Plastic Fantastic?

Plastic is terrific stuff: cheap, lightweight, pliable, disposable, we have found millions of different uses for plastic since its invention more than 100 years ago. Plastic has penetrated our lives so much, that our houses would be noticeably emptier, if – by magic – anything containing plastic vanished overnight. However, over the last few years, concerns about our overuse of plastic have been getting louder.

Did you know that every piece of plastic ever produced is still here? Somewhere. Plastic is not biodegradable. Depending on the kind of plastic, it can take between 400 years and forever for plastic to break down. It is estimated that 50 – 80% of rubbish polluting the oceans are plastic, and as a result, microplastics are found in the stomachs of marine animals. Through fish and seafood, plastic gets into our food chain.

Plastic contains compounds, which are part of a group of chemicals called ‘persistent organic pollutants’ (POPs), chemicals, which accumulate in the body and are not easily excreted or broken down. In 2012, the American Center for Disease Control (CDC) tested hundreds of people for chemical pollutants and found small amounts in every one of them. Not one person was completely free of them.

POPs damage our mitochondria – the energy plants of cells –, damage our cell walls, interfere with our own hormones and affect the action of enzymes. They contribute to weight gain and increase the risk for diabetes. POPs are found in pesticides, flame retardants, non-stick cookware, insulation etc., but today I just want to focus on plasticisers such as bisphenol A and phthalates.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is ubiquitous in plastic products. It is in the plastic used to line tins and paper cups, in food storage containers, baby bottles and till receipts. BPA is known to leach into foods, particularly fatty foods, and it does so 55 times faster when the plastic is heated, e. g. in a microwave, dishwasher or filled with hot liquid. BPA mimics the sex hormone oestrogen, which is why it disrupts hormone balance. It has been linked with breast cancer, subfertility in both men and women, heart disease and obesity.

Phthalates are used in plastic food containers and many plastic toys (as well as cosmetics). They, too, mimic hormones and can wreak havoc with the thyroid and glucose metabolism, are thought to be carcinogenic and may cause birth defects. 

Now, I know how hard it is to avoid plastics. Believe me, I’ve tried to eliminate them from my house, but so far I have had limited success. After all, plastic is everywhere: food storage containers, freezer bags, food packaging, water bottles, baby bottles, yoghurt containers, non-stick materials … But we can try:

  1. Prepare your own food! Polystyrene – the material your take-away containers are made of – contains BPA. Ready meals, too, come packed in plastics. Take-aways are hot, ready meals often get microwaved in their plastic tubs. Nearly all processed foods comes wrapped in plastic: sweets, crisps, cakes, chocolate, biscuits … everything.
  2. Buy as much plastic-free foods as you can manage. If you have your own allotment, you’re lucky. Your fruit and veg will never touch plastic. Most of us have to shop for those though, and much of the fruit and veg we buy are packed in plastic. Check out your local farmers’ market and greengrocer, where the chances of finding plastic-free fruit and veg are still better. However, I have yet to find a cucumber that isn’t packed in shrink film. (If you know a source, I’d like to hear about it!)
  3. Get reusable mesh bags and take them to the shop with you. After all some fruit and vegetables are still sold lose.
  4. If you frequently buy hot drinks, consider getting a reusable cup. Some are BPA-free, but still made of plastic. For better taste, you may want to try a cup made of stainless steel or glass. Try these or these
  5. Never refill a plastic water bottle, better still: get a reusable one. You can buy BPA-free reusable plastic bottles, but again, stainless steel and glass are preferable. Fill it at home, ideally with filtered water.
  6. Replace your plastic storage containers and lunch boxes (such as these) with stainless steel or bamboo ones. For storage of food at home, you can also use glass jars or ceramics. Many alternative storage options still have plastic lids (silicone is preferable). Just do not fill them to the top to avoid food touching plastic. 
  7. Plasticisers leach more readily into fatty foods. Sadly, EU law does not allow shops to drop fresh foods such as meat, fish and cheese to be dropped straight into our own stainless steel containers. Wrapping such foods into plastic is mandatory for hygiene reasons. However, if you shop at the fishmonger’s, butcher’s or your local deli, your food won’t be wrapped in plastic for long if you transfer it as soon as you get home. If you have to buy fatty foods wrapped in plastic, remove them from it and do not store them in clingfilm or freezer bags. 
  8. Food tins are lined with plastic to prevent corrosion of the metal. Acid encourages leakage from the plastic into food, so avoid canned foods, particularly if the contents are acidic (e. g. tomatoes). Try and get whatever you can in glass jars. I have stopped buying tinned tomatoes. Every summer, I buy 5 kilos of tomatoes when they are in season and ‘can’ them myself in glass jars. Once they are used up, I use passata, which most supermarkets stock in jars or bottles.

Now, this list is not comprehensive and these measures may barely make a dent into your exposure to plastics, but awareness is the first step. A reusable cup and a reusable water bottle alone make a big difference in your personal use of plastics. Hopefully in time, the food industry will come up with better packaging or – a girl can dream – we will be lucky enough to get shops that sell their groceries unpackaged in the future.