To use plastic, or not, in growing - a wealth of academic sources

Many people are not aware of the toxic nature of plastic mulch and using other plastics (such as polytunnels) in growing food. So here’s some info that I collated for you, posted originally by my friend Mike Hoag, with plenty of academic references for you:

Exactly How Bad is Phthalates Risk from Plastic Mulch, Landscaping Fabric, Tarping and Solarizing?

So, here’s a shocking story. Researchers publishing in The Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology wanted to find out how much phthalates exposure was coming from food, rather than other sources.
So, they tested 10 families for phthalates baselines. Like most Americans, their levels exceeded the EPA’s (notoriously industry friendly) limits for reproductive and testicular health by as much as 4 times. (People wonder why T levels for men are now 1/4 what they were through our evolutionary history.)
Then the researchers set the families on an all-organic, unprocessed detox diet and made sure that the food never touched plastic. All food was from local organic farms, stored, and shipped in glass to eliminate any plastic contact from shipping and storage.
And… **their phthalates levels went through the roof. **Exposure to the most dangerous phthalate went up by nearly 20 times. Unexpected results in a randomized dietary trial to reduce phthalate and bisphenol A exposures - PubMed
While the researchers found this “unexpected,” folks familiar with modern organic farming might not be so surprised. Increasingly, organic farmers are pressured to use plastic to compete with conventional growers using herbicides, and as more adopt more plastics, it increases pressure, causing a race to the bottom.
So researchers tested the food and found the phthalates were coming from the growing process on the farms. Much came from soils contaminated with plastic contact.
Researchers investigating the phthalates source in dairy found that hand-milked dairy had very low levels of phthalates, but cows machine-milked with plastic tubing had very high levels of phthalates. **Just that brief exposure to the plastic tubing was enough to contaminate the milk. **
Here’s the thing about phthalates. They are very volatile and can leach at a high rate when exposed to environmental conditions, heat, wet, movement, and biological activity.
And while phthalates have an affinity for fats, giving meat and dairy consistently high levels (especially chicken!) in one study adults eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables had similar phthalates levels to those eating a diet high in meat and dairy (both were well over EPA safety limits, EPA limits for testicular health and limits for birth defects.) Phthalates and diet: a review of the food monitoring and epidemiology data - PubMed
So it is not enough to eat organic, eat local, avoid processed foods, or grow our own. HOW the food is grown matters, too.
And yes, finally, we have good research showing that agricultural plastics are the source of this phthalates. The analysis above includes links to studies showing that plastic hoophouses, landscaping fabric, and plastic mulches especially cause phthalates contamination and uptake into the plant tissues. We also know that food grown in soil WITHOUT plastic, but in areas with contact to plastics, such as near plastics plants, or where hoop houses or plastic mulches had been used in the past, will also have phthalates in them.

This link is now fixed - paper, ‘Critical Review on the Presence of Phthalates in Food and Evidence of Their Biological Impact’, download full text at this address:

But researchers in that study are calling for more research on exactly how long exposure and what conditions increase phthalates contamination. We don’t really know how long a silage tarp has to be on the ground or in what conditions to contaminate the soil with phthalates, and then how long the phthalates take to break down.
So, until that research comes in, if you want to reduce your phthalates load, my recommendation is use (or find farmers who use) alternative methods to tarping, or use materials like old canvas tarps and dropcloths made from natural fibers. And of course, to educate about plastics in food, so that good growers will feel less pressure to adopt unsafe techniques.

Another paper, ‘Risk Assessment of Agricultural Plastic Films Based on Release Kinetics of Phthalate Acid Esters’:

