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6 mins

How to Find (and Reduce) the Hidden Plastics in Everyday Life

Our resident sustainability whizz looks into plastics that show up in unexpected places — and how to make sure you’re consuming the minimum possible.
by Therese Sivertsson | May 8 2018

A confession: Doing the research for this article was overwhelming. Plastics are absolutely everywhere! I thought I was doing everything I could to avoid plastics but they’re better hidden than you might think. When I tell you all of the unexpected places that plastics pop up, you’ll probably be quite surprised, too, but bear with me! I’ll leave you with easy replacements and tips on how to reduce plastics — without compromising too much on convenience.

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What’s the problem with plastics anyway?

The problems with plastics are manifold, but I’ll focus on two: its effect on our health and on nature.

Many plastics are toxic. Two well-known examples are PVC or vinyl, and BPA.

PVC is the only plastic that contains chlorine, making it uniquely toxic. The production of it is harmful to factory workers and nearby communities. The product used to make PVC soft, contains endocrine-disrupting phthalates that can leach from the plastic. This is especially alarming as PVC may be used for children’s toys, not uncommonly put into mouths.

BPA, or Bisphenol-A, is a chemical that has been shown to disrupt hormones and build up in our bodies over time. The plastics that contain the food, drinks, beauty products and other items we purchase can all leach into the products themselves, depending on what additives they contain and conditions such as light and heat.

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with our bodies hormone systems, possibly causing cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.

Biodegradable plastic is commonly made out of corn and marketed as a sustainable plastic. But it is, nevertheless, a plastic. These types of plastics need temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius to break down, which is rarely the case in nature and definitely not in the ocean, where plastic waste is an ever-growing problem.

Because plastic is such a durable material, it never fully breaks down, leaving tiny little particles in nature known as microplastics. These plastics make their way into the water we drink and the food that we eat (especially through seafood) and harm marine life that mistakes these for food.

Reducing plastic consumption

I make a conscious effort to not consume or use plastic unnecessarily, but even so, I found myself in awe of the amount of plastics that I was sorting out and recycling. I buy unpackaged produce and I do not use plastic bags. Where was it all coming from?

So, I decided to take a closer look at what I was buying, what it contained, and how it was packaged. And pretty quickly it was clear to me how much plastic was hidden in my everyday purchases. I found unnecessary plastics in everything from toothbrushes to chocolate bars and tea bags. But I also found alternatives that would help me reduce my plastic consumption significantly.

To help you do the same, here’s a list of everyday items that are generally plastic-heavy, but don’t have to be:

Your toothbrush

Toothbrushes are usually made entirely out of plastic.

Plastic-free solution: When it’s time to replace your old plastic brush, do it with a more sustainable version made out of wood or bamboo.

Toothpaste

Can contain microbeads made of plastic.

Plastic-free solution: Plastic-free toothpaste.

Produce bags

There is literally no good reason to use these disposable, one-time only, plastic bags, and it’s one of the easiest ways to reduce the amount of plastic you consume.

Plastic-free solution: Invest in reusable produce bags, just use some good old canvas bags, or skip the bags completely.

Water bottles

Plastic-free solution: Get a reusable bottle in stainless steel or glass.

Takeaway coffee mugs, ice cream cups, frozen food packaging, takeaway food containers

Even though these packages are commonly referred to as paper, they’re actually lined with plastic so that they can hold liquids without disintegrating.

Plastic-free solution: Treat yo’self to a cone, bring your own mug, and buy fresh food as much as possible.

Disposable plates, cutlery, and cups

Plastic-free solution: Replace plastic variants with compostable and biodegradable alternatives.

Plastic straws

If you think about it, plastic straws are a totally unnecessary item. They’re just used once and then tossed away.

Plastic-free solution: Ask for no straw when you buy beverages, and buy paper or reusable metal straws if you can’t go without.

Cigarette butts

Cigarette filters contain plastic, yet most people simply toss them on the ground.

Plastic-free solution: If giving up smoking isn’t an option, dispose of cigarettes in ashtrays and designated receptacles.

Tea bags

Tea bags are often of a plastic mix to keep their shape in hot water and many times they come individually packed as well.

Plastic-free solution: Get a reusable tea infuser and choose loose tea over tea bags.

‘Flushable’ wet wipes

Wet wipes are often made from synthetic microfibers, i.e. plastic that never biodegrades in the environment! These wipes have a tendency to clog pipes when flushed down the toilet because they do not disintegrate.

Plastic-free solution: Use water and soap, washable cloths, or toilet paper.

Canned foods

Cans are lined with plastic to prevent corrosion. For the longest time BPA was the plastic used in cans but it’s been banned from products in many countries. However, this does not mean that the plastic in the lining isn’t bad for you, and many cans sold in supermarkets still test positive for BPA.

Plastic-free solution: Switch out canned food for fresh food to the extent your budget allows. A fresh-food diet can significantly decrease your exposure to harmful plastics. If you have the option to buy canned foods in glass jars this is also a better, albeit not completely plastic-free, option due to plastic in the lid.

Wine corks

These are sometimes made of plastic.

Plastic-free solution: Buy wine that uses actual cork for the cork.

Facial scrubs and other exfoliating beauty products

If it says polyethylene on the package it means those little beads that scrub your skin are made of plastic. Plastic that is washed out into our water systems.

Plastic-free solution: Check for products that do not use plastic or make your own scrub! The Internet is full of recipes for making sugar-based and other non-plastic scrubs.

Soap, shampoo, shower gel

Plastic-free solution: Soap, shampoo, and shower gel are products that work perfectly well in bar form.

Feminine hygiene products

Feminine hygiene products are lined with plastic or come with plastic applicators.

Plastic-free solution: Invest in a menstrual cup! This significantly reduces the amount of plastic-lined female hygiene products you’ll go through and is better for your body.

Travel-size toiletries

Mini toiletries (or mini-anything, really) are adorable. But all that packaging for so little product is also quite wasteful.

Less-plastic solution: Buy yourself some reusable travel-size containers that you can fill up when it’s time to go on vacation and reuse over and over.

Clothing

A lot of fabrics are made from plastic, such as nylon, fleece, polyester, acryl. When washed, these leak plastic fibers into our water.

Plastic-free solution: Buy clothes made from non-plastic, sustainable materials (they tend to last longer and be kinder to the body as well).

Packaging

Reduced-plastic solution: Opt for unpackaged goods at the supermarket and consider how much packaging is used for products. I recently bought earphones and finally ended up going with those that were delivered in a paper package over plastic.

When it comes to reducing plastics, awareness is the first step. You don’t have to purge your house of all plastics right away, but just try to be more careful next time you’re at the store. Good luck!

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