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20 Ways to Give Up Plastic {And the Toxins in It}

20 Ways to Use Less Plastic

Plastic seems like an unavoidable part of modern life in the U.S. Therefore, it is extra important to separate the “good” plastics from the ones that can leach harmful chemicals like BPA, BPS, phthalates, xenoestrogens, lead and antimony into food, beverages and the environment.

These toxic chemicals—found in the majority of plastic, PVC and vinyl items produced today—have been linked to obesity, enlarged male breasts, earlier puberty in girls, and increased incidence of breast, prostate and other cancers. In fact, they are so toxic, many plastic additives have been banned in Europe, Canada, China, and an increasing number of cities and states in the U.S.

One of the best things you can do for your health, especially if you are wrestling with a chronic condition, is to eliminate as much plastic from coming into contact with your body as possible.

Hidden Sources of Plastic Toxins

Most of us know by now to avoid toxic, BPA-ridden plastic beverage bottles, plastic food storageware, plastic wrap and resealable (or zipper-lock) food storage bags. (If you didn’t know that, now you do!)

But, plastic is everywhere, so toxins can be found in the places you might not know about, like:

One way to sort out which plastics are safer than others is by checking the Plastic ID Code on the bottom of the item, which is that little number inside the triangle that tells you if you can recycle it.

What Do The Numbers on Plastic Containers Mean?

#1 – PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate)

PET is used for water and soft drink bottles, mouthwash bottles, containers for condiments like nut butters and ketchup, and TV dinner trays. PET is considered safe, but it can actually leach the toxic metal antimony, which is used during its manufacture.

One study that looked at 63 brands of bottled water produced in Europe and Canada found concentrations of antimony that were more than 100 times the typical level found in clean groundwater (2 parts per trillion).

The study also found that the longer a PET bottle sits on the shelf—in a grocery store or your pantry—the greater the amount of antimony present. It is also thought that the amount of antimony leaching from these PET bottles increases the more they are exposed to sunlight, higher temperatures, and varying pH levels.

Brominated compounds have also been found to leach into PET bottles. Bromine displaces iodine in the body, and is a central nervous system depressant. It can accumulate over time, and trigger paranoia and other psychotic symptoms. Avoid if you can.

#2 – HDPE (high-density polyethylene)

HDPE is used in butter tubs, milk jugs, juice, household cleaner and shampoo bottles, as well as cereal box liners and grocery bags. It is often considered a low-toxin plastic, but like almost all plastics, it has been found to release estrogenic chemicals.

In one study, 95 percent of all plastic products tested were positive for estrogenic activity. This means they can disrupt your hormones and even alter the development of your cells, which puts infants and children at even greater risk. In this particular study, even HDPE products that were free of bisphenol-A (BPA) still tested positive for other estrogenic chemicals. Use with caution.

#3 – PVC (polyvinyl chloride)

PVC is used in plastic cooking oil bottles, deli and meat wrappers, shrink wrap, sandwich baggies, and plastic “saran” wrap. It is also found in plastic toys, lunch boxes, table cloths and blister packs used to hold medications. And it is commonly used to make jewelry and faux-leather purses, shoes and jackets.

PVC contains numerous toxic chemicals including lead and DEHP, a type of phthalate used as a plastics softener. As if the lead weren’t bad enough, phthalates are considered “gender-bending” chemicals which cause the males of many species to become more female. These chemicals disrupt the endocrine systems of wildlife, causing testicular cancer, genital deformations, low sperm counts and infertility in a number of species, including polar bears, deer, whales, otters, and frogs, among others.

Scientists believe phthalates cause similar harmful effects in humans. If your home has flexible vinyl flooring, or those padded playmat floors for kids (often used in day cares and kindergartens, too), there’s a good chance it is made from toxic PVC. PVC flooring has also been linked to chronic diseases like allergies, asthma and autism.

PVC is one of the worst health and environmental offenders. Avoid at all costs.

