As a youngster I read somewhere, I think the book was Shantaram. There was a passage, mentioning how the young boys and girls of Dharavi were fascinated by the colorful and durable plastic buckets and mugs, leaving behind the ‘boring’ and fragile mud pots.
Somehow that passage has stayed with me, and whenever I see a potter’s family selling their wares by the roadside, I can’t help but wonder how they are still managing to make a living. Indians love plastic – it is durable and it is cheap. Even the ‘dabbas’ used by restaurants to deliver food are not thrown away. They are carefully washed and cleaned and stored to be used another day.
Plastic, plastic everywhere! Nowhere to run! At the altar of convenience we have sacrificed our health! And that of our children as well! You think I am being harsh? Too dramatic? Let’s talk numbers.
42% of plastic used in India is used for packaging – soild, one time use wastage! 15 thousand tonnes of plastic waste is generated everyday in India. 5.6 million metric tons of plastic waste is generated annually. Around 3 million garbage trucks full of untreated waste is disposed of by municipal authorities in whichever manner they see fit, daily!
Emerging research from decades of using plastics suggests that we should begin to reevaluate our use of plastic. Let’s look at all the problems of plastic, one by one. I hope by the end of this post, we together at least begin a dialogue on how to reduce the use of plastic in our homes and for our children. I would also love it if we begin to talk about the “cancer in a bottle” beauty and baby products we have been using, trusting the health of our families to insensitive MNCs.
Plastic Causes Many Health Problems
So, you’ve heard of BPA and are now buying “BPA free” plastic and sleeping with peace of mind. Well, wake up darling! While some chemicals in plastics, like Bisphenol-A (BPA) have been talked about in mainstream media, forcing companies to come up with BPA free products, the issue with plastic is much greater than just one isolated chemical.
What is Bisphenol-A (BPA) and how is it harmful?
BPA is a chemical added to plastics to make them more durable. Previously, BPA has also been used to fatten chickens, before slaughter! Now they only add BPA to your everyday products! From baby bottles to kids toys, drinking containers, lining of food and soft drink cans, bottle caps, plastic cups and plates, plastic food storage containers, most dental sealants, PVC water pipes and eyeglass lenses – to name a few.
Most of the baby products people have been using for their young ones are packaged in chemical leaching plastics. These so called baby lotions, baby powders, baby wash and baby creams are themselves a cocktail of carcinogenic chemicals. This concoction together really is the perfect recipe for ‘Cancer in a bottle’
BPA is omnipresent. It is also present in our newspapers, printed receipts, home printers and tissue papers. Not only can BPA be leach into food, or transfer via contact, you can also inhale BPA.
BPA is all the more harmful because it disrupts our hormones, by mimicking the effect of the female hormone ‘estrogen’ in the body. Imagine female hormones running wild in a male body!
Quoting from The Journal of the Yale School of Environmental Studies:
In tests conducted by the CDC reports over 92% of people had BPA and other plastic chemicals in their bodies and that includes newborn babies. Haven’t you wondered why so many “new” diseases have cropped up, why there is early onset of puberty, fertility problems in young couples, hyperactivity and attention disorder in our kids, diabetes, and the increasing number of prostate and breast cancer cases. Though there may be other factors at play, one main culprit is BPA and the endocrine disruptors infiltrating our bodies.
While BPA is used to make plastic more durable, phthalates are used to soften them. Seriously, no escape! The European Union has banned them in 2005 and many other countries have followed suit. But India is woefully behind when it comes to these regulations.
Phthalates are again endocrine disruptors considered to be very harmful to men and boys, especially when they are exposed to them during childhood or at the fetal stage. Pregnant women being exposed to phthalates has been linked to reduced immunity, reduced testosterone (the male hormone), and infertility in men. Phthalates also heighten the risk for other “lifestyle” diseases that don’t manifest until adulthood, such as cancer or diabetes.
Used to soften plastic, phthalates are present in many PVC-containing plastic products, including children’s toys and teethers, modeling clay or play dough, personal care products (any and everything from cosmetics, nail polish, hair spray, deodorant, shampoos, body washes to perfumes), air fresheners and insect, mosquitoes or cockroach repellents, detergents and other household cleaning products, vinyl products such as shower curtains and kids raincoats and food packaging. Phthalates aren’t tightly bound to plastics. They can spread easily into the food we eat and air we breathe.
