It must be the plastic making me sick.
Three years ago, I was diagnosed with a chronic disease that causes painful, bleeding ulcers in my colon, and I had tried every medication, supplement, diet and stress-reducing exercise offered to me by various doctors, naturopaths, dietitians, and Google, to improve my symptoms.
Instead of relief, I became overwhelmed. Reputable information contradicted other reputable information. Was everyone wrong? Or was everyone right? Science can find an experiment to agree with any side. Perhaps I needed to adjust my definition of reputable.
The “facts” and “research” put out there go something like this:
Source 1: “Meat’s terrible for you. It rots in your gut. And it’s killing the environment.”
Source 2: “No, Meat is great for you, easily digestible and high-protein. Grains are bad and inflaming your gut.”
Source 3: “Eh… Some Meat is fine as long as it’s grass fed.”
Source 4: “Actually, unless you watched the cow eat and grow up its whole life, your “grass-fed” beef is a lie.”
And so it goes.
I did not know which way to go, or which theory to follow. But I did know that eating plastic was indisputably not good for the health.
The secret was out that the magical human-concocted material that lasted forever was bad for the health of humans, animals, and the earth because, well, it lasted forever. We are well aware that plastic is very difficult to get rid of, that it is hard to recycle efficiently, and that it contains toxic chemicals and carcinogens, but we are not well aware of how to live without it.
I had an idea that perhaps anything I ingested that had touched plastic had absorbed at least trace amounts of toxic chemicals and carcinogens, thus making me sick, or at least sicker. So beginning in 2015, I decided to run an (ongoing) experiment to eliminate all plastic from entering my mouth. The easiest way to do that was prevent it from entering my home in the first place.
That didn’t go well, since a third of my clothes contain a common plastic, polyester. It’s ironic – and horribly depressing – that most of my outdoor gear and clothing are made of waterproof materials. In other words: plastics.
For example, Gore-Tex is a fancy name for a layer made of stretched-out polytetrafluorethylene, or Teflon, which is polluting our air, water, and bloodstreams, and is difficult if not impossible to get rid of. Not to mention all of our synthetic fabrics like fleece jackets are shedding microfibers of plastic into our water supply every time they are washed. Ah, the Great Outdoors.
I felt completely overwhelmed and to be honest, scared. This problem was bigger than me, bigger than even Mother Nature could handle. Plastic and all its derivatives and leachable chemicals weren’t just worn on my body or holding my food, they were in our water supply, in our mountains and lakes and soils and reservoirs and air we breathe. I had to “reassure” myself that it wasn’t my fault if I was accidentally ingesting plastic.
My one human trial to heal myself through eliminating plastic would certainly be insignificantly small, and most likely unsuccessful. But, reducing the plastic in my life would be a good exercise in awareness, to discover where the plastic hides in every corner of my life, and whether or not I could do better.
So I refined my challenge to be more realistic: find all the plastic in my home and attempt to eliminate all plastic that touches food, or could otherwise be ingestible, from my life.
I bought glass-only Tupperware. I stopped buying disposable plastic water and beverage bottles. I try my best to only drink water from the tap but without stricter regulations, the water quality will always be questionable especially since plastic chemical content is not required to be reported. I use a Brita filter which filters the water into a plastic container.
I drink wine. There hasn’t been plastic involved with drinking wine from glass bottles in wine glasses, until you screw the cork out and it’s…plastic.
I stopped buying ZipLock bags and Plastic Saran Wrap, and store food in my glass-only Tupperware and glass storage jars. In airport security lines, I pray that my cloth toiletry bag is see-through on the scanner. It is.
I use reusable cloth bags to shop. I go to Farmer’s Markets when possible. I commercially compost all of my organic waste, which means in addition to meat, vegetables, and other food by-products, all paper towels, toilet paper, tissues, pizza boxes, cardboard, etc., can also be turned into soil. I learned that pretty much anything but plastic items, food labels, and dryer lint (because of those nasty plastic/fleece microfibers..) can be composted.
Packaged food was obviously out since literally every single rice bag is plastic, so I shop the bulk food section. But that is a partial failure as well since all the bulk food is stored in – you guessed it – plastic containers. And the bag options to fill your bulk rice are usually plastic. Occasionally, a paper bag or a compostable plastic bag option would be available, but I decided the best method would be to bring my own glass containers to refill bulk items. The real challenge was remembering to pack enough glass containers in my re-usable shopping bag. Not easy, and I usually fail at this.
The safe items became veggies, fruits, and eggs. Vegetables and fruits were free of plastic packaging and eggs came in reusable cardboard cartons.
Cookware was easy since everything I owned was already cast-iron, stainless, and/or enamel as I had learned of the carcinogenic horrors of Teflon at an early childhood age when my Dad drilled it into my impressionable brain that Teflon would give us all cancer and destroy the earth that we love so much.
Even my beloved Vitamix blender, which provides me easy-to-digest baby food from rocks, is an almond-pulverizing machine made of dishwasher-safe plastic. At least it’s “BPA-free.”
I love yogurt, but it comes in plastic. So I started making my own yogurt, incubating it in glass jars in the oven. But the milk I bought to make the yogurt often came in a plastic container (the glass jars are twice as expensive), and I was in no position to buy a dairy cow.
My toothbrush is plastic. The bristles, even. So I bought an all-natural wooden toothbrush with some sort of natural bristle. That promptly fell apart two weeks later but at least no plastic was in my mouth. (I’ve thus gone back to my longer-lasting but plastic-bodied electric toothbrush). But my teeth are clean and my dentist is happy.