Phthalates are coming from our farms and gardens
We talk about avoiding plastics a lot in this group.
If you want an up-to-date overview of phthalates contamination in food, this is a really great 2020 paper. As far as academic reading goes, it’s pretty accessible.
A few really interesting takeaways for those of us in Permaculture:
—Phthalates are considered a significant risk to human health, with proven risks to our reproductive systems, brain health, cancer risks, immune systems, and metabolisms.
—Food is one of our major exposure risks to phthalates, and phthalates bioaccumulate so the key is to avoid as much exposure as possible. Older materials supposed that cosmetics were our major source, so this is still often repeated in farming and hyrdopnics groups that promote Ag plastics. This is no longer considered true, and food is now considered our single largest exposure, with over 67% of phthalates coming from food.
—Agricultural plastics like plastic films and greenhouses are major risks, and plants uptake these chemicals from these plastics at rates considered over acceptable safety levels.
—Phthalates can be absorbed by plants directy from the air, and plants grown under plastic films, row covers, and hoop houses had significantly higher levels of phthalates, especially in leafy vegetables.
—Working in greenhouses poses special additional risk.
—Olive oil is loaded with phthalates, compared to other oils! Why? Because they are perennial, and perennials have greater ability to bioaccumulate. The phthalates are entering the system from the production, not storage and transport, so the likely source is plastic films common in olive orchards. This means plastic tarps and covers in perennial systems like orchard trees are likely a significant risk.
—Phthalates have been found to uptake into fruits.
—Phthalates levels in dairy, and alcoholic beverages are also very high.
—Ag plastics used in the production of grapes was considered one likely source in wines, so the phthalates are coming from what we’re doing on farms.

Paper: ‘Critical Review on the Presence of Phthalates in Food and Evidence of Their Biological Impact’:

Whenever I talk about plastics risks on the farm, I get messages asking about ”the farmer’s friend,” silage tarps. Using tarps to clear fields to avoid tilling has become almost THE gardening method of the regenerative movement.
Many folks recommending (and selling or taking commission on) tarps are using PVC tarps. If PVC is flexible, like a tarp, then it is almost certainly loaded with phthalates. These PVC materials have been found to have the highest rates of phthalates and the highest rates of leakage, and breakdown to microplastics.
So many sellers of silage tarps for weed suppression have switched to LDPE with the claim that these are perfectly safe and contain no phthalates.
First, in actual studies of these materials, this has not been found to be true.
But more importantly, plastics are “complex mixtures of extractable chemicals that can be toxic.” While many are claiming their silage tarps are perfectly safe, this 2021 study assessing various plastics found LDPE products actually had the HIGHEST rate of potential toxicity, including endocrine disrupting chemicals. So when people claim their silage tarps are “safe,” what they are really claiming is that theirs do not knowingly contain the most studied and confirmed dangerous chemicals. In other words, we do not specifically know exactly how unsafe these materials are.

Paper: ‘Plastic Products Leach Chemicals That Induce In Vitro Toxicity under Realistic Use Conditions’:
The same goes for non-plastic biodegradable mulches and tarps. These have been found to have even higher rates of endocrine disruptors than actual plastics.
So no, I would not consider any silage tarps safe for gardening use.
I do not personally like or use this gardening technique anyway, as I find it to be just far more work, and it creates far too many problems than just good classic French Intensive or BioIntensive style garden management techniques, slashmulch, or deep mulch gardening. But at present I do not recommend any silage tarps as safe. If I HAD to do this for some reason, I would use cardboard or fabrics made of natural materials like canvas, without flame retardants, or coatings.


I don’t like that that’s the truth, but I guess I like knowing.

A glass greenhouse for peppers is harder to budget for than a high tunnel. Sigh!

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I guess for seed production it’s ok - food production is another matter though. Also, rigid plastic is considerably less dangerous than flexible sheeting. Not all rigid plastics are equal - I forget if the comparison between them is included in any of the links I gave, but from memory, polyethylene (rigid) … or was it maybe polypropylene, is the least bad? So the rigid sheets of double or triple walled plastic, either clear or white, are considerably better than the usual polytunnel flexible sheeting. I think that may be a good compromise for many, since its way cheaper than glass and also way more insulative than either single pane glass or usual polytunnel single sheets. Though I personally have been saving up discarded windows for a future greenhouse build.

It’s the chemicals they add to make the material flexible that’s the main culprit, so far as I understand. Those ‘rigid’ sheets still have some I think, but not nearly as much, it seems.

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Maaaaaan. I completely believe it, and it’s a huge bummer.

I don’t use plastic mulches – I use cardboard instead, several layers of it – but the people who lived in my house before me must have buried plastic tarps a few inches under the ground in some parts of the yard. I keep digging up chunks of those tarps. Loads of chunks of those tarps. I don’t love it.

I have clear plastic sheets to use for tunnels in winter. Plastic milk jugs to store water in to keep the tunnels warmer, too. Oh, and PVC pipes for the sides, which are plastic.