Where are These Most Commonly Found?
The sad part is in India and abroad plastics are widely considered to be safe by regulatory agencies. Industry sponsored tests have shown them to be safe in small levels and they argue that human exposure has not reached harmful levels.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Even Johnson & Johnson has recently admitted that their products are carcinogenic. How long will it take for other plastic manufacturers to come out and admit the same?
Different plastic chemicals are found in different types of plastics. The following chart from the Ecology Center shows some of the most common chemicals and the kind of plastic responsible.
Documentaries like Unacceptable Levels and The Human Experiment are must watch for parents to see the sources and effects of plastic pollution in our homes.
The objective of this article is not to scare you into feeling overwhelmed that everything you or your child will touch or eat can ‘kill us’ or ‘cause cancer’. The objective is that we start making informed choices while buying products. Reduce the amount of plastic and “personal care products” we are buying blindly. This will in turn force the companies to address our collective concerns and come up with better and healthier products.
What Can You Do To Protect Your Loved Ones?
Plastics can take a really, really long time to break down – after all their durability has always been their most selling proposition. The ever increasing high levels of plastics in our landfills and oceans and even parts of Antarctica, makes plastic clean up a daunting task.
While one expects you to go wade out into the ocean and begin clean up (You can do your bit for Swacch Bharat) what you CAN do is reduce amount of plastic you are using, buying and disposing.
How to begin Baby Steps Towards a Plastic Free Life.
- Start using stainless steel water bottles to carry water. Our mother and grandmothers did this, before the convenience of plastic overran them. I remember filling steel jugs of water and placing them in fridges to cool, during summer. Do stop buying plastic water bottles for home use in your fridge. Always carry your own water bottles wherever you go out.
- Replace plastic food storage containers with Stainless Steel. This has to be the easiest way you can eliminate plastic from your kitchen. Our mothers were wise, when they only used steel to store grains. If budget doesn’t permit, start small. Every month, little by little buy steel jars and replace all the plastic in your kitchen. The last longer too!
- Switch to cloth or jute grocery bagsinstead of plastic or paper bags. Ever since stores have started charging 5 Rs for plastic bags, the frugal among us began to refuse them or bring our own. Whenever, we plan our grocery shopping, we always remember to bring along our old Big Bazar cloth bags. Saves money and plastic. Win win!
- Stop buying processed foods or food packaged in plastics. The most difficult one to execute in my opinion. I am still struggling to strike a balance here. Though I know it will be a huge step for me and my family’s health – they are some products which we just have not been able to give up! To begin with I have started buying from local vendors and I bring my own cloth bags. Where this has not been possible I try to shop from the open food bins at Big Bazaar. If you begin to follow the rule that “If it is in a plastic bag or a box, just don’t buy it” your body and the planet both will thank you!
- Buy wooden or metal toys for children instead of plastic. This is again very, very difficult! Especially if you take your kids along shopping! They get attracted to the brightest plastic colors. It’s difficult, not impossible. If not, at least try to limit their exposure to plastic toys for the first five years.
- Consider using cloth diapers and nappies instead of disposable.This is a wonderful trend we have been carrying out. Most Indian mothers avoid diapers like the plague, using only when going out or at night. Try cloth diapers, they are as effective as the disposable ones, for nighttime.
- Use Stainless Steel for cooking and eating. Stainless steel plates can be found in almost every Indian’s house. Try moving to stainless steel kadais and stainless steel cooker as well. Remove all the plastic “BPA Free” bowls, spoons, sippers and tiffins you may have your babies or children.
- Recycle or sell to your Raddiwala. Instead of just dumping your trash like newspapers and bottles in trash, sell them off to your local raddiwala. Some new startups are also emerging in waste management, who come to your home to pick up such trash.
Did this post inspire you to purge your house of plastics? Have you already been avoiding plastic like the plague? Please share your views and thoughts!
15000+ Tonnes of Waste Generated in India
The Problem with Plastics – Yale
Centers for Disease Control Report, “National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals,” 2001.