The 6 Worst Problems with Plastic – And How to Help Minimize Them

When people talk of the plastic crisis, it can be easy to imagine the problem as something distant, something that’s contained in landfills, away from our homes, out of sight and thus out of mind. We may think one more plastic bottle or plastic food box can’t harm us. 

But the effects of our plastic dependence and massive plastic waste generation are already here. They impact our health, environment, and quality of life, and make the planet less livable for future generations. Let’s take a look at specific issues surrounding plastic, how they affect us, and what we can do to mitigate their effects.

6. Our plastic waste harms biodiversity.

You’ve seen those photos of animals getting strangled, trapped, or getting their digestive systems blocked from ingesting plastic garbage. They’re not isolated incidents. According to Unesco, plastic debris kills more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals each year. This significant impact on animal populations can have domino effects on biodiversity, and they will ultimately affect us humans. The Earth’s natural resources are interconnected like a web. A threat to one life form can eventually alter our food supply and increase our vulnerability to diseases.

5. Burning plastics is horribly dangerous 
    to human health. 

The burning of plastics is illegal in the Philippines. Unfortunately, we’re still seeing this type of waste incineration in various places, from open-air fires in certain neighborhoods to industrial plastic incinerators. Emissions from plastic burning contain a variety of chemicals that are toxic to humans. These include brominated compounds that act as carcinogens, as well as potentially lethal dioxins. The UN Environment Programme notes that dioxins may cause cancer and respiratory problems when humans breathe in these chemical fumes.

4. Discarded plastics leak particles and chemicals that come back to us. 

If plastics aren’t burned, they can break apart into smaller pieces, and in the process, release chemicals that are hazardous to living organisms, including humans. Tiny bits of plastic – called microplastics and nanoplastics – leak from dumpsters and landfills, then make their way into our waterways, farms, and even the air we breathe. Much of the plastic runoff also makes its way into seas and oceans, where it is consumed by marine animals, including the seafood we eat. We’re literally eating, drinking, and breathing microplastics! Recent studies have discovered that these tiny particles damage our health at the cellular level, causing cell death. 

Besides microplastics, the chemicals that leach from plastics are also hazardous contaminants. Topping the list are compounds called phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA). These compounds are known endocrine disruptors – when accumulated, they can cause hormonal imbalances, reproductive issues like infertility, and potentially cancer.

These bits are just some of the many tiny fibers, beads and shards of plastic that find their way into the environment — and its inhabitants, including us. Scientists think there must be a way to keep such pollutants from posing widespread risks. 

3. ‘Clean’ plastics can harm our health, too. 

Think it’s only plastic garbage that’s harmful? Think again. Even the ‘clean’ plastic objects we use daily also release harmful chemicals as time passes. 

The industrial chemical BPA is a primary component of common plastics and is used to coat some metal containers like tin cans. This chemical is everywhere: in beverage bottles, food containers, plastic dinnerware, toys, compact discs, food cans, some car parts, and even dental sealants. 

Besides BPA, a group of chemicals called phthalates (pronounced tha-lates) are also a common plastic component that gives it its flexibility. You’d find phthalates in items like plastic lids, gloves, PVC materials, vinyl shower curtains and tablecloths, cosmetics packaging, and even in some cosmetics themselves.

BPA and phthalates leach into our food, drink, and skincare products. In one CDC survey, 93 percent of 2,517 participants aged 6 years and older had detectable BPA in their urine. And as we now know, these chemicals are endocrine disruptors linked to health problems as serious as infertility and cancer. These are what we could be welcoming into our bodies the more we use plastics at home, at school, or in the workplace.

2. Plastics are everlasting waste… and they’re piling up faster.

Given all these perils from plastics, it would be nice if we could just zap them all out of existence. In reality, the lifespan of common plastic items – like toothbrushes and diapers – can be up to 500 years. A landmark global analysis found that 79 percent of plastic waste generated since the 1950s were still in landfills as of 2015! We’re literally still living with the garbage of past generations.

Instead of slowing down, plastic production has only increased exponentially in recent years. From 2.3 million tons in 1950, it has grown to 448 million tons by 2015. To put that into perspective, plastic manufacturing has been around for over 70 years, but it’s only in the last 15 years that we’ve manufactured half of the amount of plastics ever made. Worse, production is expected to double by 2050, according to National Geographic.