On top of that, my rainwater collection system is made out of plastic. At least it’s rigid plastic, I guess.

So I guess that means there’ll be plastic in my food. Man.

I won’t freak out about it or get rid of my plastic tools, because I really do need the tools that I’m using. But I’ll keep in mind that any viable natural alternatives would be better, and I’ll keep my eyes out for any valid alternatives.

I did look into rigid plastic or glass panels to build a greenhouse originally, by the way. They were all crazy expensive. There was no way I could afford even one panel; a plastic sheet was about 1% of the cost of what plastic panels would be, and 0.1% of what glass panels would be, to cover the same space.

I checked Habitat for Humanity for used windows for a greenhouse, but they were selling those for $70 (and up!) apiece. There was just no way. I’ve never seen glass panels at my local thrift stores.

Can you recommend anywhere to go to look for cheap glass panels?

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What about polycarbonate, polyester and acrylic?

I know, at our local store just a few years ago they practically gave that stuff away but not anymore. But I don’t think actual functioning windows or double pane are really needed and the old single pain storm windows in aluminum frames are still pretty cheap especially if the outer frame is busted as is often the case from being removed. The glass though is tempered and quite shatter resistant, fairly light weight too.

I actually have four super hardened double pain full sized doors in stainless steel frames. I pulled in to get gas one day and a couple of fellas were just removing them to be replaced with new ones. Somewhat absent mindedly I asked what ya all gonna do with those. One of them said, “I was thinking of stacking them in the back of that red pickup”, and I said, OK. I though he was joking, but I came out of the store five minutes later and there they were. I can’t believe how heavy they are and not sure I even want to mess with them but can’t find anyone local who wants them,


Well, phthalates anyway! But microplastics are also an issue. I know less about that though, but the plastic fabrics are presumably terrible in that regard.Like certain grow bags or those weed blocking fabrics.

I was contemplating tadelakt for rainwater storage tanks. Maybe some day when I have a proper home.

I wonder if any researchers could breed a cover crop designed to remove phthalates? I guess they’d have to be disposed of after growing but I wonder if there’s a way there for detoxifying the land? Or maybe even breeding bacteria or fungi that can digest them?

I like antique tools :slight_smile: I don’t have any antique gardening tools but some of my other tools are. Often really high quality and very functional! I even have a lovely American hammer, with a lovely leather grip. Well, not antique but quite a few decades old! Top brand that they still make now, but now they put a toxic lacquer into the leather to ‘protect’ it! Screw that! And a saw with brass fittings, things like that. For me they are just way nicer to look at and use than ones with plastic handles that look horrible, feel gross, and will degrade in a few years!

But anyway, plastic tools spend so little time in contact with plants or soil that the effect should be little to none. And, one major factor is heat. And perhaps UV? So for example black plastic mulch is the worst, since it gets so hot. When cool they release way less toxins.

It might be worth factoring in:

  1. The relative longevity. Rigid plastic pasts way longer than the flexible sheeting. That means not having to buy them several times over, plus the time and money for repair/rebuilding.
  2. Double walled rigid plastic is way more insulative! This can make a huge difference in cooler weather, like Winter for example.
  3. How much is health worth?

Also whilst it effects longevity obviously, one can sometimes find good deals with second hand panels or old/damaged stock. Takes time to accumulate the materials but worth considering. Same goes for glass of course. Here many people replace their windows and the window companies actually have to pay to dispose of them! So contacting them can be a good way of accumulating free glass. I have a bunch of double glazed windows pilling up for my future project, and that’s just from what people were throwing away on my street! (Lucky since I don’t have a car!) This also applies to what we call French doors - basically doors that are also windows, full size.

Here’s an image of the kind of double layer plastic I mean. This one is polycarbonate which I think is not the best material when it comes to comparative toxicity of rigid panels, but you can see the kind of design I mean at least:

For those in the US, the gentleman who did that… ‘wallapini’ (?) talk for us, he recommended a specific product, similar to this but white, and was maybe polyethylene, or could have been polypropylene? Anyway I think it was the better one than polycarbonate. (Hard to find not polycarbonate here in the UK). As far as plastic goes, that one he recommended seems to be good.

