The Problem with Plastic

The list of health problems associated with plastic grows longer by the day. Earlier this year British and U.S. researchers found an association between bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in plastics, and heart disease. The study also confirmed that BPA plays a role in diabetes and some forms of liver disease.

The problem is not so much with plastic, but with the chemical additives used in plastics. They’re necessary to mold and stabilize plastic, but only most recently have people started realizing the extent of their impact on human health.

The additives you hear most about are BPA and phthalates. BPA is used to make plastic food containers firm and vinyl products soft and pliable. It also happens to be a hormone disruptor (a fact known since the 1930s) linked to an assortment of health problems, including obesity, early puberty in girls, low sperm counts in men, reproductive problems, and asthma. It is estimated that 90% of people in the U.S. and Europe have detectable levels of BPA in their blood. In 2010 Canada declared BPA a toxic chemical, making it easier for the government to regulate its use, which may lead to an eventual all out ban of BPA in food containers.

Phthalates are chemicals used as solvents and in the process of making plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible or durable. While phthalates have been banned in toys and child care products for children under 12, they’re found in pretty much everything else. Just a few examples are food packaging, plastic bags, inflatable toys, hoses, raincoats, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, perfume, nail polish, soap, hair spray and shampoo. Phthalates have been found to disrupt the endocrine system. According the U.S. Center for Disease Control, several phthalate compounds have caused reduced sperm counts, testicular atrophy and structural abnormalities in the reproductive systems of male test animals. They have also been linked to liver cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates phthalates as water and air pollutants and the European Union prohibits phthalates in cosmetics sold in Europe.

It is also important to consider all the oil and other resources used to manufacture plastics, the pollution created in their production, and the massive amounts that end up in landfills, in the ocean, or incinerated (releasing cancer-causing pollutants into the air). While there’s no way to avoid plastics completely, there are steps you can take to guard your health and protect the environment.
  • Choose reusable over disposable. Invest in food and beverage containers made of glass, ceramic, porcelain, Pyrex, bamboo, or stainless steel instead of using bags, containers, and bottles made of plastic. Pack real silverware with your lunch. It feels more luxurious than plastic utensils anyways. And don’t forget: Reusable shopping bags are a great option for all shopping, not just groceries. 
  • Be picky about packaging. Choose products in recyclable or reusable containers, such as cardboard cartons or glass jars. Opt for fresh or frozen foods in place of canned goods. Avoid plastic-wrapped food, especially fatty foods like meats and cheeses, whenever possible. You can even ask the butcher to wrap your meat in wax paper instead of plastic. Transfer any plastic-wrapped food to non-plastic containers once you get home. 
  • Watch how you heat. Avoid heating food in plastic containers, especially polycarbonate plastic food containers. Polycarbonate containers that contain BPA usually have a #7 recycling code on them. 
  • Watch how you wash. Avoid putting plastic containers in the dishwasher. Yes, the dishwasher uses less water and energy than hand washing, but the heat and harsh detergent may cause may cause plastic to leach chemicals. 
  • Just say no to vinyl and PVC. If you absolutely have to have plastic food containers, opt for those labeled as PETE or recycling codes #2, #4, and #5. Avoid those labeled #3 or #7. Instead of a vinyl shower curtain, use one made of cotton, hemp, or polyester. 
  • Filter your tap water instead of buying bottled water. Make a habit out of bringing your own water in a stainless steel bottle to avoid impromptu purchases of bottled water. 
  • Go fragrance-free. Fragrance almost always contains phthalates, so in addition to taking a pass on perfume and cologne choose fragrance-free personal care products (i.e., moisturizers, shampoos, deodorants, etc.) whenever possible. At home, avoid air fresheners and swap chemically-scented candles for soy- or beeswax-based wax candles scented with essential oils. 
  • Opt for clothing, linens, and other housewares made of natural materials, such as organic cotton, bamboo, wool, and hemp. 

The Greenest Bag of All?

We all know that reusable shopping bags are more eco-friendly than plastic bags, but are all reusable bags equally green? Take a look around the register at the stores you frequent and you'll notice a variety of options. Are some greener than others? If so, what is the the greenest option? Let's review.

When reusable shopping bags first started becoming popular they were typically canvas bags made of fibers like cotton and hemp. Thanks to its heavy use of insecticides (using 16% of the world's insecticides for 2.5% of the world's cultivated land) cotton is considered the world's dirtiest crop. The environmental impact of cotton production (pesticides, pollution, and the significant amount of water used) is directly correlated to its weight. So when choosing a canvas bag opt for lighter bags, preferably made of organic cotton or hemp.

Polyester is thin and extremely durable. The production of an average-size polyester shopping bag creates as much greenhouse emissions as it would take to produce seven disposable plastic shopping bags.

More often these days you will see bags made of polypropylene. These are those soft, plastic-y looking bags shaped like brown paper grocery bags that most major chain stores offer. In terms of greenhouse emissions, the manufacturing of one polypropylene bag equals 11 disposable plastic bags.

