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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Plastics to Avoid

I just gave a talk at a medical conference in Hawaii on plastics, so they are on my mind. The truth of the matter is, that the global issue of plastic pollution is vast and far reaching from the depths of the ocean to the highest peaks to the arctic ice. In fact, we are now living in the Plasticine Age. How’s that for a legacy?

But it is overwhelming to the point that it is hard to know what to do. In my research on plastics and human and environmental health, one pearl I feel has been very useful, is a better understanding of the types of plastic and which ones I really should avoid. Here, I share what I’ve learned by looking at recycling numbers.

First, it’s important to understand that plastic recycling doesn’t really help the plastic problem. Because very little of the plastic we recycle goes back into making more plastic containers but is ground to make fiber fill for clothing and sleeping bags or composite woods. This means that new plastic needs to be produced to make more bottles or containers or electronics. And the rate of plastic production is to the point that the weight of plastic produced in a year is more than the combined weight of every human on earth. Daunting, no?

But some of the single-use plastics are worse than others. So, let’s learn about them.

#1 PET plastics: These are water bottles, juice bottles, some food containers. 200 billion water bottles are made every year, the majority of which end up in landfills or the ocean. PET plastic (polyethylene terephthalate) is made from gas from fracking. And it contains chemicals and more microplastics than tap water that we end up consuming. The leaching of the chemicals into the bottles is worse with time, heat and pH.  So, salad dressing is particularly bad. Bottom line: buy a water filter and avoid #1 if you can.

#2, #4, #5 plastics are not bad in terms of leaching chemicals. They do pollute and cause environmental issues, especially #5s which are bottle caps.

#3 is PVC, polyvinyl chloride. Pipes, raincoats, shower curtains are made from it. It’s versatile and flexible. But it’s also called Poison plastic because it may contain phthalates which act on our hormones and lead, cadmium and other heavy metals, which are toxic.

#6 is polystyrene: to go cups and containers, packing peanuts, coolers, Styrofoam. Styrene is toxic to the nervous system and a suspected carcinogen. If you end up using it, don’t put anything warm into it. It leaches chemicals into your food or beverage readily.

#7 is other. A lot of it contains bisphenols (BPA, BPS, BPF) all of which can act on hormone receptors and are considered triggers for obesity.

So, in conclusion: avoid plastic when you can. Try shampoo bars, buy your own coffee mug or water bottle, get a water filter.  And if you still end using a plastic container – try and avoid #1, 3, 6, and 7s. There is so much else I can say but this is a good start.


By Dr. Jennifer Means ND, LAc

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