Could You Live Without Plastic?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

living without plastic

Story at-a-glance -

  • Families around the world are now living without plastic, from grocery bags to storage containers, toothbrushes and produce bags; while challenging, online and brick-and-mortar businesses are available to make your transition easier, if not painless
  • It may take up to 1,000 years for plastic to completely degrade. In the meantime, the product breaks down into microplastic particles, infiltrating your food and water supply, damaging the environment and placing your health at risk
  • Plastic pollution and chemical absorption is associated with numerous forms of cancer, obesity, neurological, reproductive and developmental toxicities, as well as diabetes, organ malfunctions and heart disease
  • Consider reducing your plastic exposure and impact on the environment by recycling like an expert, switching plastic storage for glass, avoiding processed foods and opting for non-disposable products, such as diapers, razors and utensils

Plastic is made from a number of different chemicals, some of which are known to act as endocrine disruptors. An endocrine disruptor is similar in nature to a natural sex hormone and interferes with the normal functioning in your body.

While not visible, plastic chemicals can be found in fast food packaging, processed and boxed foods, including those marketed as organic.1 Use has skyrocketed from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 380 million metric tons in 2015.2

This represents an astonishing 18,000 percent increase over 65 years. At this growth rate, the Earth could very well be covered in plastic in another 65 years, demonstrating the power manufacturers have to destroy life.

Macro and Microplastics Are a Problem

This urgent worldwide problem is demonstrated by the number of plastic particles the average person ingests every year via food, water and dust particles landing on their plates during meals. Today, tap water, bottled water,3 sea salt4 and a variety of seafood5 all come with a “side order” of microplastic.

Although you've likely seen tragic photos of sea turtles and other marine life entwined in plastic bags, six-pack rings or dying of malnutrition as plastic debris block their intestinal tract, some of the most pernicious problems cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Microplastics range in size from 5 millimeters to microscopic and are ingested by fish, plankton and other marine life, ultimately landing on your dinner plate. The consequences of this vast worldwide pollution may still be unknown, but it's unlikely to be harmless.

Plastic is not thoroughly eliminated from your body and cannot degrade inside your system or in the environment.6 Many of the chemicals are known to disrupt embryonic development, dysregulate hormones and gene expression, and cause organ damage.

Plastic pollution and chemical absorption has been linked to obesity, heart disease and cancer. Today, a new consumer movement to living without plastic hopes to fight the problem using a powerful way to start change — at a grassroots level.7

Can You Live Life Without Plastic?

Plastic has been a harmful convenience, much of which ends up in our oceans and on land each year. From single-use plastic containers to microfibers from your washing machine, each poses a serious threat to marine life and our food supply.

Although much media attention has been given to plastics ending up in the ocean, it is estimated four to 23 times greater amounts are released on land than the ocean by way of biosolid fertilizers.8

The rapid development of new plastic chemicals has been fueled by a throwaway mentality, and although several companies have begun pledging reduction in the use of straws and plastic cups, it's going to take greater change to make a significant impact on the environment and human health.

To that end, a grassroots effort is growing, spurred on by anger over the impact of single-use plastic products. As families and groups share ideas, going plastic-free has become sustainable and even a mainstream concept. For many, their move toward living plastic-free developed gradually in an effort to reduce plastic pollution and even to reduce waste. Kiran Harrison commented:9 

“Some people are cynical about how you can sustain a lifestyle like this, or cynical about making a small contribution when big companies produce so much waste, but I’m not down with the ‘what’s the point of doing anything, we’re all doomed’ brigade — it’s far too apathetic for my liking.”

She recommends doing things gradually so they become habit. Beth Terry has the same advice.10 First she focused on her kitchen, gradually getting rid of shopping bags, pre-washed salads in plastic tubs and processed foods.

From there, she moved on to the bathroom to switch out bottles of shampoo, toothpaste tubes and toothbrushes, shopping at specialty stores catering to her needs.11 New York Times12 journalist Steven Kurutz comments “that as a marketing term, ‘plastic-free’ is emerging as the new ‘no-carbs.’”

New stores in New York and London don't carry products with any plastic and instead sell silicone water bottles and iPhone cases made of flax. In the summer of 2019, Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo plan to test products using aluminum bottles, refillable non-plastic containers and glass bottles.13

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Plastic — Threat to Life Beginning at Production and Ending in 1,000 Years

Plastics can take up to 1,000 years to break down. Researchers estimate a single plastic coffee pod may take up to 500 years, the duration of the Roman Empire.14 While most of the focus on the impact of plastic is on manufacturing or disposal, a new report released by the Center for International Environmental Law, in partnership with six other environmental organizations, finds:15

“This report demonstrates that each of those stages interacts with others, and all of them interact with the human environment and the human body in multiple, often intersecting, ways.”