If anyone has looked through the links I gave above maybe they can say if one of them compared the different materials. I know one paper did but I don’t know if I included it or not. But I did try to get all the sources together. Anyway acrylic is meant to be one of the ones that is least good, so far as I remember. My memory is telling me PP and/or PE are supposed to be the best of the rigid plastics.

Wish I could do with less. Or I could, but then I would be mainly limited to brassicas, cold hardy root vegetables, potatoes, corn and few cucurbits. Possibly tomatoes with longer transplant period and more green tomatoes. And I want to grow everything. I wish there were options. Not sure how save bioplastics are, but they seem to be hard to get cheaply in big amounts. Same with paper mulch. That sounds like ideal solution although the process might not be that enviromentally friendly either. Nothing really is. Hopefully I could breed may way out of using anything extra. Reality hits hard when I look at the current weather forecast and I know it’s not even as cold as it could get. I do plan to trial with reducing layer by layer depending how likely it’s to get seeds for next year. On positive note; it seems that two moschata plants that had very vigourous growth last year have produced seed that are also very vigourous. They are still with plastics and cloth, but they germinated as fast as faster summerquash and maxima which makes it likely that they could produce, atleast seeds, without plastics or with much more limited help. Other moschata are still to germinate that I can’t say how big difference is. Few weeks should show how much faster they grow.


One of the links is to a PDF and the link is 404 not found and might be the one we really want to look at rigid plastics. But it seems like from that Polyolefin is the safest film-plastic to use.

For a greenhouse I wouldn’t think it actually matters that much as it’s just the covering and not in contact with the soil. But all the plastic trays and pots are, I wonder what how they stack up in this issue. I don’t use much of any of it myself except plastic pots and I suppose on my scale, I could switch to clay.

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You saying “plastic fabrics” makes me wonder – what about synthetic fibers in clothes? Do phthalates absorb through the skin from those? I know the skin is an organ that is very good at absorbing whatever gets put on it. The adage I’ve heard is, “If it’s safe to put in your body, it’s safe to put on your body.” Has anyone done studies about phthlalates getting into the body from clothes?

Tadelakt, huh . . .? (Looks it up.) Oh, an ancient, waterproof plaster! Yes, that sounds like a great idea for an eco-friendly rainwater storage tank!

Yeah, the problem with growing cover crops to remove toxins from soil is that the organic matter then has to be thrown in a landfill instead of composted. I understand that it’s a good way to remove toxins, but it’s also permanently extracting soil fertility. Is permanently extracting a lot of the soil fertility in order to remove the toxins really worth it? I legitimately don’t know.

Maybe I should look into more of SkillCult’s YouTube videos about making traditional ancient tools. I couldn’t afford to buy them (they’re not cheap), but perhaps I could learn some of the skills in order to make them.

It’s probably a good idea to remember that cost is a HUGE factor for a lot of gardeners. :wink:

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For the curious, here’s a list of plastics and their recycle numbers

1 PET Polyethylene (ok so far) terephthalate (uh oh) - lots used in disposable bottles - water, sodas etc

2 HDPE High density polyethylene - considered among the safest - v common in food industry

3 PVC Polyvinyl chloride considered one of the least safe - its use is dwindling

4 LDPE Low density polyethylene - another relatively safe one

5 PP Polypropylene considered safe - common in food industry, some woven landscape fabrics are PP

6 PS Polystyrene say no more

7 The rest some harmful, others less so

Phthalates are added to give pliability to the plastic so it was v common in disposable plastic bags etc.


Ha ha ha, I can relate to that! :slight_smile:

Here’s an article on that:

From that article:

• Most bioplastics and plant-based materials contain toxic chemicals.
• Cellulose and starch-based products induce the strongest in vitro toxicity.
• Most samples contain >1000 chemical features; the maximum is 20,000 features.
• The material type does not predict toxicity or chemical composition.
• Bio-based/biodegradable materials and conventional plastics are similarly toxic.

And another article on the environmental damage from the toxins in bioplastics here - ‘Assess and reduce toxic chemicals in bioplastics’, from 2022:

So it seems bioplastics are just another poisonous product from the chemical industry, with a greenwashed name.

