Plastic is ubiquitous. Even recycling bins, an instrument invented to help consumers deal with our plastic problem, are usually constructed from the same organic polymers going inside. A large percentage of objects inside your house are likely constructed from plastics. The millions of deliveries zipping around every day are packaged with plastic that simply gets tossed out—plastic protects the plastic item you purchased.
Since the 1950s, humans have produced more than 8 billion tons of plastics—amazingly, more than half of it in just the last 15 years. While those giant recycling bins have also become ubiquitous, less than 10 percent of plastic ever produced has been recycled. If it’s not being recycled, it must be ending up somewhere. Like our waterways.
New research at the Environment Montana Research and Policy Center discovered that many of the state’s water bodies contain microplastics. The same goes for Sarasota, Florida, where a group of eighth-graders measured local seawater and discovered a troublesome level of contamination. Perhaps one of the most disturbing studies found that San Francisco Bay is polluted with 7 trillion microplastic particles, with car tires and synthetic clothing fibers being the greatest offenders.
Plastic in the farthest reaches of the planet
One of the most remote corners on the planet, the Arctic, contains more microplastics than anywhere on earth. Near the North Pole, more than 14,000 particles are embedded in every liter of snow. This is especially troubling given that no one lives anywhere near this region. The combination of currents and wind patterns have made it humanity’s plastic junkyard.
What about where our food is grown, namely the soil? A recent study at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K. discovered that plastics like biodegradable polylactic acid, conventional high-density polyethylene and microplastic clothing fibers are being ingested by earthworms, which in turn lose weight and become less effective at keeping soil healthy. Fewer perennial ryegrass seeds germinated in microplastics-rich soil. If this continues, entire swaths of land will become infertile or, at the very least, less productive.
We are well aware of the ocean’s plastic problem—8 million metric tons enter the water every year—but what about smaller particles, the microplastics that end up everywhere, including inside our bodies?
Last year, one study suggested that humans ingest between 74,000 and 121,000 microplastic particles every year. A sizable amount comes from food, especially if you drink from plastic water bottles or reheat food in plastic (or wash Tupperware in the dishwasher). In fact, drinking water ranks first, dumping nearly 1,800 particles into our stomachs every week. This includes bottled and tap water. Next in line is shellfish at 182 particles per week.
Plastic in our bodies
The adverse effects of ingesting plastics is not well-studied, which is unfortunate given the increasing amount invading our bodies. A World Wide Fund for Nature report from earlier this year states that you’ve likely ingested a credit card’s worth of plastic in the last week alone.
A common entry point for microplastics is dust, making clean living conditions as important as ever. We all know to avoid certain plastics in water bottles, but a recent study at McGill University in Montreal found that tea bags release billions of microplastic particles into your mug. According to the team, each bag releases 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles. Of course, particle size is nearly undetectable, yet that does not imply that these polymers don’t affect our digestive systems.
Or our brains. Studies on animals show that these particles cross the membrane into their brain. Human mothers might even pass microplastics through the placenta into a developing fetus. There is also evidence that particles like bisphenol A and phthalates reduce fertility in both men and women. Other problems—those associated with styrene, which is found in some food packaging—include nervous system issues, cancer and hearing loss.
What we can do
Everywhere you turn, more and more plastic. Sadly, the trend is not slowing down. As with many changes, it means we have to take responsibility for creating it.
On an individual level, that means researching the food packaging you purchase: Recycling codes 3, 6, and 7 reference phthalates, styrene and bisphenols. Avoid buying these containers. That also means investigating foods that are at the greatest risk of contamination. Eating more fresh food is one way to avoid supporting an industry that cuts costs by using the worst plastics.
Our most prominent problem is purchasing plastic water bottles. Not only do the containers contaminate the ocean and soil, the water we drink is likely contaminated, as well. Drinking tap water and using a BPA-free water bottle are the right decisions. If you need to buy water on the go, purchase glass bottles.
Convenience comes at a cost, one we often don’t foresee in the course of daily living. Online ordering has created an entire plastics industry. Everyone needs to ask whether we really need to have a product shipped instead of taking the time to visit a store. This requires a holistic mindset, one we often overlook when we just want to accomplish tasks as quickly as possible. Fast rarely equals sustainable.
As with the broader case of climate change, we need better regulations. As long as laws are lax concerning the production and distribution of plastic, we are unlikely to change our habits. Some plastics can break down in months; others take millions of years. We need to support legislation that will force manufacturers (and the companies that buy from them) to create plastics with a reasonable shelf life. The Amazon package we receive today should not be around a million years from now, but that’s exactly what’s happening.
Change is possible
Such change is possible. Earlier this year, California lawmakers announced that the state will phase out single-use plastics by 2030. In Los Angeles, where I live, single-use plastic bags were phased out in 2017. It has caused no havoc. If you forget your reusable bag, you can purchase a paper bag at most stores for 5 or 10 cents. Common-sense laws like this need to be nationally implemented.
If we’ve produced more than 4 billion metric tons of plastics in just the last 15 years, what will the next 15 bring? We have to ask this question. This will not be a convenient problem to solve, but convenience has made the problem necessary to address. Waiting any longer to answer will serve none of us in the long run. Our environment, and our bodies, depend on better responses.
Photo credit: tanvi sharma, Unsplash