Plastic is everywhere! Look in your pantry and trash. Look around you. How many items are packaged in plastic? How many plastic items do you own? How much plastic is in your trash?
Plastic has only existed for the past 60-70 years (my lifetime). However, in that amount of time plastic has transformed everything.
History will judge us severely and say that those who were adults in this modern age (born 1930 to 2003) will leave the legacy of “plastic pollution” to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. What we saw as a convenience may likely kill us and will probably hasten their deaths also.
Further, it will be their generation that will face the very expensive task of cleaning up the 430 million tons annually of plastic pollution that we produce worldwide. Do you care? You should!
Plastic Pollution is Everywhere and You Should Care
Microplastics are synthetic, polymer compounds that form when larger plastic materials breakdown, are fragmented, and micronized to < 5 mm in size. Nano-plastics come from microplastics as they decompose. Nano-plastic even smaller in size ranging from 1 nm to 1 um.
Such plastic pollution has been found everywhere: in our oceans, fresh water lakes, remote islands, Antarctic snow, in soil, in our water, in tea, fish, clouds, air, in human blood, and human organs. We eat them, drink them, and breathe them. We are “swimming” in plastics. They have been found in the feces of babies and humans. From the summit if Mount Everest to the deepest oceans, plastic particles pollute our planet. And you should care.
Plastic Takes Years to Break Down if At All
Why should you care? For several reasons: First, plastics take years to break down naturally if at all. Below are some common plastic items that often pollute our planet. Next to each item, I have listed the number of years that researchers report that it takes for these items to decompose:
- Plastic bag: 20 years
- To go coffee cups: 30 years
- Plastic straws: 200 years
- Plastic rings: 400 years
- Plastic water bottles: 450 years
- Plastic cups: 450 years
- Disposable diapers: 500 years
- Coffee pods: 500 years
While many of these items are breaking down, they are creating microplastics and nano-plastics. Furthermore, many of these items release toxic chemicals into the environment that are more likely to be ingested by vulnerable marine life. Who then eats fish, oysters, crab, lobster, shrimp, and scallops?
Most Plastic is Not Recycled
The second reason we should care is that it is not possible to recycle our way out of this plastic pollution crisis. Researchers report that around 85% of plastic packaging worldwide ends up in landfills. Only about 9% of global annual plastic waste is recycled.
In the U.S., the world’s biggest plastic polluter, only around 6% of plastic waste produced by households is recycled.
By 2060, plastic production is expected to triple globally. What are we going to do with all the plastic pollution?
High Income Countries Send Their Plastic Trash to Low Income Countries
The third reason you should care is fairness. It turns out that researchers have discovered that high income countries are inundating the developing world with much more plastic than previously estimated. Fair?
According analysis recently published, United Nations data on the global waste trade fails to account for “hidden” plastics in textiles, contaminated paper bales, and other categories, leading to a dramatic annual underestimate of the amount of plastic that is sent from the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States to poor countries.
The authors of this analysis highlight the public health and environmental risks that plastic exports pose in the developing world, where importers often dump or incinerate an unmanageable glut of plastic waste. Is this the answer?
Plastic Pollution is in Our Lake
I will be transparent with you: I did not get interested in plastic pollution until a friend of mine, who teaches 6th grade in Perrysburg, OH was one of about 15 school teachers in the United States selected to spend time on a research vessel in Lake Erie and test the water quality. I live near Lake Erie. We often eat fish from Lake Erie. I was very interested in what she found.
After spending about 3 weeks on this vessel and taking many water samples, my friend said to me, “Yes, we found lots of microplastics in Lake Erie. Certain fish eat these microplastics and then we eat the fish.” Oops! Guilty. I did not know.
In terms of plastic abundance, Lake Erie, the smallest Great Lake, has the second highest amount of plastic particles out of all the Great Lakes, and one of the highest concentrations of microplastics in the world. Most people do not realize that Lake Erie has as much plastic, and even more in some cases, than the huge garbage patches reported in the oceans.
Because of its rough waters and location near multiple cities, these plastics are broken down into microplastics, which are almost impossible to filter out of the water. These microplastics can disrupt natural food webs and even reduce the quality, size, and reproductive capabilities of the local fish we eat.