1. Recycling can’t solve the plastic crisis. 

This is a hard pill to swallow. Since we were kids, we’ve been taught to segregate our garbage so that plastics can be recycled or reused. But new data has since revealed that plastic recycling hardly makes a dent on the waste crisis. 

To begin with, only 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled globally, which is a terribly meager amount. It doesn’t help that many communities still don’t exercise waste segregation or haven’t institutionalized recycling. But the problem goes deeper than that. 

The industrial recycling of plastic – which includes picking, sorting, cleaning, melting, and compounding into pellets – is costly. Even in industrialized countries like the US and the Netherlands, recycling projects have shut down because they weren’t financially viable. In addition, plastic degrades with each reuse, so in the typical plastic lifespan, recycling can only be done once or twice. 

The recycling process itself presents environmental hazards, generating greenhouse gasses that drive climate change. Other recycling emissions include dioxins, one of the toxic chemicals that are linked to cancer and lung problems. So while we think we’re reducing our household waste by practicing recycling, in the bigger picture, it’s an inefficient practice that ultimately leads us back to square one. 

Related: The Plastic Crisis

What can we do to lessen the impact of plastic?

To solve the plastic crisis, plastic production must be curbed at the source (manufacturers), and existing plastic must be managed effectively. Some may say that individual consumers are helpless in solving the issue. But we, at Made Mindful, believe that if many individuals come together, they could pressure companies to veer away from plastics, and their collective habits could make a difference in reducing plastic waste. To lessen plastic at home…

To lessen plastic at home..

  • See if you can swap your regular brands for ones that use plastic-free packaging. For instance, Made Mindful Virgin Coconut Oil is contained in glass bottles and shipped in paper boxes. [Shop Made Mindful here.] 
    • Wooden kitchenware instead of silicone ones 
    • Ceramic dinnerware and metal utensils instead of disposable ones 
    • Reusable cloth bags instead of plastic bags 
    • Metal straws instead of plastic ones
    • Beeswax food wrap instead of plastic cling wrap 
    • Washable cloth feminine pads instead of single-use ones 
    • Woven mats and rugs instead of vinyl ones 
    • Glass and wooden decor instead of plastic baubles.  

  • Buy fresh, unpackaged fruits and vegetables from your local produce stand instead of those individually wrapped or ready-sliced ones in supermarkets. 
  • Bring your own beverage in a non-plastic container (glass, stainless steel) when you go out so you don’t have to buy drinks in plastic bottles. Also, some cafes allow you to bring your own tumbler for your daily fix!

To lower your exposure to BPA and phthalates (if you can’t avoid plastic)…

  • Check your skincare products to see if they are BPA-free and phthalate-free. Your best bets are organic products with no chemical processing, like Made Mindful Virgin Coconut Oil. 
  • Opt for cooking ingredients that are in plastic-free packaging. Made Mindful VCO is in glass bottles, so the oil is untainted by plastic chemicals. [Shop Made Mindful here.] 
  • Avoid microwaving food or drink in plastic, even if the container says it’s microwave-safe. 
  • Avoid placing hot food or drink in plastic.
  • Consume less processed foods, bottled drinks, and canned goods. 
  • Never use plastic food containers that are old or discolored, much less those that have a rainbow sheen to them. 
  • If you really must buy something plastic, check its plastic grade or resin stamp, which is that embossed symbol of a number surrounded by a triangle of arrows. Safer plastics are those with number 1, 2, 4, or 5, while plastics to avoid are 3, 6, and 7.

To dispose of your already-existing plastic…

  • Check for efforts in your city to transform discarded plastics. In the Philippines, The Plastic Flamingo is an example of a social enterprise that turns plastics into sustainable construction materials. A similar initiative may be led by your local government or civic groups. 
  • See if you can coordinate directly with plastic collectors and recyclers in your area. Though recycling is an imperfect effort and cannot singlehandedly solve the plastic problem, we need to do anything we can to slow the piling of plastic waste in the environment.

Individual efforts and habits can be powerful if many of us chip in. The good news is, the plastic-free movement has already started, with numerous Pinoy individuals and households making changes to their buying habits and plastic use. Let’s get the momentum going! Try just one or two sustainable changes in your daily life. It’s easier than you might think! 

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