The report associates plastics with numerous forms of cancer, neurological, reproductive and developmental toxicities, as well as diabetes, organ malfunctions and a significant impact on eyes and skin. Although it appears plastic is cheap and convenient, Graham Forbes, Global Plastics Project Leader for Greenpeace, commented the true cost is reflected in how:16

“Plastics are harming or killing animals around the globe, contributing to climate change and keeping us dependent on fossil fuels, entering our air, water, and food supplies, and seriously jeopardizing human health throughout their lifecycle.”

Plastic pollution is pervasive, infiltrating water and food supplies and adversely affecting the environment, on which humanity depends for food, water and natural resources. In an email to Environmental Health News, David Azoulay, one author of the report and managing attorney for the Center for International Environmental Law commented:17

"Health problems associated with plastics throughout the lifecycle includes numerous forms of cancers, diabetes, several organ malfunctions, impact on eyes, skin and other sensory organs, birth defects. And those are only the human health costs, they do not mention impacts on climate, impacts on fisheries or farmland productivity."

Human exposure is increasing with production and use of plastics, posing significant risk on a global scale. As reported by Environmental Health News, there are health risks associated with each phase in the life cycle of plastic manufacturing, including the following:18

  • Extraction of fossil fuels, used in manufacturing plastic, results in air and water pollution and in a number of other direct effects to communities such as increased traffic and pipeline construction (more than 99 percent of plastic made today is made using fossil fuels)
  • Refining and producing plastic resins and additives releases cancer-causing compounds and other toxics, some of which "can be difficult to detect" as they "are colorless and tend to have mild-to-no odor”
  • Plastic products and packaging, when in the consumer's hands, lead to inhaled or ingested toxic and/or plastic particles
  • Plastic incineration releases toxic compounds
  • The degradation of plastic leads to microplastics getting into people, wildlife, soil and water

Recycling Is Vastly Underutilized

Only 8 percent of plastic is ever recycled,19 and even then, some of the items tossed in the recycling bin may never make it to the recycling center. Some end up contaminating entire loads of recyclables that would otherwise have gone on to other uses.

While it’s best to verify guidelines for your local facility, anything smaller than a Post-It note cannot be sorted properly, so unless you screw on bottle tops it's better to throw them away. Bubble padded envelopes, wax paper and diapers are not recyclable. Paper cups with shiny coatings or paper food bowls with plastic lining will not be accepted.

In contrast, Norway recycles nearly 97 percent of plastic bottles as a result of an environmental tax producers must pay if they don't reach a recycling minimum target of 95 percent. Reverse vending machines make it easy for consumers to bring their plastic bottles back for recycling. Additionally, companies are limited in the types of plastic chemicals they can use.

While companies like Patagonia and Polartec use recycled bottles to conserve and reduce waste, breaking plastic bottles into millions of fibrous bits of plastic may prove worse than doing nothing at all. Washing clothes releases microfiber waste treatment plants are not equipped to filter, thus releasing microplastics into the waterways.

It's worth remembering mankind had a zero-waste lifestyle up until about 100 years ago. There were no plastic wraps around the foods and items you bought, and virtually every scrap was repeatedly reused and creatively repurposed into new products. For ways to become a recycling expert, see my previous article, “Top 11 Tips to Become an Expert at Recycling.”

What You Can Do to Reduce Your Use

There is a generational impact as a result of exposure to chemicals found in plastics, such as phthalates. It is wise to take proactive steps to reduce your exposure. For a list of choices to consider, see my previous article, “Phthalate Exposure Threatens Human Survival.”

If you would like to take the next step after recycling, reduce your plastic use for an even greater impact. As Harrison recommended, it’s important to start slowly and build gradually so the changes become habit and stick. Consider beginning with the following:

Use reusable shopping bags for groceries

Take your own leftovers container to restaurants

Bring your own mug for coffee, and bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles instead of buying bottled water

Request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning

Store foods in glass containers or mason jars rather than plastic containers and plastic freezer bags

Avoid disposable utensils and straws and buy foods in bulk when you can

Opt for nondisposable razors, washable feminine hygiene products for women, cloth diapers, handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, rags in lieu of paper towels and infant toys made of wood rather than plastic

Avoid processed foods (which are stored in plastic bags with chemicals). Buy fresh produce instead, and forgo the plastic bags

Consider switching to bamboo toothbrushes and brushing your teeth with coconut oil and baking soda to avoid plastic toothpaste tubes