#4 – LDPE (low-density polyethylene)

LDPE is considered to be low-toxin plastic and it is used in bread bags, produce bags, squeezable bottles as well as coated paper milk cartons and hot/cold beverage cups. While LDPE does not contain BPA, it can leach estrogenic chemicals, much like HDPE. Use with caution.

#5 – PP (polypropylene)

Polypropylene is used in straws, yogurt containers, and syrup, ketchup, and medicine bottles. While polypropylene is considered a low-toxin plastic that is tolerant of heat, at least one study found that polypropylene plasticware used for laboratory studies did leach at least two chemicals. Use with caution.

#6 – PS (polystyrene)

Polystyrene is also known colloquially as “Styrofoam,” and is used in egg cartons, disposable plates, cups and bowls, take-out containers, coffee cups, meat trays, packing materials, and more. When heated, polystyrene can release styrene, a suspected nerve toxin and carcinogen.

Heating styrofoam or using it for hot foods and beverages makes it leach toxins even more, so try to avoid food and drinks in polystyrene containers at all costs, and definitely don’t use them in the microwave! Avoid at all costs.

#7 – Other

#7 is a catch-all designation used to describe products made from other plastic resins not described above, or those made from a combination of plastics. While there are many different types of #7 plastics, the most common include 5-gallon-size water bottles, baby bottles and other polycarbonate plastics.

It’s difficult to know for sure what types of toxins may be in #7 plastics since they vary so much, but there’s a very good chance that if they are polycarbonates, they contain bisphenol-A (BPA), or the equally concerning chemical created to replace BPA, known as Bisphenol-S (BPS).

BPA and BPS are both endocrine disrupters that interfere with your body’s hormones, affecting your mood, growth and development, tissue function, metabolism, sexual function and ability to reproduce. Over 6 billion pounds of BPA are produced each year, so it is no wonder that the CDC found that 93% of Americans over the age of 6 have BPA in their urine and bloodstream!

Some of the greatest concern surrounds in-utero exposure to BPA and BPS, which can lead to chromosomal errors, spontaneous miscarriages and genetic damage. But evidence is also very strong that these chemicals are harming adults and children, too, causing decreased sperm quality, early puberty, stimulation of mammary gland development, disrupted reproductive cycles and ovarian dysfunction, cancer, and heart disease.

Research has found that “higher BPA exposure is associated with general and central obesity in the general adult population of the United States.” Another study found that BPA is associated not only with obesity, but also with insulin resistance, which is an underlying factor in many chronic diseases. Avoid at all costs.

Plastic Harms the Environment

Plastics are not only an issue for our health, but also for the health of plants and animals everywhere.

In spite of nationwide recycling efforts, we currently recycle only a measly five percent of the plastics we produce. And more and more cities are shutting down their plastic recycling programs because they are not cost effective!

Approximately 50 percent of our plastic waste goes to landfills (where it will sit for thousands of years due to limited oxygen and lack of microorganisms to break it down). The remaining 45 percent ends up as litter in the environment where it ultimately washes out to sea, damaging marine ecosystems and entering the food chain. For example, 42% of the rivers tested in America turned up positive for Bisphenol-A or BPA.

Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

California beach after a storm
California beach after a storm

According to Greenpeace, the world produces 200 billion pounds of plastics every year. A whopping ten percent of that—or 20 billion pounds—ends up in our oceans. Of that, about seventy percent sinks (Polycarbonate, Polystyrene, and PET), causing damage to the ocean floor.

The remaining 30 percent that floats (LDPE, HDPE, Polypropylene and foamed plastics) can be found all over the ocean, but eventually it all accumulates into massive, Texas-sized islands of floating trash called gyres. There are five of these enormous plastic islands floating and spiraling in the world’s oceans today.

A United Nations report claims there is an average of 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of ocean. Today, you can be aboard a ship thousands of miles away from land, but you will see floating plastic debris everywhere.

Even in the most remote reaches of the planet, you will find plastic trash. We’ve turned our oceans into the largest landfill in the world, and we should be ashamed!

turtleThe scariest part is that all those floating plastic particles act like “sponges” for waterborne contaminants such as PCBs, pesticides like DDT, herbicides, and other persistent organic pollutants. This makes floating plastics even more dangerous than they are on land.

