Image: Kelly, Jennifer. “Plastic Bag Ban Featured Image”. JPG. June.2021
If you’re like me and live somewhere with a plastic bag ban, you have likely experienced the frustration of forgetting your reusable bag and having to pay for five-cent paper bags. You wonder, why does a tiny plastic bag matter so much to be banned entirely? Do plastic bag bans even work? Don’t we have bigger problems to solve?
Well, plastic bag bans might very well save your life. Yes, the effectiveness of plastic bag bans on our environment has been widely discussed, and it’s hard to determine its impact. However, there is no question that plastic bags are immensely detrimental to your health. July 3rd is International Plastic Bag Free Day, so what better time is there to ditch plastic bags for good and embrace plastic bag bans?
What are Plastic Bag Bans?
Plastic bag bans have been popping up across the country, from small cities to entire states. Most legislation on plastic bags consists of banning retail stores from providing them to customers. Additionally, many states and cities have specific definitions of a plastic bag and guidelines for what alternatives retailers can provide. Most legislation also includes an amount grocery stores and other retailers must charge consumers for using an alternative bag.
“Globally, we use 5 trillion plastic bags every year. That’s 160,000 plastic bags every single second.” Those seconds add up to some pretty devastating consequences. -WorldWatch Institute
Plastic Bag Bans and Human Health
Plastic is everywhere. I mean, look around. How many pieces of plastic can you count without even having to move from where you are? Our lives revolve around it, arguably for a good reason. It is one of the handiest materials on the planet due to its low manufacturing cost and resilient structure.
While there is still a lot to be discovered about what’s inside plastic and how it impacts our health, research is piling up on plastics’ effect on our health from head to toe. Typically, plastic bags cause damage from the time they are manufactured to when you finally get rid of them. Fortunately, plastic bag bans are the first step of a long journey to reduce our dependence on plastic and protect our overall health.
93% of Americans 6 years of age and above Test Positive For BPA, a chemical known to be toxic to humans – National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2004
The Lifecycle of a Plastic Grocery Bag
“Together, the lifecycle impacts of plastic paint an unequivocally toxic picture: plastic threatens human health on a global scale.”
1. Extraction and Transport
170 fracking chemicals that are used to produce the main feedstocks for plastic have KNOWN human health impacts –Center for International Environmental Law (2015)
2. Refining and Manufacturing
During the refining and manufacturing process, the crude oil used to make plastic bags releases toxic substances into the air. These toxic substances can harm the people working and even those nearby (7). Shockingly, the complete chemical composition of plastic bags and other plastics isn’t fully known.
Plastic bags usually don’t contain bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical additive to give plastic its desired structure, or phthalates, to make plastic more flexible. Essentially, while plastic bags consist of “less” toxic forms of plastic, they may still have adverse health implications.
A study of 34 different plastic consumer products, including plastic bags, found that 80% of chemicals identified were unknown (14).
3. Consumer Use
Emily is right that our increasing dependence on plastic is leading us on a path to poor health. Thankfully, plastic bag bans are a valuable means of addressing plastic pollution and its harmful effects on health.
4. Waste Management
“Every Piece of Plastic Ever Made Still Exists Today” – Planting Peace
“Recent reports suggest that microplastics are entering the human body through the water we drink, food we eat, and air we breathe.”
7 Ways Plastic Bag Bans are Protecting Our Health
Not only are plastic bag bans fighting back against plastic pollution, but they are also protecting your health. Just one less piece of plastic in our lives decreases our dependence and exposure to plastics which translates to one less threat to our health.
1. Brain Function
Our brains might be a mere 2% of our total body weight but use a whopping 20% of our daily energy expenditure. Sadly, plastic potentially keeps our brains from performing at their best. In general, our rising exposure to harmful chemicals from plastic is quite literally leaching into every aspect of our lives, including our brains.
Plastic’s Burden on Brain Health:
1. Especially in children, multiple studies have linked the harmful chemicals found in plastic, like phthalates, to the development of ADHD in children (11).
3. Furthermore, exposure to the toxic chemicals in plastic is connected to several neuropsychological disorders (3).
2. Endocrine System
Your endocrine system regulates several bodily functions. Basically, it is responsible for producing the right amount of hormones to maintain the perfect balance for the optimal process of your metabolism, reproductive system, growth and development, sleep, and even your mood. Ultimately, our growing dependence on plastic isn’t just throwing our environment out of balance, but, more importantly, our bodies as well.
How Plastic Disrupts Bodily Balance:
1. Plastic bags usually don’t have widely known endocrine disruptors like BPA and phthalates in them. Still, they can impact the delicate hormone balance throughout our bodies (9).
To explain, plastic bags potentially leech endocrine disruptors like nonylphenol, especially under high heat levels (13).
