leaf tea tends to be better quality than pre-portioned tea, so that’s a plus.
Microplastics in fish, especially shellfish.
Scientists have found plastic in water samples of even clean waters. As fish breathe seawater, they ingest small plastic fragments and fibers that they cannot see. Not only that, but they tend to eat microplastics that look like food.
Researchers have found evidence of microplastics in fish from all over the world, and concentration differs by region. They found over 36% of sampled fish from the English Channel had microplastics in their bodies, and almost 20% of sampled fish from the Portuguese coast had ingested microplastics.
What to eat instead: If you eat fish, opt for sustainably-caught smaller varieties from clean waters, like Pacific sardines, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, U.S. trout, and others.
Microplastics in plastic bottles.
There’s a good chance you’ve heard the warning: don’t drink out of a plastic water bottle once it’s been in your hot car. That’s because heat weakens plastic and makes it more likely to leach into your beverage.
That’s great advice, but what about the journey to the store shelf? Can you guarantee that the truck it shipped on didn’t bake in the sun for an afternoon? In Albuquerque? In July?
What about once you’ve finished your beverage? Have you ever refilled your single-use bottle? Disposable water bottles aren’t designed for refills, and can leach plastic into liquid.
Your bottle doesn’t have to be hot to cause a problem. Researchers found xenoestrogens -- estrogen-mimicking compounds -- from plastics in bottled mineral water that had not been exposed to high temperatures.
Reusable plastic water bottles are far stronger than better than single-use, but still aren’t the best kind of water bottle to carry with you. Reusable plastic water bottles start to break down over time, and can leach plastic into your water too. Squeeze-style sports bottles are flexible, which can leach so obviously that it makes your water taste like plastic.
What to do instead: Buy a refillable stainless steel or glass bottle that you love, fill it with filtered water or your favorite iced tea from home, and carry it with you everywhere you go. If you’re in a situation where you have to use a single-use plastic bottle every now and then, don’t sweat it.
Plastic straws and disposable cutlery.
Disposable cutlery speaks for itself -- plastic and warm food don’t mix. A plastic spoon dunked into hot soup likely leads to leaching. Disposable straws are another source of microplastics. Flavored beverages are almost always slightly acidic, which break down the plastic in your straw with every sip.
What to use instead: Stash a flatware set in your desk at work or in your bag. You can also carry a collapsible, reusable straw that opens up like a telescope -- they don’t take up much space.
Cooking utensils and cookware contain microplastics.
Heat and plastics aren’t friends. Heat slowly weakens plastic and makes it more likely to mix into your food. If you’re flipping your eggs or stirring your soup with plastic utensils, you just seasoned your food with a dash of plastic.
Most nonstick cookware is coated with a fluoropolymer (surprise, a plastic!) that keeps food from sticking to it. It stands up to moderate heat, but it’s too easy chip, scratch, or scorch the surface, which releases some of the coating into your food.
What to use instead: Use wooden spoons or stainless steel cooking utensils. If you want nonstick cookware, use a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or ceramic-coated nonstick cookware.
Is it harmful to ingest microplastics?
One study showed that plastic stresses the liver in fish. Another study showed that plastics took up space in the stomachs of birds and clams and restricted their ability to feed, so they didn’t grow as quickly or as large. Other studies show no effect at all.
On to humans. Researchers found that ingesting microplastics changed the quality of bowel movements, so we can infer that there’s a digestive effect somewhere down the line. It’s hard to pinpoint the extent of the effect, but it’s there.
One effect of plastic that is well-established is its potential to disrupt hormones. Since the molecules of xenoestrogens are shaped perfectly to fit into estrogen receptors, you can end up with high estrogen, which comes with a long list of problems:
- Irregular periods
- Weight gain
- Unstable moods
- Extra fat or breast tissue in the chest area (men)
- Erectile dysfunction (men)
One study found that workers who were continuously exposed to PVC, a type of plastic, were six times more likely to develop a particular hormone-dependent testicular cancer than workers who weren’t exposed.
That’s just a handful of symptoms on the long, long list of symptoms of high estrogen. Your body can handle a little bit of xenoestrogen exposure, but with all of the plastics and chemicals in our world, we end up with a lot more than our bodies are built to break down.
The moral of the story? Avoid plastics when you can, don’t obsess about it when you can’t. Being aware and mindful of your plastic exposure and avoiding it when possible is probably enough to reduce your exposure by a lot.