I really believe some ways of growing food are in fact environmentally friendly. Mike Hoag is a nice permaculture chap who’s very anti-plastic, and a very successful grower. He’s also very much into profitable growing, and has a great track record for that. He’ also written a couple of books here’s one:

I recommend looking him up. And he runs a group on Facebook, ‘Permaculture in Action: Transformative Adventures!’:

And ‘Gardening with less plastic, petrol and poison’:

I feel like three keys - growing many species together; no dig; and growing genetically diverse landraces, are all really good ways to move to truly environmentally friendly ways of growing. Though, when it comes to living at environmental extremes but still wanting to grow species that don’t really want to grow there, I appreciate things can be hard. And I also accept the idea of using some methods that might be imperfect whilst we work to breed crops that can actually grow in an environmentally friendly way once we have done enough of our breeding work!

Can you quote that part for me and if I can I’ll fix it.

Did you get that impression after having read the scientific investigations on that which I posted, or is that just your assumption? I don’t mean to sound rude, it’s a genuine question. The poisons go into the air. Like so much so that in some places workers have to wear special chemical filtering masks when working inside the greenhouses.

Best not to use any of them. But my takeaway is that rigid is better than non-rigid so pots and trays won’ be as bad as things like plastic mulch and the flexible polytunnel covering stuff. Or the other flexible stuff. Also for starting plants, pots should be less bad. If they’re exposed to the sun it should make the effect worse. If they get hot, the chemicals leach a lot more. But this is all a good reason to shift to soil blocks, for example, for seed starting. @julia.dakin does that from what I remember.

I’m actually growing some plants in plastic buckets in Kratky hydroponic method, so I am by no means perfect on this myself. But I did make sure to chose food safe buckets despite their higher cost. And they’re indoors, so aren’t getting hot. Plus, it’s for crossing, rather than food production (though I sure will eat some of them :slight_smile: ).

A terrible source of microplastics, and awful for the oceans for that reason, among others such as the toxic production of them!

I don’t know any more than the info I provided really, and I don’t even know all that properly. Mainly I was trying to put all the info together and make it available. But, sorry can’t answer that one well. But where possible I anyway prefer natural fibres, and tend to buy second hand, and keep clothes a long time, and repair them. Though admittedly I do have some artificial fibres for lightweight warm clothes especially for ease of travelling. But high quality ones made to last, at least.

Yeah I have always felt like that - well, occasionally I do use soap (not often!) and I would not eat that, but I use natural soap. But if I need to moisturise my skin I do it with things that are edible. And sometimes I make medicines, from plants or other things I would be happy enough to eat. And when I see people using makeup or other skin products, I do ask myself, would you eat that? Like, have you ever licked someone and it tasted gross? For me that’s not a good sign :laughing: Can’t be healthy!

I would expect it’s worth it in some cases, yes. We know we can build fertility. I would rather spend 5 years building fertility than 30 years eating toxins, if my land were toxic. It will depend on the toxicity, the toxins, and the ability to remove them though. I mean like in Ukraine there were areas contaminated with radioactivity that are now exporters of food, once they detoxified the land (in that case maybe with sunflowers?) So I heard anyway.

Yes, indeed. Hence my seeing the rigid plastic as a reasonable compromise in some cases, and especially favouring free glass. But I am just providing info, so people can make their own choices, but in an informed way. Some people’s choices would change depending on being informed or not. i think it’s good to know about what we are choosing. It’s very sad if people chose only based on cost, then get terminally ill, then feel deep upset and regret that they simply never knew the risks. That happens so much already, with so many products throughout our lives - even medicines. If we chose consciously, at least it’s our own choice to make.

Yeah regarding HDPE being among the safest, that sounds right. But where are the judgements for each coming from? Some info out there on plastics doesn’t take phthalates into consideration. So on that topic I’d say those research papers are a good authority. What industry calls ‘safe’ is often quite dangerous.


It’s still quite different climate here. As I said I could grow lots without any plastics or other helping technology, but I don’t think that’s smart either if there is option that has more pros than cons. Food has to come from somewhere and improving growing conditions means more food produced locally versus imported. Maybe they would be more healthy if they are produced abroad without plastics (which they aren’t), but I like to think situation as whole. There is pollution from importing and earth has limited amount of arable land. Paper seems like perfect option, but it’s not really economical yet. Bioplastics should be atleast better (by a lot?) option to oil based plastics. They should be quite econimical, but seem to be quite hard to find in approriate scale.

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This isn’t found.

