Plastic is all around us and is practically unavoidable. Though there are known dangers to human and animal health, and especially to the environment, the efforts being made to reduce plastic use are not substantial. While measures are being taken to decrease human exposure to the industrial chemical, Bisphenol A (BPA), Beth Terry, author of "Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too" warns us that BPA is not the only chemical in plastic we should be avoiding.
NS: What inspired you to write your book?
BT: Before I started my blog, I didn't know much about the pollution caused by plastic. I would double plastic bags at the grocery store, drank bottled water, ate frozen dinners, and led a life of convenience. One night I stumbled across an article on the plastic pollution in the ocean and saw a picture of an albatross chick filled with plastic. I am such an animal lover, and to think that my life could be harming animals like this shocked me. I sat and cried for a few minutes, and then thought, I have to do something. So I decided to see what my plastic footprint was. I set up a bag under my kitchen table to see how much I accumulated. I also wanted to see if I could not use plastic or bring any home.
I created a blog called Fake Plastic Fish (but Google thought I was selling aquarium supplies) but later changed it to My Plastic-Free Life.
After three years, I had accumulated so much information on my blog about plastic and plastic-free alternatives, I had to organize it better. I wanted to reach people who don't read blogs so I decided to put it into a book format.
NS: Is there any safe plastic?
BT: The issue is, it is impossible to know if any plastic is safe. In addition to the problems we know about, plastics can contain thousands of possible additives to affect the hardness, or softness, or slippery-ness, and manufacturers don't disclose what their recipes are.
The number on the container tells you what type of plastic it is, but it doesn't tell you what else has been added to the plastic. If you don't know what's in it, you can't tell what will leach out of it. The additives are not bound to the polymer, and when the plastic is subject to stress (light, heat) it can leach.
Some BPA-free bottles were tested and were found to have some of the same hormone-disrupting chemicals as BPA, so the alternatives are not necessarily safe either.
When people ask me which plastics are safe, I say, "I don't know that any plastics are safe if I don't know what's in them."
We know that #3 PVC is very toxic. It contains phthalates and is often stabilized with heavy metals (lead, cadmium), and it creates dioxins when it burns.
We also know that polycarbonate, #7 (hard clear plastic) generally contains BPA.
Some studies have shown #1 PET leaching phthalates as well. Even #2 and #4 will leach.
Any plastic can leach. It depends on what additives have been added to it.
During research on #5, the plastic wasn't even being tested. The researchers were using plastic test tubes, which were thought not to leach. They tested the test tubes and realized they were affecting their experiments.
Many companies, even green companies, think about plastic last. It isn't a priority.
NS: Why are plastic bags taboo? Are they worse than other plastic products?
BT: It's because of their form. They're lightweight and blow away easily. This is hazardous to marine animals, especially if you live in coastal areas. We need to keep them out of the ocean. They resemble jellyfish, which sea turtles eat. The other thing about plastic bags is that there's an easy alternative. Bring your own bags to the store. Plastic bags are a good first step. Paper bags have a big environmental impact as well, so they should be charged for, too.
NS: Should we be buying recycled toilet paper?
BT: Recycled toilet paper is problematic. Trace amounts of BPA were found in recycled toilet paper. How did it get into toilet paper? From receipts tossed into recycling bins. Thermal receipt paper should not go into recycle bins! It is coated with BPA in powder form, which leaches readily. This is how it ends up in recycled toilet paper.
When you handle a paper receipt, BPA ends up on your hands. Some receipt paper-makers are switching to Bisphenol S (BPS). Unfortunately, BPS is about as hazardous as BPA, but companies can say that their products are BPA-free. It's still absorbed through your skin.
Our money is contaminated with BPA, too, because cashiers and people are frequently touching it along with their receipts.
NS: Is recycling a good solution?
BT: Plastic recycling is the last resort. It isn't the solution. There are cities whose recycling systems allow every type of plastic to be included and people have the wrong idea that all plastic products are being recycled. That's not true. The non-recyclable items are separated and landfilled(or worse). People are confused about which plastics are recyclable, and it isn't translating into responsible purchasing decisions.
Every area is different. Research exactly what your neighborhood allows or doesn't allowfor recycling. Take care to include only plastic items that can be recycled in your recycling bins. And when you must buy a plastic product, or one that's wrapped in plastic, choose those plastics that are the most readily recyclable where you live.
Another issue is that the majority of recyclables in North America are shipped to China (who's environmental standards are not as good as ours). The transportation itself has an environmental impact. The recycled plastic products are then remade into various plastic items for us to use in North America.
NS: Plastic is of particular concern for parents. Baby bottles, dishes, toys… everything seems to be made from plastic. If BPA is not the only concern, what do you suggest?
BT: The companies Life Without Plastic and Mighty Nest sell stainless steel and glass bottles, dishes, and lunchbox items for kids. Some of the products available on Mighty Nest are made with Duralex, which is 2.5 times stronger than glass.
NS: Can you suggest some ways that we can reduce our use of plastic immediately?
BT: Bring your own glass or stainless steel containers to restaurants if you plan to take home leftovers or when you're buying take-out. At the deli, ask for your food to be wrapped in paper rather than plastic. Better yet, bring your own container.
Also, rinse plastic food containers before putting them into the recycling bin because the food contaminates the paper products (which are then recycled).
We can support companies who make reusable items. Buy less. Use only what you need. Reuse what you have. Bring your own bottle.
NS: Are you totally plastic-free?
BT: I am not 100% plastic free. Prescription bottles, plastic caps on glass bottles – some plastics are unavoidable. And I choose to have them because they make life livable. I advocate change on a systemic level – it has to be removed from production in the first place. I want people to be mindful of the choices they have and make, and I want them to know their choices make a difference. You don't have to remove everything. Just be aware. Is the product covered in plastic (or made from it) something that you need in the first place?
To read about some of the plastic-free alternatives we like, read 6 Ways to Make Your Fridge Plastic Free.
In 2007 Beth Terry committed to stop buying any new plastic & she has almost succeeded! For more suggestions on how to avoid plastic in your life and to keep track of Beth's plastic usage, visit her blog.
Photo credit: Ravi Khemka