By Dr. Joseph Mercola
We live in a throwaway society. The next time you’re in a grocery store, take a look around you and note the number of items packaged in plastic.
The problem is, these petroleum-based plastics are designed to last forever. So you have products for short-term consumption packaged in materials that survive for centuries.
This throwaway mindset is a relatively recent phenomenon. Your parents and grandparents used products in reusable, recyclable or degradable containers made from glass, metals, and paper. But today, discarded plastics are circling the globe at a significant human and environmental cost.
This “out of sight, out of mind” mentality is suffocating our oceans and choking our wildlife — but the damage doesn’t end there.
Plastic chemicals are finding their way into your body and accumulating over time. The potential for catastrophic biological consequences for the human race is growing with every discarded bottle or bag.
Plasticizing chemicals like BPA disrupt embryonic development and are linked to heart disease and cancer.
Phthalates dysregulate gene expression and cause genital anomalies, especially in baby boys, that may pass down several generations. DEHP may lead to multiple organ damage. So, whether you look at environmental or biological effects, our careless use of plastics has created a monster needing immediate attention.
Twenty Billion Pounds Of Plastic Makes Its Way Into Our Oceans Every Year
According to Greenpeace, the world produces 200 billion pounds of plastics every year. Ten percent of that ends up in our oceans. Seventy percent sinks (polycarbonate, polystyrene, and PETE), causing damage to the ocean floor, and the remaining 30 percent that floats (LDPE, HDPE, polypropylene, and foamed plastics) accumulates into massive islands of trash that many consider an embarrassment to the human race.
Virtually every molecule of the 6 billion pounds of polycarbonate tossed into landfills each year stays there forever. Only a very small percentage of plastic waste is remade into durable goods. In spite of our green campaigns, we currently recycle only 5 percent of the plastics we produce. Consider the following:
- Americans discarded more than 22 billion water bottles in 2006 and about a billion plastic shopping bags every year, creating 300,000 tons of landfill waste.
- More than 7 billion pounds of PVC are thrown away annually in the United States, and only about one-quarter of 1 percent is recycled.
- Approximately 50 percent of plastic waste goes to landfills where it will sit for hundreds of years due to limited oxygen and lack of microorganisms to break it down. The remaining 45 plus percent “disappears” into the environment where it ultimately washes out to sea, damaging marine ecosystems and entering the food chain.
- A United Nations report claims there are 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of ocean.
You Mean Fish and Turtles Aren’t Supposed To Eat Plastic?
Fish and other sea creatures are being found with plastic in or around their bodies. 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 contaminated with these materials.
Why would any creature knowingly eat plastic?
All plastic starts as “nurdles,” or little plastic resin beads. These nurdles appear to sea creatures like fish eggs or other food sources, so they simply mistake them for food. Loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their favorite food. And the effects are disastrous, including internal blockages, dehydration, starvation, and potentially death. Albatrosses are frequently found strangled by the plastic rings that hold six-packs of soda together. Other creatures meet a painful end by getting tangled up in plastic netting.
Debris also blocks sunlight from which plankton and algae sustain themselves, and this has negative implications on up the food chain. In some ocean waters, plastic exceeds plankton by a factor of six to one.
Not only do sea creatures suffer the effects of consuming chunks of plastic, but they’re also at risk from the organic pollutants plastic absorbs. Plastic particles are like “sponges” for waterborne contaminants such as PCBs, pesticides like DDT, herbicides, PAHs, and other persistent organic pollutants. When PCB concentrations in resin pellets were compared with the surrounding seawater, the accumulation factor was found to be 1 million. This phenomenon makes plastics far from benign, and scientists have yet to determine the full extent of the dangers posed by their consumption or the effects higher up the food chain. We have more questions than answers.
From Heart Valves To Hula-Hoops, Massive Plastic Islands Float Upon Our Oceans
What has become of all the plastics humans have casually discarded? Scientists have discovered massive accumulations of plastic trash in each of the world’s five major oceanic gyres. Gyres are large, slowly rotating oceanic whirlpools, driven by global winds and ocean currents. Garbage and debris are funneled into the center of these gyres, in a kind of toilet-bowl effect.
One of these gyres, the North Pacific Gyre, is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean about a thousand miles from the western coast. In its midst is a huge mass of trash (90 percent plastics), which floats in a soup of smaller pieces that have been broken apart by wave action.
Some call it the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and others the “Pacific Trash Vortex,” but regardless of its name, it’s the largest “landfill” in the world. In it you will find everything from plastic netting to bottles and bags and buckets, paint rollers, hula-hoops, and medical equipment. Most of the garbage patch, however, is not made up of large items but rather microplastics you can’t see with the naked eye, such as the nurdles previously described.
No one knows exactly how vast these garbage patches are because so much of them can’t be visualized. The garbage-laden gyres are all located in remote areas, out of public view, which contributes to the “out of sight, out of mind” problem. As a side note, we’ve learned a good deal about ocean current patterns and the gyres they create — believe it or not — from 28,000 rubber duckies lost at sea in 1992, which continue to wash ashore in surprising locations! Rubber duckies notwithstanding, the chemicals in plastic have a number of problematic biological effects.
Dangerous Levels Of BPA Found In More Than 95 Percent Of People Tested
Perhaps the most well known plastic chemical is BPA (bisphenol-A), widely used in the lining of food cans, dental sealants, paper money, receipts, and other products. Unfortunately, BPA is so prevalent that 95 percent of people tested have potentially dangerous levels in their bodies. BPA leaches out of can linings and into the foods they contain, such as soups and sodas. BPA is not the only chemical that does this — science has recently discovered that melamine, once thought stable, leaches chemicals as well, particularly when heated. Consistent low-level melamine exposure has been linked to kidney stones in children and adults.