Thanks Justin, this is very interesting and very depressing. I was hoping bio-degradable plastics could be a good option. In fact I’m part of a local organic-alternative Certification organization, and this topic of plastic has come up for our producers. So a few years ago I did a deep dive into bio-plastics to figure out what they were made of, and that particular company I was researching refused to tell me the ingredients because of trade secrets or whatever.

It’s super sad that certified Organic food has this problem, but not surprising when you look at the fields. So now that most arable soils are probably contaminated with either Pthalates or pesticides/herbicides, what does remediation look like? Would bio-remediation work/ie can they be broken down?

Yes I agree that weighing up pros and cons and comparing them with the alternatives, is sensible.

Do you mean cardboard for creating no-dig beds? I like the cardboard + 12cm of compost method to establish beds. But after that first year, no more need for cardboard. So I think that’s great, and even if cardboard isn’t seen as sustainable (I mean, one can get it for free when it’s being discarded but I appreciate buying rolls of it is way easier in practice if making big beds), overall that seems sustainable enough to me, just one year of cardboard and then maintaining them for potentially limitless years ahead, more or less weed free with no need for any more cardboard.

Or were you meaning paper for some other function?

The source I provided you previously has us believe not better for toxicity. As for other parameters, I don’t know.

Maybe trade secrets but maybe also since they knew they were toxic and didn’t want bad press!

I don’t know if ‘most’ fields use plastics. Do they? Maybe depends on which country? But yeah, some places are terrible in that regard I guess. Sorry that I don’t know the solutions for remediation. Mike Hoag might be one to ask though don’t know if he knows or not, he’s more focused on using good ways I think, rather than fixing poisoned land. But he might know!

Trying to fix that now…

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Here’s the fixed link

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I meant paper mulch as alternative to plastic mulch. Toxicity is complex thing as it’s a relative term. Everything is toxic at some point and even small amounts of food can be toxic by nature. Like cinnamon is highly toxic, but passes trough in small amounts. Every generation is a guinea pig for the ones that come after and I feel quite fortunate to be guinea pig in this generation rather than even hundred years with lead paints and radioactive clocks. In plastics (oil based) my main concern is that they remain so long in the nature and are hard to recycle. I hope that bioplastics would atleast deal with that part.

“Live finds a way” :smile: I do feel somewhat optimistic because Earth started as toxic to humans and most liveforms. Although humans have really messed it up it still isn’t anything nature can’t handle in long term. There are some bacteria that have evolved to break down plastics for example. In human timeframe it’s still unpleasant both for humans and nature.

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Ah, yes. Is that in the way I described, where you put that down to start a new bed but then cover it will 12cm of compost? That’s the way Richard Perkins does it (cardboard not paper though), with great success. Then, I forget how much, maybe like 2cm or something of compost on top each year also. Of course this is best if one can make ones own compost, at least for the 2nd year on. But anyway, means no need to dig ever again, just extremely low weed maintenance. I just dug a bed last week and have to dig another one soon, which is really counterintuitive for me, destroying the whole soil structure and leaving naked soil! But it’s not my land so not really my choice this time, plus no time to prepare a no-dig bed now. But I look forward to using more no-dig methods in future.

Cinnamon is toxic in small amounts? I heard it’s toxic in large amounts, but, small amounts?! Also, the issue of cumulative toxicity is important. From what I remember, phthalates are such. Whereas from what I understand, one can have small quantities of cinnamon regularly and that can be fine, and has various medicinal properties even.

Well, my response to that is that yes in past generations people consumed things that later we learned are poisonous. But in the case of phthalates, we know very well now, that they are poisonous. And that is important for me. If people then chose to use them, with that knowledge that they are poisonous, it’s maybe not so much a case of being a guinea pig, since we already have certainty of their poisonous nature, and we know for sure many of the diseases they cause, often fatal. But sure, we do have free choice also.

Yes sure, ‘nature’ will survive long after humans have destroyed the biosphere to the extent that likely the vast majority of multicellular life has gone extinct. Including humans. I personally expect the majority of the human race to have vanished within the next 30 years, perhaps much sooner. The scale of climate change is immense, year by year - we will soon be facing intense food crisis and huge levels of global migration. For me, this largely inspires me to breed genetically diverse crops suited for low input organic farming methods, in the hope that this will make the situation at least a tiny bit less catastrophic for some human populations.