Filter-feeding marine animals ingest these plastic particles and the toxins they contain, and subsequently pass them up through the food chain, and eventually to humans.

Scientists have not yet determined the full extent of the dangers posed by plastic consumption higher up the food chain, but we do know this: Fish and other sea creatures are being found with plastic in or around their bodies.

In fact, forty-four percent of all seabird species, 22 percent of Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), all sea turtles, and a growing list of fish have been found to be contaminated with these materials.

One of many albatrosses who died with bellies full of our plastic trash
One of thousands of albatrosses that died with bellies full of our plastic trash

Tiny beads of plastic look like fish eggs or other food sources, so many sea creatures simply mistake them for food. Loggerhead sea turtles often confuse plastic bags with jellyfish, their favorite food. The effects of this are disastrous, including internal blockages, dehydration, starvation, and often, death.

Sea birds are frequently found strangled by the plastic rings that hold six-packs of soda together, or starved by stomachs full of plastic debris. Other creatures meet a painful end by getting tangled up in plastic netting.

Floating plastic debris also blocks the sunlight that sustains plankton and algae, and because plankton and algae are the foundation of the marine ecosystem, this has an enormous effects up the food chain. In some ocean waters, plastic outnumbers plankton by a factor of six to one.

There is no feasible or affordable way to clean the plastic out of the ocean. The ocean is far too violent and vast for that. The only thing we can do is clean up the beaches once all that plastic eventually washes up on them. (And because of natural ocean cycles, it eventually will.)

But if we want to really clean up our mess, the most effective, cheapest strategy is to prevent the plastic from getting there in the first place!

Plastic Pollution in the Air

According to the EPA, toxic pollutants, including styrene, butadiene and methanol are released into the air during the production of plastic—for all of us to inhale. And air pollution is an ongoing by-product of plastic products as they are made, filled, packaged and transported to consumers.

According to the National Resources Defense Council:

In 2006, the equivalent of 2 billion half-liter bottles of water were shipped to U.S. ports, creating thousands of tons of global warming pollution and other air pollution. In New York City alone, the transportation of bottled water from western Europe released an estimated 3,800 tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere. In California, 18 million gallons of bottled water were shipped in from Fiji in 2006, producing about 2,500 tons of global warming pollution.

And that’s just for bottled water! From creation to disposal, plastic contributes significantly to air pollution, and many of the chemicals that go into their production continue to leach out into the air and into the food and beverages they hold.

Plastic Depletes Natural Resources

Why You Should Give Up Bottled Water for Good99% of all plastics are made from petroleum byproducts. Every year, the oil used to produce just plastic water bottles in the U.S. alone is enough to fuel about 1,000,000 cars! If you add in the oil used for everything else we make out of plastic, you can see the amount of oil wasted on stuff we throw away is simply astounding.

The more we squander what little accessible oil we have left on this planet on really stupid things like single-use plastic bottles, the more we have to procure from other countries and dangerously and expensively drill out of pristine ecosystems.

Given all the war, corruption and environmental devastation caused around the world by the demand for oil, this is neither politically nor environmentally sustainable. Anything we can do to quickly and permanently reduce our use of plastic would help improve our relationship with the people living in oil and gas-rich nations, reduce economic waste at home, and ease the huge burden that extracting fossil fuels places on communities and ecosystems worldwide.

20 Ways to Avoid the Toxins in Plastic

It is very possible to get most of the plastic out of your life—especially the disposable plastic. (Though durable goods like computers and car parts will be the exception). Start with the low hanging fruit first, like buying your eggs in cardboard instead of polystyrene. Then consider taking on just one or two of the bigger changes a month.