Plastic Pollution Has a Negative Effect on Human Health
The fourth reason you should care is that these microplastics and nano-plastics hurt people. Nano-plastics are so tiny that, unlike microplastics, they can pass through the intestines and lungs directly into the bloodstream and travel from there to organs including the heart and brain. They can invade individual cells, and cross through the placenta to the bodies of unborn babies. Does having plastic in your cells sound healthy?
Researchers from South Korean examined ingestion, inhalation, and dermal contacts as major routes of exposure to micro and nano-plastics. Serious health consequences were reported including oxidative stress, cytotoxicity, DNA damage, inflammation, immune response, neurotoxicity, metabolic disruption, and ultimately negative effects on the digestive system, immunology, respiratory system, reproductive system, and nervous system.
A very recent study published by researchers at Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, and Columbia Mailman School of Public Health was just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The researchers tested three popular brands of bottled water sold in the United States (they declined to name which ones), analyzing plastic particles down to just 100 nanometers in size. They spotted 110,000 to 370,000 particles in each liter of bottled water, 90% of which were nano-plastics; the rest were microplastics. They also determined which of the seven specific plastics they detected.
Not only are you drinking plastic when you drink bottled water, you are also ingesting the toxic chemicals that make up and attach to microplastics. This can include BPA’s, styrene, bleach, perfume, flame retardants, and many other harmful chemicals not intended for human consumption.
One common chemical that was found in the bottled water was polyethylene terephthalate or PET. This was not surprising, since that is what many water bottles are made of. (It is also used for bottled sodas, sports drinks and condiments such as ketchup and mayonnaise.)
It probably gets into the water as bits slough off when the bottle is squeezed or gets exposed to heat. By the way, do not drink bottled water that has been exposed to heat or sun. One recent study suggests that many particles enter the water when you repeatedly open or close the cap, and tiny bits abrade.
However, PET was outnumbered by polyamide, a type of nylon that probably comes from plastic filters used to supposedly purify the water before it is bottled. Other common plastics the researchers found: polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride and polymethyl methacrylate, all used in various industrial processes.
A somewhat disturbing thought: the seven plastic types the researchers searched for accounted for only about 10% of all the nanoparticles they found in samples; they had no idea what the rest were. If they all were nano-plastics, that means they could number in the tens of millions per liter. But they could be almost anything. Sound health enhancing?
By contributing to the development of chronic disease and death, this plastic pollution is costing the U.S. health care system billions — over $249 billion in 2018 alone, another study found.
The U.S. public may start to understand how much of the human health threat of endocrine-disrupting chemicals is due to plastics. The study found increases in cancer, brain damage in young children, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and early deaths in adults.
Bottom line: When you drink water, beverages made with water, eat fish, or consume food processed with water, you are almost certainly ingesting tiny particles of plastic known as micro or nano-plastics. You probably are breathing these nano-particles directly into your lungs.
These plastics can cause all sorts of health issues, including a weakened immune system and hormone imbalances that decrease sperm levels in men and negatively impact the human ability to reproduce. They are also known to increase your risk of developing cancer. You ever wonder why cancer will be the number one killer of most Americans within 2-3 years? Why is cancer increasing?
Ultimately, microplastics are simultaneously increasing our chances of death while decreasing our ability to reproduce. Even babies are ingesting these harmful chemicals from microplastics in the womb, leading to increased chances of developmental delays. Seem right? Seem fair to unborn babies?
A Very Downstream Approach – Blaming the Victim
Let me ask you a question: Are we as a nation considering the costs to the health of our own population if industries continue to produce and consume plastic at the current or greater rate?
To me, it seems like we are charging and blaming the victims! These health costs are currently paid for by the individuals who suffer from the diseases. All the while, the plastics manufacturers and businesses that use plastics for their products make handsome profits. Seem fair to you?
Steps We Can Take Now to Reduce Plastic Pollution
Maybe we should go back to the way things were when I was a kid. I remember when we did not have plastics everywhere.
We brought our groceries home in large, brown paper bags. We used the brown paper from the bags to cover our books for school.
Milk and juice were purchased in glass containers.
Soda pop was purchased in glass bottles. You took the glass bottles back for spare change. It is possible to live without plastics!