Studies show that adults with the highest levels of BPA in their urine are more than twice as likely to develop narrowed arteries and coronary heart disease as those with the lowest levels. A British health survey correlated higher levels of urinary BPA with an increased risk of heart disease. One study found that eating canned goods increases urinary BPA concentrations more than 1,000-fold.
BPA is an endocrine disrupter, which means it interferes with your body’s hormonal system. An animal study found that BPA damages chromosomes and interferes with egg development, which could lead to spontaneous miscarriage, birth defects, and Down syndrome. In other studies, BPA has been linked to obesity, insulin resistance, and cancer. According to Texas A&M geneticist Dr. David Busbee, less than 1 trillionth of a gram of BPA per 1 milliliter of food is sufficient to change the functioning and development of cells in your body.
BPA studies have captured the public’s attention, and there is growing legislation to limit its use, as a result. The state of California just declared BPA a reproductive health hazard. The message is clear: BPA is harmful and should be avoided.
BPS May Be Even Worse Than BPA
As the public has grown increasingly wary of BPA, a slew of BPA-free plastics have hit the market, from water bottles to plastic toys. However, many companies are simply swapping out BPA for another bisphenol, bisphenol-S (BPS), which is now showing up in human urine at levels similar to those of BPA. Research suggests BPS has hormone-mimicking characteristics similar to BPA, but it may be significantly less biodegradable, and more heat-stable and photo-resistant, which means it may be even more toxic than BPA over time.
Phthalates: The Plastic Gender-Benders
Another group of toxic chemicals coming from plastic are the phthalates. Phthalates function as plasticizers in everything from vinyl flooring to detergents, hoses, raincoats, adhesives, air fresheners, medical supplies, shampoos, and even toys. Phthalates belong to the “gender-bending” chemicals group that causes males of many species to become more female. Phthalates have been linked with chronic diseases such as allergies, asthma, and autism, and can cause inflammation for at-risk infants. Children have been found to absorb phthalates from crawling around on soft, flexible plastic flooring and plastic play mats.
One of the more pervasive phthalates is DEHP, used primarily in the medical industry. Manufacturers add it to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to make plastic equipment more flexible. In PVC, DEHP extends the shelf life of red blood cells, so you’ll find it in IV tubing, catheters, blood bags, nasogastric tubing and the like. Familiar with that “new shower curtain smell”? That’s the aroma of offgassing DEHP.
Groundbreaking research just published in PLoS One and Reproductive Toxicology found that rats exposed to phthalates produced offspring with higher rates of kidney and prostate disease, and their great-grandchildren showed greater obesity and diseases of the reproductive organs. This is the first time environmentally induced inheritance of disease has been demonstrated scientifically. The authors write:
“This is the first study to show the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease, such as obesity.”
Unfortunately, every single person may have measurable phthalates in their bodies. In 2000, the CDC discovered high levels of phthalates in all 289 adult Americans tested. Busbee reports that every phthalate tested disrupts gene expression. This disruption is not only harmful to the person exposed, but the effects may be passed on to future generations, as the latest scientific study reveals.
Are Bioplastics The Pollution Solution?
Numerous companies have jumped onto the plant-plastics bandwagon in fervent efforts to come up with the perfect bioplastic material. As of 2010, more than 2.5 billion plant-plastic bottles were already in use around the world, including the PlantBottle by Coca-Cola Co. Despite all of the buzz, plant-based bottles are largely non-biodegradable, so they do nothing to relieve the garbage problem.
But even when bioplastics are compostable and made from “renewable resources,” they fail miserably when you look at their carbon footprint. Plant-based plastics run into the same problem as plant-based fuels — they have an impact on food production, turning valuable farmland to cornfields. There are concerns over the harmful effects of the pesticides and genetically modified crop strains used to create many of these bioplastics. And many require intensive chemical processing that is even dirtier than petroleum-derived plastics.
So what is the answer?
The documentary Addicted to Plastics presents several examples of truly eco-friendly solutions that take all of the above factors into consideration — for example, making biodegradable plastics from chicken feathers. But perhaps the most important thing is what you can do today to reduce your own plastic footprint.
What You Can Do Right Now
Discarded plastics are clogging up our oceans and threatening marine life from plankton on up. Massive islands of plastic waste now occupy the centers of the five major oceanic gyres. Our “disposable culture” has left a trail of destruction, in terms of both environmental and human impact. Chemicals like BPA, BPS, and phthalates disrupt the reproductive function and genetic expression of multiple species — including humans — causing infertility and potentially disastrous health effects like metabolic dysfunction, organ damage, and cancer.
There is no single solution to the plastic waste problem. But you can do your part by taking the following action steps that reduce your plastic consumption, which will benefit your health as well as the environment.
Reduce plastic use.
- Purchase products that are not made from or packaged in plastic.
- Use reusable shopping bags for groceries.
- Bring your own mug when indulging in a coffee drink — and skip the lid and the straw.
- Bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles, instead of buying bottled water.
- Store foods in the freezer in glass mason jars as opposed to plastic bags.
- Take your own leftover container to restaurants.
- Request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning.
Recycle what you can.
Take care to recycle and repurpose products whenever possible.
- Support legislative efforts to manage waste in your community.
- Take a leadership role with your company, school, and neighborhood.
- If you have a great idea, share it! Your capacity to come up with smarter designs and creative ideas is limitless, and many heads are better than one. Innovations move us toward a more sustainable world.
- Return deposits on bottles and other plastic products.
- Participate in “plastic drives” for local schools, where cash is paid by the pound.
Dr. Joseph Mercola is an osteopathic physician, board-certified in family medicine. He has written two New York Times bestsellers and shared his expertise on ABC News, NBC’s The Today Show, CNN, CBS, Fox News, and in TIME and Forbes magazines.