“One Word…Plastics”

You may remember this iconic line offered as career advice to young Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 movie The Graduate. Its delivery seemed to foreshadow a revolution in convenience which has clearly come to pass. Everywhere we look we see plastics – in ours homes, in our cars, in our businesses and certainly in the environment. Unfortunately, this innovation in convenience has come at a high price.

Plastic Waste
Man canoeing in a sea of plastics. Photo source: unknown.

The impact of plastics on our environment is shocking. In 1997, racing boat Captain Charles Moore was the first to discover the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a collection of marine debris (mostly plastics) spanning from the west coast of America to Japan!

The size of the Garbage Patch is so large that Dianna Parker, of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, stated NOAA “has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.” It’s an international pollution problem that is too big for any one country to address by itself, so it repeatedly gets placed on the back burner.

Plastics don’t biodegrade, they just break down into tinier and tinier particles, called microplastics, which impact global food webs. They collect near the surface of the oceans, blocking sunlight from reaching plankton and algae, the primary producers of the ocean. This means there’s less food for primary consumers, like turtles and fish which results in less food for larger consumers or predators, like sharks and tuna. This ultimately could mean less food for humans.

It’s not just small pieces of plastic that are a problem. National Geographic website reveals “loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellies, their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs.” Larger marine life, like seals, get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets and drown.

Seal in plastic
Photo Credit: See Common Dreams. “A seal trapped in plastic pollution. Environmental advocates are concerned that a rise in plastics production will bring the world’s oceans to a state of “near-permanent” pollution.” (Photo: Nels Israelson/Flickr/cc)

Plastics are not just in the ocean. Research by Orb Media, with assistance from the State University of New York at Fredonia and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, has shown that every major water source in the world now has microplastics in it. They are also in our drinking water, including some of the top U.S. bottled water brands. Specifically, they found more than 80 percent of the samples they collected on five continents tested positive for the presence of plastic fibers. Notably, the “US had the highest levels of contamination at 94.4 percent”.

Orb Media - microparticles
Photo Credit: Orb Media. Dyed laboratory filter paper highlights plastic fibers.  See Orb Media online report.

Scarier still is some of these microparticles are small enough to move through our bodies and travel to our lymph nodes.  Forester Network reported some researchers acknowledge that “chemicals from plastics are a constant part of our daily diet.” Research professor, Scott Belcher, PhD, shared with Orb Media “…these plastics are breaking down and leaching chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting plasticizers like BPA or phthalates, flame retardants, and even toxic heavy metals that are all absorbed into our diets and bodies.”

Even more disconcerting is how pervasive plastic is. Chris Tyree, a journalist with Orb Media, contends “the shear amount (of plastic) we are consuming is mind boggling. We’ve practically created more plastic in the last decade than in the last century. If plastic were a country, it would have the world’s 20th largest economy.”

Regardless of all the issues with plastic, its market is growing at a rapid pace. Common Dreams recently reported that various fossil fuel companies, including Exxon and Shell, “have poured more than $180 billion into the creation of plastics facilities that are expected to create a 40 percent rise in production of the material over the next decade.”  That’s a massive increase in a very short amount of time.

The prognosis for our continued plastic dependence looks bleak. Yet, there’s always room for hope.  Major changes in the way society functions have resulted from a few brave souls stepping forward to become way-showers for others.  Could you be one of them?

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