Here are some suggestions for reducing both your use of plastic and your exposure to its toxins:

  1. Since plastic is found widely in processed food packaging (this includes canned foods and beverages, which have a plastic lining), the most profound thing you can do to reduce plastic toxins in your life is to change your diet to include primarily fresh, whole, unpackaged foods from the farmer’s market or food co-op. Buying in bulk or joining a buying club can make this very affordable.
  2. Get your fresh eggs in cardboard cartons, not polystyrene. Get your fresh meat and cheese wrapped in waxed butcher paper, instead of plastic and foam. Get your fresh milk in bottles, not plastic-coated cartons or jugs. Many stores and farmers encourage you to return the empty bottle in exchange for savings on your next full one.
  3. Avoid canned foods and beverages, including canned baby formulas. You can get many canned food items, like crushed tomatoes or broth, in glass jars or tetrapaks instead. A small handful of companies are offering their products in BPA-free cans, and the number continues to grow due to public demand. Here’s a list.
  4. When shopping, use reusable produce bags to hold your produce, and reusable grocery bags to carry all your items home. Here’s an easy way to always remember them. You can also use reusable cotton sacks for bulk items like coffee, rice and nuts.
  5. Store, reheat or freeze your leftovers in glass containers instead of in plastic “tupperware” or plastic wrap. (These are the containers we use, and while not 100% plastic-free, we love them.) Use reusable cloth baggies instead of plastic baggies for lunches and snacks. (We use these.) Use old-fashioned, waxed butcher paper to store meats and cheeses. (Like this paper.) Use reusable freezer bags to hold freezer items that can’t go into glass or butcher paper. (We use these.)
  6. Use reusable glass or stainless steel water bottles to carry water with you. Also bring your own stainless steel coffee thermos to the coffee shop or office with you. Most coffee shops have no problem putting your latté in a reusable thermos.
  7. Avoid disposable plastic or polystyrene dishes and utensils. Instead, go to the thrift store and get a stack of super cheap mismatched ceramic dishes and stainless steel cutlery that you use only for parties, picnics and the like.
  8. Replace your plastic kitchenware with items made from stainless steel, glass, ceramic, or even silicone instead.
  9. Bring your own containers to the restaurant for both carryout and leftovers. (I use these, and as long as I hand them over at the same time I order my takeout, no one has turned me down yet.)
  10. Ask for your newspaper and dry cleaning without plastic wrap.
  11. Don’t take the receipt at the register, or have the cashier drop it into the bag, then only handle it using gloves. Those slick, thermal-paper cash register receipts are a major source of BPA contamination via your skin.
  12. Get a good water filter for your tap to replace bottled water. Or, if nothing else, buy bottled water only in reusable 5-gallon polycarbonate containers, and keep them in a cool, dark place. (Here’s how to find one.)
  13. Make your own shampoo, lotions, liquid soaps, and cosmetics and store them in glass, ceramic or stainless steel containers. There are tons of DIY recipes on the internet you can make to replace all the plastic bottles of personal care potions you currently use.
  14. Replace your toothbrush with a non-toxic one. There are many choices here. Avoid plastic toothpaste tubes (and nasty chemicals too) by making your own toothpaste.
  15. Always ask for BPA-free dental sealants and BPA-free composite fillings at the dentist office. If your dentist doesn’t offer it, find one that does.
  16. Use cloth diapers.
  17. Because children are extra susceptible to the toxins in plastics, it is especially important to make sure your baby bottles, pacifiers, teething toys (or anything that ends up in your child’s mouth) are safe. Choose glass bottles with real rubber nipples, wood or cloth teethers, etc. (Find toxin-free baby products here)
  18. Choose wood, cloth, steel and paper-based toys for your children over plastic, whenever possible. This is especially important while your kids are still young enough to put things in their mouths. See if you can get plastic toys like Legos second hand from eBay, Craigslist or other online outlets.
  19. Replace your school-age child’s plastic lunchbox with a cloth or stainless steel one. There are many non-toxic lunchbox choices here, and most are great for adults, too!
  20. Make your own cleaners from non-toxic ingredients, and store them in glass jars and bottles. You can even take the spray pump off of an old spray bottle, and screw it onto a recycled glass vinegar bottle.

What other ways have you reduced the plastic in your life? Please comment below!