Each of us can also do the following 11 things now to make the problem better:
1. Elect politicians that promise to make the environment and this little, blue planet healthier.
Historically, one party has emphasized the environment while the other has not. In fact, one party has “rolled back” many laws that protect our environment. Vote your conscience and know what various politicians believe about the environment.
2. Put pressure on politicians and manufacturers.
Though we can make a difference through our own habits, politicians have more influence and corporations have a much bigger footprint. Let your voice be heard! Advocate for positive health! Make a visit. Write letters. Send emails. Send a tweet. If you believe a company could be smarter about its packaging, make your voice heard. Write a letter, send a tweet, or hit them where it really hurts: Give your money to a more sustainable competitor and tell them why you no longer support them.
3. Support a bag tax or ban.
Urge your elected officials to follow the lead of those in San Francisco, Chicago, and close to 150 other cities and counties by introducing or supporting legislation that would make plastic-bag use less desirable.
4. Wean yourself off disposable plastics.
90% of the plastic in our daily lives is used once and then thrown away: grocery bags, plastic wrap, disposable cutlery, straws, coffee-cup lids. Take note of how often you rely on these products and replace them with reusable versions. It only takes a few times of bringing your own bags to the store, silverware to the office, or travel mug to Starbucks before it becomes habit.
5. Stop buying bottled water.
Do not risk your health or the health of loved ones by drinking water that is bottled in plastic bottles! Each year, close to 20 billion plastic bottles are tossed in the trash. Therefore, carry a reusable bottle in your bag, and you’ll never be caught having to resort to a Poland Spring or Evian again. If you are nervous about the quality of your local tap water, look for a model with a built-in filter.
6. Boycott microbeads.
Microbeads, those little plastic scrubbers found in so many beauty products—facial scrubs, toothpaste, body washes—might look harmless, but their tiny size allows them to slip through water-treatment plants. Unfortunately, they also look just like food to some marine animals. Instead, opt for products with natural exfoliants, like oatmeal or salt, instead.
7. Cook and eat at home more.
Not only is it healthier and you typically eat less, but making your own meals does not involve takeout containers or doggy bags. For those times when you order in or eat out, tell the establishment that you do not need any plastic cutlery. For some serious extra credit, bring your own food-storage containers to restaurants for leftovers.
8. Purchase items secondhand.
New toys and electronic gadgets, especially, come with all kinds of plastic packaging—from those frustrating hard-to-crack shells to twisty ties. Search the shelves of thrift stores, neighborhood garage sales, or online postings for items that are just as good when previously used. Plus, you will save yourself a few bucks also.
9. Buy in bulk.
I know . . . Sam’s Club or Costco! Single-serving yogurts, travel-size toiletries, tiny packages of nuts—consider the product-to-packaging ratio of items you tend to buy often and select the bigger container instead of buying several smaller ones over time.
10. Bring your own garment bag to the dry cleaner.
Invest in a zippered fabric bag and request that your cleaned items be returned in it instead of sheathed in plastic. Furthermore, make sure you are frequenting a dry cleaner that skips that perk.
We are not doing a good job of this! For example, less than 10% of plastic packaging is recycled. Confused about what can and cannot go in the bin? Check out the number on the bottom of the container. Most beverage and liquid cleaner bottles will be #1 (PET), which is commonly accepted by most curbside recycling companies. Containers marked #2 (HDPE; typically slightly heavier duty like bottles for milk, juice, and laundry detergent) and #5 (PP; plastic cutlery, yogurt and margarine tubs, ketchup bottles) are also recyclable in some areas. For the specifics on your area, check out Earth911.org’s recycling directory.
Listen to this Podcast, Episode # 18: Plastics are Everywhere. So What?
The 1795 Group Can Help
We care a lot about the world that we will leave for those who follow in our footsteps. Our goal is to leave this little blue planet better than when we lived on it.
That’s why we do what we do. We believe in being part of solutions. Let’s work together!
Perhaps you would like a guest speaker or a presentation on this topic. Perhaps you would like to have your students, learners, or employees enjoy an in-person or virtual professional development workshop in this topical area. Perhaps you need a course to be written for your learners. Whatever your need, the 1795 Group can help. Call us and let’s brainstorm ways to work together.