Every year the world produces more than 300 million tons of plastic, and 50% of it is single-use plastic. That figure is expected to double by 2034. Although plastics have been revolutionizing goods for 100 years, suddenly, it seems the world is filled with their debris in the form of “microplastics.”
These microplastics are teensy-tiny, microscopic particles that come off of and out of the plastic products we use. Over the last century, plastic has become an indispensable part of our lives and that means plastic is now literally everywhere. Plastic, often derived from crude oil, is synthesized into the polymers used for a wide array of products today. It is cheap to produce and seemingly impossible to eliminate from our lives.
Plastic disposable cups and containers are common. But plastic has found more lofty purposes in surgical supplies, automotive parts, and machinery. It’s woven into our clothing (even our underwear!), bedding, rugs and furniture. Plastics are in our pajamas, stuffed animals, toys, feminine care, even in vegan leather. Plastics are used for food storage and wrappers, shower curtains, building materials, receipt paper, and so much more.
Plastic is cheap, convenient and harmful.
Our insatiable appetite for cheap and convenient materials has fueled the growth of plastic. For example, a majority of people and businesses around the world continue to use plastic wrap on foods where microplastic particles move from packaging into what we ingest.
This may sound alarming to some, while others may say, well but, these things are so very, very small. Can they possibly do much harm?
I wanted an answer to this question, so I dug into the science.
We can’t exactly study humans in a lab by feeding them plastics. But we know that in the real world plastics are harming wildlife when ingested leading to starvation and other problems. A new study reports that exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in plastics are a severe threat to health because they are linked to obesity, type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular issues and certain cancers. Other studies have repeatedly found plasticizer chemicals such as Bisphenol-A (BPA, which is only one of a group of chemicals used to increase the flexibility and extensibility of a plastic) is, among other things, harmful to male and female fertility. BPA is associated with precocious puberty, PCOS, and certain breast and prostate tumors.
Plastics are pervasive pollutants.
The problem is so vast, and so deep, that it is projected that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish (by weight). This colossal pollution problem happens when plastic materials are dumped, drained and blown into our air and water where the plastics break apart but don’t break down. Small plastic particles, microplastics, have become ubiquitous.
For some perspective, microplastics are often measured in microns but shedding can be even smaller and on the nano scale. A human hair can be about 50-150 microns in diameter whereas a billion nanoparticles can fit on the head of a pin. So these itty-bitty nano plastic pollution particles are not visible to the naked eye. Yet they can be inhaled, ingested and lodged in places, possibly in our own bodies, where they might never escape.
There has been a fair amount of study on the problem with plastic pollution in our oceans and waterways. Less has been done on the problem with microplastics in our air, though initial studies show that these plastics are everywhere; meaning that even if our eyes don’t “see” the problem, it’s there.
Plastics are everywhere.
They’re poisoning our waterways, air and have wound up in the food chain. Some people refer to the time we are living in as “The Plastic Age.” Sadly, this is a human-made, synthetic, and permanent disaster. There is an endless flood of plastics in our lives resulting in “a massive global experiment on our planet”, according to Professor Roland Geyer.
My initial dive into plastics produced this information: A single-use plastic bag, considered “disposable” by the manufacturer, will outlive you, possibly by a century or even more. Some plastics will degrade after 100 years but many can last up-to a thousand years.
Which got me asking: “What does it mean for something plastic to degrade?” In the natural cycle we think about thinks breaking down and returning to nature. A piece of fruit will decay in a few weeks and return to the earth to support living creatures. A human body can take months and years to completely decay. But it will break-down and return to the earth. Not plastic. Plastic remains in these small pieces, microplastics, for a very, very, very, very long time.
Plastics are generally a choice.
Now, humanity is choking on plastic because of our own designs, desires and, to a certain degree, our choices. We can’t eliminate plastic from our lives entirely, yet. But it does appear to be high-time that we make new choices. Here’s a list of what you can you do to curb your own contribution to plastic pollution.
- REFUSE IT: The easy answer is stop using it. No more straws, single use bags, and water bottles. Whenever you buy something, look carefully at what it’s made from and choose plastic very carefully knowing the true cost isn’t yet measurable.
- RE-USE IT. We must figure out ways to re-use what is here. (But remember that experts warn that using recycled plastic isn’t the ultimate solution. Which brings us back to #1 as the best option.)
- RESOLVE IT. We need science that will help us resolve this problem. See existing solutions and devices that can help, like this.
- REFORM IT. We need to call on our local, state, and national leaders to reform the laws on polluting industries. We must not continue to allow plastics to be cheap when rolling out, yet so expensive at the end of its lifecycle, without responsibility for the clean-up.