All three reusable bag options are greener than the disposable paper and plastic bags available in stores. Polyester and polypropylene bags are pretty comparable. Both have a moderate edge over canvas. You can feel good about using any type of reusable type. Just remember:
  • Reusable bags need to be cleaned. You don't want to be carrying bacteria along with your groceries. You should always choose bags that can withstand a cycle in the washing machine. If you retire a bag once it gets soiled, you're not really being all that green. 
  • Look for lightweight, but sturdy. Again, if the bag doesn't last very long because it starts falling apart then it can't be very green. 
  • You have to actually use the bags for them to be green. A reusable bag needs to be used 171 times to negate the environmental impact of one plastic bag. Keep a stash of bags in your car so they're always readily available. And remember, they can be used for every type of shopping not just groceries. 

Making Your Own Microwaveable Popcorn

Making your own microwaveable popcorn at home is an incredibly easy way to avoid chemicals (used to create “flavor” and to coat the microwave bags) and save money.

Simply buy a bag of kernels (less than $3 at the grocery store) and a stack of brown paper lunch bags (I bought 50 bags for a dollar). Place a handful of kernels in the bag, fold over the opening of the bag a few times, and pop in the microwave for 2 to 3 minutes until the popping slows down. Pour on some REAL butter or olive oil and your favorite toppings – salt, Parmesan cheese, cinnamon and sugar, chilli powder . . . let your imagination soar. Give the bag a hardy shake to distribute the flavor and enjoy.

It's that easy. Plus, it works out to about 8 cents a bag. Why overpay for fake butter popcorn when you can have the real deal at home at a fraction of the cost?

Greener, Safer Dry Cleaning

When the process of dry cleaning started over 200 years ago solvents like gasoline and naphtha were used. Over time other, not necessarily safer, solvents were developed for cleaning clothes. Today, 80% of all dry cleaners use perchloroethylene (perc) – a synthetic liquid solvent described by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a “toxic chemical with both human health and environmental concerns.”

The health effects of perc depend upon the level of exposure. People exposed to high levels of perc (individuals working in or living next to a dry cleaning facility) may experience symptoms ranging from dizziness and nausea to skin, lung, and eye irritation to liver damage and respiratory failure. Low levels of exposure may carry risks as well. When laboratory animals were exposed to perc the effects on developing fetuses included altered growth, birth defects, and death. Perc has also been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals and studies of dry cleaning workers suggest an increased risk for certain types of cancers. Due to such health concerns perc is banned in several countries and California is in the process of phasing it out completely by 2023.

Perc also poses an environmental concern as it can get into the air, soil, and water during most phases of the dry cleaning process. Once it's released into the air, perc remains in the atmosphere for several weeks before breaking down into other chemicals – some toxic, some ozone depleting. Perc, in its liquid form, can seep into soil and kill plants. Seeping into the ground, perc can make its way into water supplies, contaminating drinking water and killing aquatic animals.

Alternatives to Traditional Dry Cleaning

There are some alternatives for people who want to avoid the health and environmental effects of perc dry cleaning.

“Green” or “Organic” Dry Cleaning. If you see “organic dry cleaning” advertised, ask some questions to find out what exactly that means. Many perc alternatives are petroleum-based solvents, the most popular being a chemical called DF-2000. Because it contains a chain of carbon, DF-2000 is scientifically classified as “organic.” By the same reasoning, gasoline and perc are organic. So when you see a dry cleaner advertising all-natural, green, or organic dry cleaning, they may very likely be using DF-2000 which is classified as a VOC and is listed by the EPA as a neurotoxin and skin and eye irritant for workers. Another perc alternative is a silicone-based chemical called GreenEarth. California’s Air Resources Board studied GreenEarth for 18 months and decided that it did not qualify for a non-toxic alternative dry cleaning solvent grant program, but it did qualify it as an acceptable dry cleaning solvent alternative.

Professional Wet Cleaning. Most dry cleaners offer a process called wet cleaning where “dry clean only” clothes are washed using computerized washers and dryers and special cleaning solutions. The EPA calls wet cleaning a “viable and environmentally-preferable clothes cleaning technology.” It uses no hazardous chemicals and generates no hazardous waste or air pollution. Wet cleaning has proven less effective than silicone-solvent based dry cleaning, but just as effective or better than perc dry cleaning.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Cleaning. Carbon dioxide cleaning uses CO2 with high pressure, converting it into a liquid that can act as a carrier of biodegradable soaps, just as water would work with detergents in a washing machine. Afterward the CO2 turns back into a gas (much of which is reused) and the clothes dry instantly. The CO2 used in this process is the captured by-product of existing industrial processes. So, instead of being released into the atmosphere, CO2 is re-purposed as a cleaning agent. According to Consumer Reports, CO2 cleaning is more effective than GreenEarth cleaning (a close second), professional wet cleaning and perc dry cleaning. Unfortunately, CO2 cleaning is not yet widely available.

Home Dry Cleaning Kits. For clothes that are not heavily soiled, a home dry cleaning kit is an inexpensive alternative. These kits still involve chemicals, but until non-perc dry cleaning becomes more widely available, they're a a reasonable alternative. 

Steam. Lightly soiled items can be steam cleaned in your dryer. Simply place the item in the dryer with a damp towel and run a normal cycle.