My all-natural, fluoride-free, carrageenan-free, Neem and Pomegranate toothpaste comes out of a plastic squeeze bottle with a very plastic cap. The paste may be plastic-free, but is it still after being encased in plastic for years?
Speaking of dental hygiene, I’m certain that dental floss contains plastic (and nylon). There is silk floss out there but I’ve never seen it in stores. Plus, floss packaging is plastic. I value clean teeth, so I still buy floss. And toothpaste.
I won’t even get started on toiletries. Even the most natural moisturizers, face washes, shampoos, conditioners, and other products still come in a plastic container.
My medications and supplements and all health-promoting things I take daily all come in plastic bottles. The irony.
Tampons often come with plastic applicators, which take 25 years to break down in the ocean unless they are ingested by marine life, and take many centuries to break down in a landfill. What’s worse is the companies (Playtex, Tampax) responsible for creating plastic that pollutes your vagina and the earth advise women that it’s best to flush tampons and advertise that sticking a plastic applicator up there is better for your health than your own finger. No. I switched to the Diva Cup, which has been life-changing. No waste, no discomfort, no leaks, no plastic (it’s medical grade silicone, which is mostly not plastic).
To-go coffee cups. This is a bad one, and if I am ordering a coffee it most likely means I haven’t had coffee yet, so in my diminished mental state, I am prone to forget to bring my reusable thermos. I am lucky to live in Vermont where most often to-go containers and cups are fully compostable, but still I’m generating unnecessary waste. The guilt and shame I feel are almost as strong as the coffee itself.
I never take a lid unless there is a very high chance of spillage, because I appreciate the aroma of the coffee surrounding my face as I take every sip. Plus, not only can you can rarely recycle plastic No. 6 (Polystyrene), but when heated (like my coffee) it can and will leach BPA and other carcinogenic chemicals. Not good.
If the presence of plastic in my life is unavoidable, it’s obviously better to use it as often as possible, so long it isn’t heated to the point of leaching chemicals or washed to shed microfibers. But in the case of eliminating plastic, many of my reusable shopping bags are themselves plastic. My BPA-free refillable water bottles are indeed plastic, and even the stainless ones such as Kleen Kanteen have caps made of plastic.
I’ve tried to avoid the anxiety that even if the water I’m drinking has been triple filtered to remove plastic and other harmful chemicals with a 99% certainty, it certainly will be stored in plastic or passed through plastic at some point before entering my mouth. Straws, CamelBaks, Brita pitchers, Nalgene bottles, lids and caps. These days, awareness breeds anxiety, and anxiety is there to make us act, to enable us to get up and do something about this horrible thing.
But is there anything we can do? The plastic pollution crisis extends farther than just food and containers: it’s embedded everywhere, into all facets of life and the environment. To make matters worse, it’s invisible. A concentration of only several parts per trillion of PFOA/PFOS/PTFE is enough to affect a human’s health and water levels can be orders of magnitude higher than this. To put that into perspective, you would only be one in a trillion humans if there were 150 identical Earths. Simply put, when we’re not ignoring plastic, we – quite literally – see right through it.
Plastic and its problems will outlive us, if not the Earth. We live in an era where the Environmental Protection Agency protects the interests of oil companies, so how can we even begin to start cleaning up plastic, the newest pollutant in the game, when we have to focus on protecting laws passed almost half a century ago because simply having clean water to drink and clean air to breathe is threatened?
The problem is out of control. And even if it was the plastic making me sick, I couldn’t stop it on my own, nor would I notice immediate effects from its removal from my life because the half-life of PFOS is around four years and the half-life of plastic itself is at least five to ten times longer than an average human lifespan. Plastic hasn’t been around long enough to get any real data. In other words, we don’t know how long plastic lasts because it hasn’t decomposed yet.
My contact lenses are plastic. The pens I write with are plastic. The extension cords and power cords I touch to manipulate power are plastic. The computer keyboard I am currently typing on is plastic. Every time I open a package, there is plastic in the form of wrappers, tape, stickers, and bags. My speakers and piano keyboard are mostly plastic. If I had a TV it would be plastic. Book covers are coated in plastic. Hell, my bathtub is made of plastic. I wash my dishes with all-natural dish soap that comes in plastic bottles and I place natural detergent tablets in the dishwasher but not before I unwrap them individually from their plastic wrappers. My hiking boots and Vibram soles most certainly contain plastic mixed with the rubber. The only local, gluten-free bread that tastes good comes in a plastic bag. My four pairs of skis are a beautiful mix of metal and plastic, and as they are non-recyclable, once destroyed, their only hope of being reused is for parts in an Adirondack chair made of old, broken skis. Not to mention the paraffin wax I spread over the bases of my skis once a week in the winter slides off onto the snow below my feet and promptly enters the water supply from there.
I could go on forever. And I didn’t even mention which types of plastic they are and what exactly the health implications would be if I heat them or touch them too much and how less than 30% of all that plastic is even recyclable at the very, optimal, best.
And it will never end, because we have adopted plastic, the magical and everlasting material that is lightweight and hard to break, into our lives and welcomed it with open arms, and even if we feel strongly about reducing plastic from the planet, we’ve made it all too easy for ourselves to overlook and downright justify it’s permanent invasion into our lives. Because it is so damn convenient.
I currently have exactly eight shampoo bottles in my shower, most of which are nearly empty. Eight. Progress will most certainly be made and guilt will certainly be reduced by replacing my favorite shampoos with the latest “shampoo bars,” but that doesn’t account for the fact that I’m about to throw eight bottles into the recycling and who really knows where they’ll end up.
Who knows where we’ll end up?