This article was excerpted from my book Sustainability Starts at Home – How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. For more money-saving, planet-friendly tips, check out the book by clicking below.

About the author

Dawn Gifford

Dawn is the creator of Small Footprint Family, and the author of the critically acclaimed Sustainability Starts at Home - How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. After a 20-year career in green building and environmental sustainability, chronic illness forced her to shift her expertise and passion from the public sphere to home and hearth. Get the whole story behind SFF here.

68 Comments

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    • Many companies have replaced BPA with BPS, which is equally toxic. I can’t say if you’re bottle is using BPS instead, but since #7 plastic is usually not recyclable in most cities, better to choose a nice glass or steel bottle that will last for many, many years, and can be properly recycled when you are done with it.

  • What happened to the world. While growing up, my mother and father worked in glass factories until retirement… Then seemed like a whole lot of glass factories were shutting down while everything plastics were popping up. The world was a better place when “only the best comes in glass” I can remember the milkman delivering bitterness of milk back in the day!!! I want it all back to glass, ALL.

  • Thanks for the informative post! I couldn’t agree more about using glass bottles. On this subject, a practical way of avoiding plastic containers is to support our upcoming Kickstarter for a new type of water bottle with a patent-pending design that has a 99.9% glass bottle interior to keep you safe from BPA and other plastic-related chemicals. If the campaign is successful, we will be able to put this bottle on the shelves. Feel free to check out http://meshbottles.com for more info.

  • I am a 29 year old breast cancer patient and have only just started learning about going plastic free. This article is so helpful! I am wondering what you think about produce at the store that comes already in a plastic container or bag (like strawberries, raspberries, and mini carrots). Are these to be avoided too then? what about frozen bagged fruit? Also when you go to the store for produce, what do you put each item in? (The store provides those plastic bags for peppers, apples etc… Should I not use these either / just check out with the produce unbagged? Thank you!

    • Whenever you can avoid plastic-wrapped fruit and vegetables, the better. Stretchy clear plastic wrap on produce is far worse than the hard plastic boxes or green plastic baskets that berries come in. Frozen produce bags are made of variable materials, but are less likely to leach because they are not exposed to heat. The article above has some options for cloth produce bags to take to the store, which is what I use instead of those plastic bags the store provides. My best to you in your health journey!

  • What research has been done on the emissions in a hobby greenhouse that have polycarbonate walls. I have one and it is lined for winter with bubble wrap. I am starting to be concerned that this is not a good thing as the temperatures reach 85 degrees plus on a daily basis.

  • Refer to toxic chemical in food packaging, we would like to provide message to you.

    CMR inside Organotin stabilizer: Used in food packaging ?
    Workers is poison for 40 years without knowing !

    We factory managers has a moral responsibility to tell the dangers to workers and the boss.

    ? Confusion CMR chemicals inside food grade Organotin stabilizer.
    ? CMR are cancer, mutation and reproduction chemical.
    ? Because of Lead poisoning in toys few years ago, production and quality compliance managers are very concern about CMR inside Organotin stabilizers. 2009/48/EC baned Organotin in toys.
    ? Plastic industry and health doctors around the world are confused by fact that the main ingredients of Organotin stabilizers are CMR but in the catalogue, it say it is food grade.
    ? In order to protect the safety of workers, factory managers have moral duty to provide gloves and protective gears to workers when handle Organotin. And tell the workers the danger.
    ? “Food Grade Organotin stabilizer story” had been around for 40 years. Workers think Organotin is food grade always handle the product with bare hands. Factory manager has responsibility to tell the factory owner about the danger of Organotin stabilizer, if not, boss will be liable to compensation by workers.
    ? Include example of catalogue of Organotin stabilizer and MSDS. We can see Organotin contains Tri-substitute Organotin, which are CMR, but they are not said inside the catalogue, only in the MSDS.