Avoid this dilemma all together. Steering clear of “dry clean only” fabrics will help you save money and avoid dry cleaning chemicals. Many of the dry clean items you currently own can be safely washed at home. Special fabrics, such as silk and suede, need special cleaning, but most other fabrics are sturdy enough to withstand being washed by hand or in a washing machine's gentle cycle with mild detergent.

If you must use a traditional dry cleaner, make sure to air out items outside before bringing them indoors. Hopefully, with time, safe perc alternatives will become more widely available.

Recycling Plastic Bags

While it’s best to avoid plastic as much as you can, it’s inevitable that you’ll end up with some plastic bags and packaging. Plastic bag recycling is becoming more widely available, so at least you don't have to toss those items in the trash

In an attempt to keep lawmakers from banning plastic bags completely, plastic bag manufacturers have begun establishing more plastic recycling programs. While, it's not the best solution and certainly not for the right reason, it's still best to take advantage of the programs and recycle plastics rather than adding any more to our landfills.

You may have already noticed plastic bag recycling drop offs in local stores, but did you know that you can drop off more than just plastic grocery bags? They will also accept retail bags, paper towel and toilet paper plastic wrap, plastic newspaper bags, plastic dry cleaning bags, bread bags, produce bags, sandwich bags, and any clear bags labeled with a #2 or #4 recycling code. You just have to make sure they are clean and dry.

Drop off bins can be found at several major retailers, including many grocery chains, JC Penney, Lowes, and Wal-Mart. Visit for drop off locations in your area.

Reducing Your Exposure to PBDEs

You may never have heard of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), but chances are you have them in your bloodstream. PBDEs are commonly used flame retardants that have been found in everything from human breast milk to birds’ eggs. Multiple studies link these bioaccumulative chemicals to neurodevelopmental deficits in children, lowered testosterone levels in men, reduced fertility in women, and thyroid disruption. In 2010, after years of study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that PBDEs are bioaccumulative and toxic to both humans and the environment and began working on a voluntary phase out of the chemicals by the end of 2013.

The phase out is a good first step, but the fact of the matter is that many of the products containing PBDEs will remain in use for a long time. Plus, PBDEs can be stored in the body for years. There are, however, steps you can take to help minimize your exposure.
  • A recent study of PBDEs in the workplace shows that hand washing may be people's first and best line of defense. The study tested 31 adults working in 8 different office buildings around Boston. PBDEs where found in every work space (think carpeting, chairs, computers, etc.) tested, including the one newly constructed building included in the study. Despite such prevalence, workers who washed their hands at least four times a day had lower levels of PBDEs on their skin and blood levels of PBDEs that were about three times lower than people who washed their hands less frequently. The study made the important discovery that people aren’t coming into contact with PBDEs by inhaling them, but rather they're absorbing them through their skin or eating them. So, regardless where you work, make sure to lather up often throughout the workday. 

  • PBDEs are prevalent in homes as well. They are most commonly found in polyurethane foam products (i.e, carpet padding, mattresses, pillows, couches, etc.) and electronics. And again, there are measures you can take to minimize your exposure. 

  • Inspect furniture, pillows, car seats, and any other household items containing foam. Replace anything that's lost its shape or appears to be breaking down. Make sure foam remains completely encased in protective fabric. This is especially important for items made before 2005. U.S. manufacturers stopped using PBDEs in foam furniture in 2005, so new foam goods are unlikely to contain PBDEs. 

  • Use a HEPA filter vacuum. HEPA filters are designed to trap very small particles, picking up pollutants, dust, and allergens that would normally remain in the air. A trademarked HEPA filter (beware "HEPA-type" or "high-efficiency" filters) removes at least 99.97% of dust, smoke, lead, mold, and PBDE particles. 

  • Never reupholster foam furniture. Even if they don't contain PBDEs, they may contain other less studied fire retardants with potentially harmful effects. 

  • Take care removing old carpet. Try to keep the kicked up dust and fabric particles contained and to a minimum. When done, vacuum with a HEPA filter vacuum and mop to remove as many particles as possible. Wear protective clothing and shower afterward. 

  • Shop wisely. When buying something new check what type of fire retardants may have been used. Avoid products with brominated fire retardants. Opt for less flammable fabrics and materials, like wool, silk, leather and metal. 

  • Keep young children from touching and mouthing electronics and appliances likely to contain PBDEs. This includes remote controls, cell phones, and TV components. 

  • Purchase electronics from companies that have committed not to use PBDEs. The following companies have publicly committed to phasing out all brominated fire retardants: Acer, Apple, Eizo Nanao, LG Electronics, Lenovo, Matsushita, Microsoft, Nokia, Panasonic (from mobile phones and computers), Phillips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony-Ericsson, and Toshiba. 

  • Make sure everyone in your household washes their hands with soap and water before eating. 

  • Check the tag on those footsie pajamas. Children are exposed to PBDEs not only from wearing flame resistant sleepwear, but also from mouthing the fabric. Opt for pajamas made of natural fibers with tags stating “must be snug fitting” and “not flame resistant.”