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Plastic products are convenient and cheap, but the rosy picture of an easy “throw away” life painted by plastic manufacturers almost a century ago has greatly dimmed as we grapple with the global crisis of plastic waste and the toxicity of the fossil fuels and chemicals that are the main components of plastics. According to the EPA, 100% of all the plastic humans have ever created is still in existence. 

Plastic waste is having a significant negative impact on the environment, wildlife and human health in ways that we are just beginning to realize. Toxic chemicals readily leach from food packaging and bottles into our food and beverages. Synthetic textiles, which are made from plastic and are the most common material used for clothing are also a major source of plastic pollution. Rinse water from washing machines and dryer vents release millions of plastic microfibers into the environment every time you wash your fleeces and polyester socks.


All plastic eventually breaks down into microplastics, which are found in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fish we eat and the soil that grows our food.  And so, of course, they are found in our bodies.

The heavy metals and chemicals that are used to make plastic products include lead, antimony, cadmium, phthalates, PFAS, bisphenols and fungicides. Studies have shown that exposure to these chemicals and other plasticizing chemicals may be linked to significant health problems, including reduced sperm counts and fertility, damage to the heart, liver, kidneys, immune and endocrine systems and increases in breast, testicular and prostate cancers.

Fast Facts

  • Fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) and chemicals are the main components of plastics.

  • Toxic chemicals and microplastics can leach from food packaging and bottles into our food and beverages.

  • 380 million metric tons of plastic are being produced every year.

  • Less than 5% of all plastic is actually recycled.

  • It takes 500-1,000 years for plastics to decompose.

Plastic bags litter our streets and neighborhoods, plastic bottles clog storm drains, and gigantic patches of floating plastic called "gyres" have developed in the circular currents of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. Scientists are also finding microplastics in the flesh of fish, which are an important part of the food chain.  Plastic waste makes up 80% of all marine debris and about 8-10 million metric tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year.

Things you can do:

There is no way for consumers to know exactly what chemicals are in a plastic product, but looking for recycling codes (which appear in a triangle on the bottom of most food and drink containers) can help you steer clear of plastics which are known to present health risks.


  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), bearing the #3 recycling code, is the most toxic plastic from both an environmental and human health standpoint. Avoid plastic wrap, plastic toys, raincoats, shower curtains, and electronics. PVC often has a strong chemical smell. Vinly chloride is a known human carcinogen.

  • Avoid polystyrene (styrofoam®) (recycling code #6) cups and food containers. The National Research Council concluded that styrene is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

  • Avoid polycarbonate bottles and containers (recycling code #7)​ as they contain BPA or another bisphenol chemical ( known as a “regrettable substitute”) that has serious potential health effects, including endocrine disruption and cancer.

  • A "microwave-safe” label on a plastic container only means it will not break or melt in the microwave. It is not an assurance that certain chemicals will not leach more readily from plastic when heated. Foods with a high fat content present the greatest risk, as many chemicals used in plastic are lipophilic (fat-loving). To avoid this risk, never use plastic containers to heat food, especially baby bottles or food for babies.

  • To heat or store food, use glass, stainless steel or lead-free ceramic containers. A bowl with a plate on top works great!

Plastics resources
Related Podcasts from Green Street
Our Plastic Ocean with Erica Cirino

Hooked on Plastics with Dr. Jodi Sherman

Drowning in Plastic with Judith Enck
Large Water Container
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