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Plastic pollution: The dangers in everyday products

By Sustainability Office on January 27, 2014

By Grace Denis ’15

Did you ever think plastic could be making you sick? Most people have heard of the dangers of toxins like BPA and know not to drink bottled water that has been left in a hot car, but many people don’t know of the dangers lurking in their tap water and food sources. Every day single use plastic bags, bottles, straws, food containers, and product wrapping end up in rivers, lakes, and oceans across the globe. Up to 80% of this plastic originates on land and is accidentally washed into the waterways.

Plastic is designed to last forever and breaks up into tiny pieces over time. These small plastic pieces attract toxic chemicals like BPA, and pesticides like PCBs and DDT. The toxic chemicals are diluted enough in the water to pose very few health risks, but become concentrated and dangerous when they collect on tiny plastic pieces. Aquatic animals consume tiny plastic pieces, mistaking them for small pieces of food. Once ingested the plastic releases all the toxins it gathered in the water and introduces these toxins into the food chain. Toxic chemicals released by plastics have been found in blood tests from people all over the world and have even been detected in newborns.

Simply increasing the amount of plastic recycled isn’t enough to stop this flow of plastic pollution. Plastic pellets used in the manufacturing of single use plastic bottles, bags, and other plastic products are commonly spilled into oceans and rivers during shipping. These pellets act in the same way as post consumer plastic pollution and play a large part in the buildup of toxins in wildlife and our bodies.

Society has the power to reduce the amount of toxins entering our bodies by reducing the amount of plastic we use. Disposable bottles, straws, bags, and containers are created with the intention of being used for only a couple minutes or hours before being disposed of. Dianna Cohen, the co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, advocates the addition of a fourth “R” term, Refuse, to the common phrase, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. By refusing to buy or use single use plastic items or products wrapped in plastic whenever possible, consumers can drastically reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in our waterways. The Plastic Pollution Coalition website lists easy ways to make a big impact on your plastic consumption. Here are a few ideas:

  • Instead of using disposable water bottles and to go cups, stainless steel bottles and mugs and reusable plastic bottles can be used everyday to ensure your coffee is always hot and you always have water when you need it.
  • Disposable plastic straws contribute to a large percentage of plastic pollution that can easily be diminished by forgoing straws altogether or switching to reusable stainless steel or less harmful paper straws.
  • Trips to the grocery store offer many opportunities to take a stand against disposable plastics through the choices made about which products to buy. Purchasing products with minimal packaging is a great way to limit plastic pollution that also decreases the amount of unnecessary waste consumers have to dispose of. Shopping trips also offer a chance to forgo the ubiquitous disposable plastic bags. Carrying purchases home in your own reusable bags, like these stylish ones from Baggu, can also save you some money since stores like Whole Foods offer discounts to shoppers who supply their own bags.

Plastic pollution is something that affects all of us who share this planet and we can all take simple steps to limit the negative impacts of plastics. Through making simple choices, consumers can limit the amount of plastic entering our waterways and can help reduce the amount of plastic created in the first place. So next time you head to the grocery store take a second to think about what your potential purchases support and if there’s a better option. And don’t forget to always Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Refuse!

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