Take the 28-Day Plastic Purge Challenge
Plastic is everywhere. Look around you right now and count the number of things that you know contain plastic. Convenient and cheap, yes. But there are some major pitfalls to living in a plastic world. Plastics can harbor some nasty ingredients, such as phthalates and BPA. And in addition to polluting your body, all that plastic is polluting the planet.
The aim of our 28-Day Plastic Purge is not to completely banish plastic, but to help you ID the most toxic and unnecessary sources like vinyl and single-use plastics, respectively.
For instance, Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, points out that we got along fine before mixed salad greens started turning up in plastic bags and boxes about 10 years ago. "The point is really using plastic thoughtfully. If you try to totally eradicate it, you'll make yourself crazy because it's in every facet of our lives, some of it beneficially," she says. "You want to use it wisely."
The best way to do that is to avoid single-use plastics as much as possible—things like plastic grocery bags, takeout containers and single-serving plastic bottles.
We've broken it down into an easy-to-manage, 28-day process in our graphic and tips below. Be sure to join us on Facebook, too, to share the things you've put in place so you can live a more plastic-free life.
Week 1: Focus on Food Storage
Day 1: Recycle worn, scratched or mismatched and unused food and drink storage containers—worn plastics are more likely to leach chemicals into your food.
Day 2: Use less plastic cling wrap. Try some fun new products, such as reusable wrap made of beeswax. Reusable glass containers with lids and unbleached waxed paper are also great greener alternatives for storing food. Beware of aluminum foil, though. While you can use and recycle it, it should not come in direct contact with hot foods. A soft metal, aluminum can leach into the food and cross the blood-brain barrier and it has been linked to neurotoxicity, hormone disruption and Alzheimer's disease.
Day 3: Choose your plastic-free water bottle. Look for one made of food-grade steel (18/8, 18/10, aka 304 grade) and avoid ones with plastic liners. Glass bottles with silicone sleeves are also great options. (Here are some of our favorite plastic-free water bottles options.)
Day 5: Be done with baggies. Turn to beeswax wraps or even compostable, unbleached paper sandwich and snack bags to kick your plastic sandwich bag habit.
Day 6: Vow to use safer, reusable food-storage containers. For a complete list, check out these plastic-free storage solutions.
Day 7: Educate yourself (and your friends and family) on the importance of avoiding "BPA-free" plastics. Many contain chemicals that are in the same class as toxic BPA and could actually be worse for you.
Week 2: Rethink Your Garbage
Day 8: Get in the right mind frame. A mindfulness practice will help root you in the moment and ease your urge to buy so much plastic "stuff." The less plastic stuff you buy, the less you'll have to throw out later.
Day 9: Take your own reusable containers for takeout. That way, you'll never have to feel guilty about all of that #6 plastic (Styrofoam) again.
Day 10: Reuse any grocery or shopping bags you already have on hand. They make great liners for smaller wastebaskets (and dog poop picker-uppers)
Day 11: Empty smaller wastebaskets into a larger trash can so that you don't have to throw away the bag used to line the smaller basket.
Day 12: Become a human trash compactor: Break down bulky cartons by pressing or stomping on them so you can fit more into each trash bag. That way, you use fewer plastic trash bags over time. You could even invest in a trash compactor.
Day 13: Start making a conscious effort when making a purchase to look for products with the least amount of packaging.
Day 14: Keep yard and garden waste and compostable food waste out of your trash cans so you use drastically fewer big plastic garbage bags over the span of a year. Compost that waste instead.
Week 3: Clean Up Your Hygeine
Day 15: Swear off microbeads. Check the labels of exfoliating products like face scrubs and your current toothpaste and make sure they don't list ingredients like polyethylene and polypropylene.
Day 16: Make your own skin-care products. Forget microbeads. For very little money, you can whip up your own homemade nontoxic cleansers and exfoliators.
Day 17: Phase out phthalates. These plasticizing chemicals are used to make scents, beauty products and personal care products stick to you longer. They're also toxic. Avoid anything that lists "fragrance" or "parfum" on the label.
Day 18: Look for more sustainable toothbrushes that allow you to replace only the head. That way, you won't have to throw away the entire plastic toothbrush when the head is worn out.
Day 19: There are so many plastic bottles in the bathroom. To help cut back, learn how to make your own homemade hair products.
Day 20: Invest in a safer, reusable shower curtain. Replace vinyl ones with organic cotton or even hemp versions. Bonus: Hemp is naturally antimicrobial, so it won't get mildew-y like other fabric shower curtains.
Day 21: Not into making your own soap? That's okay. To avoid plastic, choose nontoxic bar soaps instead of bottled liquid soaps and body washes. Dr. Bronner's bar soaps even come in biodegradable paper!
Week 4: Conquer the Kitchen
Day 22: BYOB—Bring your own (grocery) bags. Any tote bag you already own will work. If you need to buy some new ones, look for bags that are cotton or hemp. Better yet, make one yourself. And don't just stop at grocery bags. Produce bags can be easily made of old T-shirts, cheesecloth or any leftover fabric remnants. Just remember to throw them in the wash between shopping trips to keep your food clean.
Day 23: Avoid soda bottles by making your own carbonated drinks. There are plenty of carbonators available (some even come with glass carafes so you don't just limit your plastic, but really eliminate it). Add your favorite flavors and juices into the carbonated water and … voilà. Return your used carbon dioxide cartridges to a participating store that sells them.
Day 25: Only use wooden or metal utensils to cook your food. Just as you don't want to microwave plastic, holding a plastic spatula against a hot frying pan will leach plastic chemicals into your food.
Day 26: Get your java jolt from a French press. Coffee machines have a lot of plastic parts, such as the water reservoir and the filter cup. Most French presses, by contrast, have glass carafes and metal filters. We like this one from Rodale's.
Day 27: Great job making those reusable grocery bags at the beginning of the week. But the real test: Have you been using them? Be honest. Make this pledge today: The next time you're at the store and forget your bags, you will resist the temptation to use plastic ones. Doing the "walk of shame" to your car with armloads of food might be tough, but you'll never make that mistake again, says Beth Terry, author of Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.
Day 28: Treat yourself for completing the plastic purge! Go out for ice cream and order a cone. You'll get an extra treat and avoid the Styrofoam cup and plastic spoon.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>