Treading Lightly
Treading Lightly

The truth about plastic — leaching, hormone disruption, carcinogenic materials, and other dangers

For a few years now I have been aware of the dangers of plastic and the ubiquity of the material. It often feels as though I am in the minority of those who truly understand plastic and what our cultures’ dependence on it truly means. Plastic is not the safe, catch all material that we once believed it was. It will not provide us with the solution to everything, and we need to start questioning our use of it and coming up with solutions of how to drastically decrease its damaging effects on our health, environment, and future.


Plastic is a petroleum product that takes dangerous chemicals to create. They are created by using non-renewable resources and require vast amounts of energy to produce. Production releases VOCs and other chemical emissions that pollute our air and endanger workers. The particles from production often end up in our waterways and oceans, spreading the pollution from humans to other species.

Image courtesy of Concepts and Designs


Most people do not realize that plastic is not just in the clear containers we use — it is hidden in many places that are still impacting our safety, health, and environment. Plastic lines our soda cans, food cans, cartons, and is used in countless other food storage and packaging applications. Plastic is in cars, heaters, electronics, bags, and thousands of other items that we come in contact with. It leaches harmful chemicals out of all of these uses and into our air, food, and drinking water.

Image courtesy of Chris Jordan

The chemicals in plastic, especially BPA, are endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, and overall hazardous to our health. And yet our foods are not being tested or regulated for trace elements of these chemicals that can build up in our bodies overtime, disrupt normal hormone functions, and increase our chances of cancer. In one study “more than 70 percent of the products released chemicals that acted like estrogen. And that was before they exposed the stuff to real-world conditions: simulated sunlight, dishwashing and microwaving.” Microwaving, or exposing plastics to any kind of heat, increases chemical leaching.

Plastics have been tested and proven to leach materials, including phthalates and organotins (endocrine disruptors) and the carcinogen benzophenone, out into the products they hold and the environment. The hormones that plastics leach into our bodies also end up in the environment — affecting not only our health, but also the health of thousands of other species.

Plastics that are claiming to be BPA free are still incredibly dangerous. The materials they are substituting for BPA are not being tested for harmful affects, and other chemicals and byproducts leach out as well.

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End of life:

Many people think that if they just place their plastics in the recycling bin all is well. But to be honest “recycling” plastic is a misnomer. Plastic is not recycled as much as it is down-cycled, meaning that instead of a plastic bottle going in and being turned into another plastic bottle, the material is downgraded into something of lesser value and strength (like a bottle turning into a polyester shirt or rug). Once the item is downgraded once, it is no longer able to be recycled (that rug or clothing item then ends up in the landfill where it cannot break down). Plastic is far from being a closed loop system where you put a bottle in and get a bottle out (glass recycling is a good example of nearly closed loop recycling). Instead energy is wasted, the product becomes poorer quality, and in the end, the items ultimately end up in our landfills, oceans, and strewn across our environment. So when we think we are really helping the earth by putting our plastics in the recycling bin, we are really just delaying the inevitable — an endless, polluting life in the landfill or elsewhere in our environment. Even then, an incredibly small percent (around 1-2%) of the plastic we use is “recycled.”

Another major misconception is that plastic breaks down. People do not realize that plastic does not decompose or break down into materials that can be safely incorporated back into the environment. Plastic is not a natural material that can return to a natural state. Instead it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that become more and more dangerous. Plastics leach out their harmful chemicals for much longer than we are even able to study them. Plastics have been around for more than 100 years, and yet the very first plastic items ever created are still on our earth, polluting our waters and soils with their chemicals and taking up more and more of our valuable space.

 Image courtesy of Pelican Parts
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Plastics are not only filling up our landfills, but also our oceans. Plastic wastelands are being discovered in all of our 5 ocean gyres. The most famous of these is the Pacific garbage patch that has been said to be twice the size of Texas. Because plastic does not break down, it accumulates in our oceans and the problem grows and grows. Animals eat the plastics and die, it gets caught in our machinery and ruins boats and other equipment, it gets caught around marine life and birds and kills them, and it pollutes these waters with dangerous chemicals that then end up on our plates and in our body through the fish and other marine life that we eat.
Image courtesy of FMSA
Image courtesy of Chris Jordan

What should you do:

With cancer rates soaring and environmental destruction increasing exponentially it is time for everyone to take action. We need to protect ourselves, our environment, and our future generations.

Image courtesy of Plastiki
1. Do not buy food that is packaged in plastic. You wouldn’t buy the plastic just to eat it, so why buy foods where you are forced to eat leftover chemicals from the plastic package?

2. Do not buy drinks in plastic.

3. Avoid cans that are lined with plastic. (really avoid cans all together). Soda cans and cans that hold food have been tested and found positive for BPA presence and leaching. It is best to avoid cans as much as possible and instead eat fresh or homemade foods. (You can also check for linings and find more information about brands that do not use BPA in their linings online).

4. Buy in glass bottles not cans.

5. Cook your own food

6. Can/ Jar your own food.

7. Never microwave plastic or put hot food into plastic.

8. Try to buy household cleaning products and other items that are not packaged in plastic.

9. Demand more regulation. Canada has already banned BPA from use, and we can do the same.

10. Do not cover food with plastic wrap, especially not in the microwave.

11. Always bring your own bag to the store.

12. Bring your own reusable produce bag and bags for bulk bin buying to avoid unnecessary plastic.

13. Use reusable glass and metal water bottles and containers.

14. Do not use plastic dishes, glasses, or utensils.

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