Single Use Plastics: Protection During a Pandemic or Fuel for the Breast Cancer Epidemic?

Written By: Emily Noronha

Stuffed between couch cushions, piling up on curbs, or blowing about in the wind I see the same things: floods of THANK YOU plastic bags, greasy take-out containers, and neon pink straws. For years I have been trying to reduce my use of plastic as much as possible, although I know my individual actions aren’t enough to change the bigger picture. I bring reusable bags to the grocery store, carry my metal straw, and avoid single-use plastic wherever possible. But my efforts often feel futile considering plastics are only the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger issue—the fossil fuel industry.

So what do plastics have to do with anything? Fossil fuels, plastic production, and breast cancer are interconnected and part of a larger public health and social justice issue. During my internship with Breast Cancer Action, I supported the team in the development of the new Why We Must Stop Fossil Fuels fact sheet. The factsheet shows that over 99% of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. Moreover, many Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities work or live near plastic production facilities, causing them to be disproportionately exposed to harmful chemicals which may increase risk for breast cancer.

I was also shocked and disheartened to discover the same industry that is fueling the breast cancer epidemic is capitalizing on a global pandemic that is taking thousands of lives. Plastic was once just a sign of our collective addiction to a disposable lifestyle of convenience; however, people now see plastic bags and wrappers as a veil of safety against contamination and infection. This belief is a result of an intentional misinformation campaign by the plastics industry designed to increase their profits. They lobbied for single-use plastics as the safest alternative in the emerging legislation designed to protect us from COVID, despite the knowledge that coronavirus can live on plastic surfaces longer than other materials.

Beyond the production, the use and disposal of single use plastics also pose health problems. One study found that by switching from a diet of plastic-wrapped food to one of fresh foods (i.e. not from cans or marketed in plastic), levels of hormone disrupting chemicals linked to breast cancer in people’s bodies decreased by at least 53%. Some of these same chemicals leach out of the plastic products into the environment after they have been discarded.

Putting all the responsibility on individuals to reduce plastic use obscures the real problem: lack of corporate accountability and unchecked expansion of the fossil fuel and plastics industries. Corporate and governmental systems that continue to allow polluters to get away with harmful practices are ignoring negative health outcomes and the role they play in the breast cancer epidemic.

To learn more about the fossil fuel industry and the breast cancer crisis, check out our Why We Must Stop Fossil Fuels Fact Sheet. And join me in action to hold the industry accountable for fueling a health crisis that increases breast cancer risk!

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