The Effect of Plastics on Your Health and the Environment

By: Micaela Young M.S.  |  February 2018  |  Your Health on Plastics

Plastic is surprisingly hard to avoid. It's in our water bottles, food packaging and storage containers. It's even in our clothing. Now we're left to sort out its impact on the environment and our health.

Welcome to the plastic planet: Of the 9.1 billion tons of it we've churned out since the 1950s, roughly half was produced in the last decade or so, according to a recent study published in Science Advances. And 6.9 billion tons of it has ended up as waste—only 9 percent was recycled, while 79 percent wound up as litter or in landfills. (The rest is still in use.)

And you may not realize how much plastic you're using. There are endless sources in our everyday lives—disposable razors, fleece jackets, shoes, toothbrushes and more. The Ocean Conservancy reports that cigarette butts (yep, there's plastic in the filters) top the list of trash found at beach cleanups.

Plastic in the Ocean

Much of this trash ends up in the ocean. In 2010 alone, an estimated 8.8 million tons of it entered the sea—equivalent to dumping a garbage-truckload of plastic into the ocean every minute, says Amy V. Uhrin, M.S., chief scientist of the Marine Debris Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Oh, and that 9.1 billion tons of plastic we mentioned earlier? Yeah, a lot of it is still hanging around. Most plastics never really go away. They only break into smaller and smaller pieces, including tiny bits called microplastics. There are an estimated 5 trillion microplastics floating in the oceans.

Unfortunately, marine creatures like oysters, sea turtles and corals mistake these particles for food. Consequently, they're not only suffering from malnutrition from not eating real food, they're also ingesting harmful chemicals: microplastics absorb other toxic contaminants in the ocean. Some of these chemicals have been shown to cause hormonal imbalances, hinder reproduction and lead to liver damage in fish.

And with evidence showing that plankton at the bottom of the food chain may be affected by plastic, the outlook for us at the top isn't good.

Plastics in Our Food

Care for a sprinkling of microplastics with your meal? Yes, the same pollutants ubiquitous in our environment may end up on your plate.

Researchers have found microplastics in fish, sea salt and even drinking water.

The question of how microplastics impact the human body has yet to be studied, says Laura Vandenberg, Ph.D., at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (it's only been investigated in animals). "But the fact that microplastics are found in the flesh of fish and other organisms suggests that they're not simply passing through animals, so why would we expect they're benignly passing through us?" she asks.

Chemicals in Plastic

That said, we do have some insight on the chemicals these plastics are made of, because we're constantly interacting with them in our daily lives, including items made with:

  • bisphenol A (BPA, found in water bottles and can linings)
  • phthalates (found in packaging film and other plastics)
  • persistent organic pollutants (POPs, found in nonstick pans)

These can leach into food and act as endocrine disruptors, interfering with the hormones in our bodies, and may promote metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes. Other research suggests BPA exposure is linked with an increased risk of cancer. While these chemicals are associated with a host of diseases, it's important to realize that they're only one piece of the puzzle—not the sole cause.

Should You Avoid Plastic?

All of this sounds alarming, but let's put it into perspective. In the grand scheme of your health, focusing on your overall diet is more constructive than fixating on plastic. "Let's not distort the real risk here," says David L. Katz, M.D., director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. "We all know that a diet of whole foods, mostly plants, is good for us. Such a diet not only minimizes bad chemicals in the food we eat—more importantly, it minimizes the bad food we eat."

So don't stress about the plastic you can't get out of your life. Avoiding all of it is practically impossible anyway. Best to celebrate small victories, like switching to reusable glass containers and ditching straws.

Some other steps you can take:

To protect yourself from microplastics in the fish you eat, follow the same advice you do for mercury—skip the top predators, like tuna, tilefish, bluefish and shark, where contaminants tend to accumulate.

To keep plastics out of your drinking water, opt for an under-sink reverse-osmosis filter, like select ones made by Whirlpool and 3M, that catch smaller particles than fridge or pitcher filters do.

Pitch in at your local beach cleanup. Better yet, log the plastic you collect with the free app Clean Swell. The Ocean Conservancy uses this data in its global database on pollution to inform trash solutions (and you get fun badges, to boot).

Get political. Support groups like the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit that fights plastic pollution at several levels. One way they do so is by providing research to lobbyists who advocate for stronger pollution laws.

Get involved with environmental organizations, such as the Plastic Pollution Coalition and the Surfrider Foundation. Whether it's volunteering your time or a giving a monetary donation, anything you can offer helps.

More Ways to Cut Back on Plastic:

The Best Food-Storage Containers for Packing Kids' Lunch Boxes
What's the Best Reusable Water Bottle?
5 Reusable Products to Pack for a Picnic