3. Respiratory System
Sometimes, the fresh air we think we’re enjoying while spending time outside isn’t so fresh. The microplastics from plastic manufacturing to post-consumer use end up contaminating our air supply (7). Our respiratory system depends on fresh air to function at its best. Fortunately, plastic bag bans fight back against our plastic planet and take us towards a more clean and healthy future.
How our Dependence on Plastic Impacts our Respiratory System:
1. First, plastic particulates that researchers have found in our air can enter our respiratory systems (1) causing several upper respiratory complications like asthma, COPD, and chronic bronchitis (7).
2. On top of that, the people that produce plastic bags suffer higher rates of lung-cancer-related mortality from the harmful components that make up plastic bags (7).
Moerschel, Will and Ryan, Jennifer. “Plastic Reproductive Health”. 2021.
4. Reproductive System
Your reproductive system is an essential part of human life. Sadly, research is starting to accumulate that links poor reproductive health with high exposure to plastic. Specifically, phthalates, a common additive in plastic, mimic the hormone estrogen and compromise the reproductive system (5).
How Plastic Wreaks Your Reproductive Health:
1. A literature review on the health impacts of phthalates identified low sperm count in males (11).
2. Likewise, chemicals and additives in plastic are also associated with sexual dysfunction (5).
3. Our increasing dependence on plastic might connect to the growing trends of reproductive stress seen earlier and earlier in life.
4. Exposure to toxic plastic components may increase the risk of infertility (5).
5. Finally, the primary substances used to make plastic may induce reproductive toxicity (7).
5. Gastrointestinal Tract
In a nutshell, your gastrointestinal tract is responsible for taking your food on a journey through your body. Plastic pollution can harm your gastrointestinal tract when we unintentionally ingest tiny pieces of plastic pollutants. Correspondingly, the many harmful chemicals that constitute plastic can leach into their surroundings and damage your gastrointestinal tract.
How Plastic can Torment your Gastrointestinal Tract:
1. Once microplastics make their way inside our bodies through seafood, commercial sea salt, beer, or mineral water, they can wreak havoc on the digestive system (1).
2. Further, studies on the impact of ingested particulates link to intestinal damage and tissue abrasion (7).
3. Unfortunately, synthetic textile workers potentially suffer higher rates of stomach and esophageal cancers (10).
6. Immune System
Your immune system acts as a defender against potentially harmful organisms that enter the body. Essentially, it keeps track of the germs you’ve encountered and works to keep them from getting you sick.
Currently, much more research is needed to understand the impact plastic bags and plastic pollution have on our immune systems. However, experts suggest that the microplastics engulfing our planet influence our immune system function.
Interested in boosting your immune system? Check out our article featuring 26 foods for immunity.
Plastic Bag Bans Might be Protecting Your Immune System From:
1. A decreased exposure to plastic means fewer microplastics that find their way into your body, which wreak havoc on your immune system at large (7).
2. The harmful chemicals in plastics are associated with auto-immune conditions and diseases (1). For instance:
- Autoimmune disease
- Altered immune response
- Suppressed immune system (8)
7. Cardiovascular System
Your cardiovascular system consists of your heart which pumps blood to all arteries, veins, and capillaries in your body. More importantly, it is responsible for transporting nutrients and other vital materials to every cell in your body.
Here’s plastic’s role in your cardiovascular system health:
2. On top of that, microplastic ingestion is linked to poor cardiovascular health. For instance, microplastics can induce inflammation, which is associated with heart disease (2).
3. The presence of BPA in urine has been linked to heart disease (6).
4. Chemicals and additives in most types of plastic, including plastic bags are associated with cardiovascular disease (5).
How to Embrace Plastic Bag Bans and Celebrate International Plastic Bag Free Day
Now that you know how the plastic bags you once carried your groceries in can impact your health on a small and large scale, here are some helpful tips for embracing plastic bag bans and protecting yourself against the harmful effects of plastic.
1. Start Using a Reusable Bag.
First, getting yourself a sturdy and durable reusable tote that doesn’t leach toxins is an excellent start to embracing plastic bag bans and protecting your health. There are plenty of affordable and healthy options out there. Just make sure you do your research about what the bag is made of before you buy it.
2. Find Creative Ways to Remember Your Reusable Bag
One of the most significant barriers to using a reusable shopping bag is remembering to bring it with you. I suggest putting a sticky note (or a few) in your car to help you remember. Or, keep a few bags in your car at all times to eliminate the chance you’ll forget.
3. Get Cloth Produce Bags, or Even Better, Make Them Yourself.
Generally, plastic produce bags are exempt from plastic bag bans. So, protect yourself from the harmful effects of plastic by buying cloth produce bags you’ll be able to use over and over again for years. Alternatively, turn it into a craft project and make your own produce bags from scrap fabric.