    Inside MSDS of food grade
    Di Methyl Tin stabilizer,
    Inside MSDS of food grade
    Di Octyl tin stabilizer,
    It also contain
    Tri-substituted methyl tin (CMR) It also contains
    Tri-substituted Octyl tin (CMR)

    ? Besides use in food packaging, Organotin stabilizer is use in baby diapers and woman sanitary towel. It will cause cancer to user.

    Thanks,
    Mr. Wu Xiao Bin
    Factory Engineer

  • Hi! I’m going on vacation soon and I need to purchase travel-sized bottles (100mL or less) but I want to stay away from the notoriously harmful chemicals BPA and BPS.

    Do you (or any of your readers) know where I can find BPA and BPS-free travel bottles?

    Thanks!

  • I’m wondering if anyone has any thoughts on how to avoid using plastic baggies when buying bulk foods? I buy quite a lot of nuts and such from the bulk bins at stores like Whole Foods and Sprouts and it has been puzzling me for quite sometime now. I thought of bringing my own glass jars buy that would drive the cost I’m paying up. I also thought about tin foil but I honestly don’t know if that’s any better or if it’s even allowed for that matter. I’d love any suggestions.

    • I take cotton drawstring bags to the store to hold my bulk foods like flour and nuts. There is a listing for them in the article. You can also use jars, just bring an empty jar for the cashier to tare out (subtract from the weight), at the register.

    • Reusable natural wax paper bags or plain old paper bags for flour or spices (things that will fall through mesh bags).

  • I’m confused about #7 and step #12 to avoid plastics. You mentioned #7 is a likely polycarbonate and should be avoided at all costs. Yet in step #12 to avoiding plastics you mention if nothing else, use 5 gallon polycarbonate containers. I understand “if nothing else” but didn’t you just tell me to avoid #7 at all costs? Thanks for your clarification.

    • Category #7 is a catch-all category for many different types of plastics, some of which can be highly toxic. Since you might not know what is what with a #7 on it, they should be avoided on the precautionary principle. But since the category covers polycarbonate too, if you know something is polycarbonate, it is a less toxic option.

      • So using a polycarbonate plastic jug, similar to something you can purchase at a health food store like Whole Foods could be okay? I’d like to start using more spring water or reverse osmosis water for drinking to avoid fluoride but using glass just isn’t as easy as plastic. What do you think?

        • If using glass is not an option (and those 5-gallon glass jugs are heavy!), polycarbonate is a low-toxic option. Not non-toxic, just low-toxic. And polycarbonate has a bigger footprint than glass by far. We all do the best we can. It’s hard to have a perfect choice in these modern times. 🙂

        • I recently purchased a Berkey filter for my water, which comes from a well. It filters out almost everything (bacteria, viruses, toxic chemicals,etc.) but leaves minerals in. They come in different sizes for different sized families. You can also buy fluoride filters for them. They are stainless steel, but do have a plastic spout.

  • Plastics, especially styrofoam, have bothered me a lot more lately. I will say, however, that the plastic our local paper uses to wrap deliveries is recyclable. Thanks for your blog; I’m going to implement many of these suggestions for cutting down on the nasty plastic NOW.

  • Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, experiences and practices. I have felt overwhelmed by the immense amounts of plastic in our every day lives. The effects of BPA in-untero struck my particularly hard. When my son was born in 2012, doctors informed my husband and I that he necessitated surgery for a hypospadias repair. The doctor shared that he and his partner had seen an immense rise in the past decade of the incidence of this abnormality in young boys. And while he was quick to say that there is no definitive study, they speculated that it is linked to BPA exposure. As a mother, the guilt can be nagging. When did I heat my food in plastic in a microwave? What are all the ways I could have been exposed while pregnant? It’s enough to drive you nuts. Convenience, ease, fast and cheap, seem to be the mottos of our conventional age. I have since then been attempting to eliminate plastics in my kitchen and when grocery shopping and throughout our life. It can feel like a mountain. Thank you for your guidance and advice. I also absolutely love your posts about GMOs. Between the endocrine disrupters in plastics and the toxic shmorgasboard in GMOs, we have our healthful work cut out for us. Consciousness and purposefulness, step by step will prevail.

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