The Dangers of Plastics

Plastic is used in everything from soup can liners and storage containers to baby bottles, toys, electronics, cosmetics and more. The pros: It’s inexpensive, lightweight and durable, making it easy to make and use many products that would otherwise be expensive or unavailable. The cons: It takes thousands of years to fully decompose, and it can leach toxic chemicals into food and water. Plus, it requires fossil fuels to produce.

Plastic pollution is killing sea animals, poisoning people and polluting the environment at an ever-increasing rate. In fact, we’re dumping more plastic into the oceans than fish by weight, according to recent studies. That’s because our trash doesn’t just float in the surface of the ocean — it sinks deep into the water and ends up accumulating on the bottoms of rivers, lakes and oceans, where it can harm animals and humans alike.

It’s also extremely difficult to get rid of. Since it’s non-biodegradable, it lingers in landfills, where it contributes to the degradation of soil and water quality. And even when it’s disposed of through recycling programs, it can still take a long time to break down. It can also contaminate the air, where it can cause respiratory problems and damage the immune system.

Moreover, it’s a huge burden on overburdened landfills around the world, which are filling up with tons of plastic waste that can’t be broken down, and contaminating natural resources like land and water. It can cost millions of dollars a year to clean up these sites, and the toxins released by the broken-down plastics have been linked to an array of health concerns, including cancer, hormone disruption, infertility and obesity.

While avoiding all plastics is nearly impossible, there are things we can do to reduce our exposure to harmful chemicals in plastics. In the lab, Wagner’s team tested more than 1,000 different plastic consumer products for a range of chemical hazards. They looked for endocrine disruptors, which are chemicals that mimic hormones and can interfere with healthy development, as well as other toxic compounds such as BPA, bisphenol S (BPS) and phthalates. About three-quarters of the plastics they tested displayed some form of toxicity.

This study is unique in that it tests all the chemicals found in plastics, rather than just looking for BPA or other specific compounds. And while the results weren’t exactly conclusive, they do provide an indication that we may need to take a more precautionary approach when it comes to testing plastics. In the meantime, we can try to limit our use of plastics and switch to glass, ceramic or stainless steel when possible. Just be sure to check for recycle codes on your plastics and only buy those made from recycled materials. And remember that life isn’t about perfection; it’s all about the little steps we can take to live greener.