4. Avoid Foods Known to Have Microplastics in Them.
Banning plastic bags won’t get rid of microplastics, so be mindful of what you eat and drink to take control of your exposure to harmful microplastic. Ultimately, foods linked to high levels of microplastics are seafood, beer, commercial table salt, and bottled mineral water (4). But, this isn’t a comprehensive list, which is why working towards a plastic-free planet is so important.
5. Vote for Legislation that Limits Single-use Plastic
Finally, you can help minimize plastic exposure and its impact on human health by getting involved in legislation that addresses plastic pollution. On top of that, vote with your dollar by avoiding single-use plastics when you can.
Plastic Bag Bans: The Bottom Line
Overall, the plastic bag bans deemed ineffective by critics might be saving your life. One less piece of plastic means one small step closer to reducing our exposure to the harmful effects of plastic and plastic pollution. Still, much more research is needed to clearly identify the impacts of plastic on human health.
Regardless, plastic bag bans are doing their part to reduce the amount of plastic in our lives. Like the Plastic and Health report says, “By optimizing environmental health, communities can reduce exposure to disease, as well as to pollutants that have a toxic effect on the body.”
Indeed, plastic bag bans aren’t a cure-all for our plastic pollution crisis. That isn’t to say they aren’t helpful. In fact, they will reduce the amount of plastic bags produced, consumed, and disposed of every year that destroy our environment and overall health. So, as plastic bag bans keep popping up across the country, remind yourself that they might save your life
Share This Post to Spread the Word About the Many Health Benefits of Plastic Bag Bans and How to Embrace Them.
(1)Bradney, Lauren, et al. “Particulate Plastics as a Vector for Toxic Trace-Element Uptake by Aquatic and Terrestrial Organisms and Human Health Risk.” Environment International, vol. 131, 2019, p. 104937.
(2)Cheryl Lyn Dybas. “Silent Scourge: Microplastics in Water, Food, and Air.” Bioscience, vol. 70, no. 12, 2020, pp. 1048–1055.
(3)Katsikantami, Ioanna, et al. “A Global Assessment of Phthalates Burden and Related Links to Health Effects.” Environment International, vol. 97, 2016, pp. 212–236.
(4) Kosuth M, Mason SA, Wattenberg EV. “Anthropogenic contamination of tap water, beer, and sea salt.” PLoS ONE, 2018 13(4): e0194970, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0194970
(5)Melissa Mariana, Joana Feiteiro, Ignacio Verde, Elisa Cairrao, The effects of phthalates in the cardiovascular and reproductive systems: A review, Environment International, Volume 94, 2016, Pages 758-776, ISSN 0160-4120, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2016.07.004.
(6) Melzer, David, et al., Association of urinary bisphenol a concentration with heart disease: evidence from NHANES 2003/06, PloS one 5.1, 2010 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih. gov/pubmed/20084273/
(7) Plastic and Health The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet. Center for International Environmental Law, Earthworks, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, IPEN, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, UPSTREAM, #Breakfreefromplastic, Feb. 2019.
(8) Robinson, L., Miller, R. The Impact of Bisphenol A and Phthalates on Allergy, Asthma, and Immune Function: a Review of Latest Findings. Curr Envir Health Rpt 2, 379–387 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40572-015-0066-8
(9) Talsness, Chris E, et al. “Components of Plastic: Experimental Studies in Animals and Relevance for Human Health.” Philosophical Transactions. Biological Sciences, vol. 364, no. 1526, 2009, pp. 2079–2096.
(10) Wang, Yung-Li, et al. “Potent Impact of Plastic Nanomaterials and Micromaterials on the Food Chain and Human Health.” International Journal of Molecular Sciences, vol. 21, no. 5, 2020, p. 1727.
(11) Wei-Hsiang Chang, Samuel Herianto, Ching-Chang Lee, Hsin Hung, Hsiu-Ling Chen, The effects of phthalate ester exposure on human health: A review, Science of The Total Environment, Volume 786, 2021, 147371, ISSN 0048-9697, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.147371.
(12) Yang, Chun Z et al. “Most plastic products release estrogenic chemicals: a potential health problem that can be solved.” Environmental health perspectives vol. 119,7 (2011): 989-96. doi:10.1289/ehp.1003220
(13) Yates, Joe, et al. “PROTOCOL: Plastics in the Food System: Human Health, Economic and Environmental Impacts. A Scoping Review.” Campbell Systematic Review, vol. 15, no. 1-2, 2019, p. n/a.
(14) Zimmermann, Lisa, Dierkes, Greg, Ternes, Thomas A, Volker, Carolin, Wagner, Martin. Benchmarking the in Vitro Toxicity and Chemical Composition of Plastic Consumer Products. Environmental Science & Technology, 2019 53 (19), 11467-11477 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.9b02293