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When we reflect on our day to day activities, it doesn’t take long to recognize how frequently we use plastics. This invention has been pivotal in transforming our ability to store items such as food, beverages, and medications. Plastics are many long chains of molecules (polymers) that are easily pliable to form shapes. These polymers are found in nature usually from plant cellulose. In efforts to preserve natural resources, the first plastic made with cellulose and synthetic polymers was invented in 1869.
Over the course of the 20th century, plastic production expanded in its use of synthetic polymers. This led to the production of Bakelite, Nylon, and Plexiglas—plastics that provided cheap alternatives for the production of materials traditionally made with wood, paper, steel, and glass. Plastics were the promising future and became the standard material used for several projects.
So, what’s the big deal?
As plastic production expanded, so did the type of chemicals used to create it. Upon further research, it was noted that certain types of plastic can leach its chemicals onto whatever contents it holds and pose health risks. These chemicals leach from the plastic when exposed to heat (microwaved, dishwasher, hot beverages) or when the plastic degrades (old toys, hoses). Chemicals of concern include:
- Bisphenol A (BPA): originally created as a synthetic estrogen but frequently used in plastics; commonly seen in food storage containers, water bottles, baby bottles, and can linings; several studies have linked BPA to adverse health effects including breast and prostate cancer, obesity, reproductive abnormalities, and developmental abnormalities in fetuses; the FDA lists BPA as a safe chemical.
- Lead: used in plastics production; commonly seen in children’s toys, old paint (prior to 1978), toy jewelry, certain spices, candy, and water; known to cause adverse health effects such as neurological damage, developmental delays, and even death; the use of lead in plastics has not been banned in the US.
- Phthalates: chemicals frequently used in plastics to make them more flexible; frequently seen in vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, cosmetics (shampoo, nail polish), raincoats, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics used to make inflatable toys and hoses/tubing; research has shown adverse health effects with the reproductive system and a possible correlation with increased risk of asthma and eczema in children; traces of phthalates have been found in breastmilk and cord blood.
While research is constantly undergoing regarding the effects of these chemicals within plastics, the existing research offers enough content to create concern among scientists, environmental health experts, and the general public.
There is also the growing environmental impact plastics pose on our Earth. It’s estimated that 275 million tons of plastic waste was generated globally in 2010 with 4-17 million tons landing in the ocean. While recycling is a viable option, plastics production outnumbers the amount of plastics being recycled.
In efforts to reduce my carbon footprint and be exposed to fewer chemicals within plastics, I have been striving to use environmentally friendly alternatives for my typical plastic usage. By utilizing reusable options, I expel less waste and reduce my spending for storage options.
Here are my reusable solutions:
- Reusable Grocery Bags
Reusable grocery bags eliminate the need for plastic grocery bags that are stored in your cabinet for years (How many of you have a plastic bag full of plastic grocery bags?). Reusable bags are larger, holding more items per bag than the traditional plastic bag. They can be made of paper, natural fabrics such as cotton or jute, or recycled materials-including plastic (look for BPA, lead, and phthalate-free).
How to get them: Reusable grocery bags are readily available in stores, and on crafter websites. Prices vary for the type of material used on the bag (paper vs. recycled; insulated vs. non-insulated). A small business in Raleigh, NC sells knitted grocery bags. Knittings & Things provides knitted grocery bags that are custom made and sturdy to hold your heavier grocery items. What a stylishly way to cart your groceries without exposing them to toxic chemicals!
2. Reusable water bottles
Another common sustainable resource is the reusable water bottle. You can save money by switching from buying packs of water to refilling a reusable bottle from a water filter pitcher/cooler. Be cognizant of the type of bottle you purchase: check that it is BPA free and has an uncoated lining to prevent any chemicals from leaching into your water. Stainless steel, unlined bottles are ideal for keeping beverages’ temperatures stable. Glass and mason jars work as great water bottles as well! They channel nostalgia for me, as I remember my Papa using a mason jar to hold his beverages.
How to get them: Reusable water bottles are available in big box stores and online stores. Again, be mindful of the bottle’s material and confirm it is free of BPA. Here is my favorite stainless steel water bottle.
3. Glass food storage containers
An alternative to plastic food containers, glass containers store food without the risk of leaching dangerous chemicals and typically perform better than plastic containers at being airtight. If you use plastic food containers, be sure they are free of BPA and phthalates.
4. Reusable food bags
When I learned of the ability to stop purchasing plastic storage bags and use reusable food bags, I was ecstatic. Plastic sandwich/snack bags are such a waste of money! We use them once then throw them away. While they are recyclable, similar to plastic water bottles, most plastic food bags end up in the landfill. Another concern is the type of chemicals within plastic sandwich/snack bags. I wanted to utilize a storage option that was reusable and made with non-toxic materials.
Thankfully, Bio Bags from Media Menagerie fit the bill. Made by a small business in Chatanooga, Tennessee, these reusable snack/sandwich bags are made with a high quality cotton exterior and lined with waterproof, food safe polyurethane lining (PUL) free of PVC, phthalates, BPA, and lead. To seal the bags, Media Menagerie uses Velcro, a Nylon material that is additive free and food safe. I love that these bags are made with non-toxic materials, can be cleaned in the washer or dishwasher, and come in three different sizes, to hold small snacks or sandwiches. The fabric choices are also very unique and catchy.
How to get them: Visit Media Menagerie’s online shop to order your Bio Bags.
There are so many alternatives to using less plastic. I hope this served as an introduction to the dangers of using plastics and environmentally friendly ways to reduce plastic use. How do you monitor your plastic usage? Share with me in the comments!