This discussion draws heavily on “Plastic Pollution” by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, published September 2015 by “Our World in Data.” In their opening paragraph, Ritchie and Roser note that, “The first synthetic plastic – Bakelite – was produced in 1907;” and that formed the beginning of the plastics boom in the 1950’s, through 2015, “annual production … increased nearly 200-fold.” About 42% of plastics go into packaging and 19% into building construction. Plastic building materials have a use span of about 35 years. But, plastic packaging has a typical use time of six months or less. The 2018 United Nations Environment Report points out that, “…half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once – and then thrown away.” They go on to note that, “Cigarette butts – whose filters contain tiny plastic fibers – were the most common type of plastic waste found in the environment in a recent global survey.”

So, what happens to all this single use plastic? Ritchie and Roser report, “In 2015, an estimated 55 percent of global plastic was discarded, 25 percent was incinerated, and 20 percent recycled.” The good news is that recycling rates are going up and are projected to reach 44% by 2050. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. About half the plastics in these artificial islands comes from fishing nets and lines. These rafts of plastic trash cover an area larger than Texas and are up to nine feet deep. Brian Hutchinson of the Oceanic Society, notes that plastic waste, “…mars otherwise beautiful beaches, coastlines, and snorkel and dive sites worldwide.” According to sources at World Environment Day, “…99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal,”.

Certain characteristics of plastics are helpful. They are light-weight, water resistant and inexpensive. But, trade-offs are steep when waste plastics enter our oceans. Marine animals are most affected. They become entangled in plastics and they eat plastics. Large, sharp pieces of plastic can collide with and damage coral reefs. Smaller creatures such as oysters and mussels may take in tiny plastic fibers. Larger fish take in larger objects such as cigarette packaging. Even larger species, such as whales, have been found to have swallowed plastic flower pots and hoses.

Besides the obvious problems of an animal having a stomach full of sometimes jagged pieces of plastic, this may also lead to malnutrition. Ritchie and Roser report studies that theorize fish feel falsely full and stop eating. With all that plastic, perhaps there’s not much room in their stomachs for real food. The issue for humans centers on microplastics. Studies are ongoing to see how much we are absorbing these from our food. Ritchie and Roser note that plastics have been detected in items such as honey, beer and table salt. Whether these tiny plastic particles remain in us, or simply pass through, is still unknown. A recent article (October 2018) by Meilan Solly in the Smithsonian newsletter, revealed evidence that plastics are present in human stool samples. Austrian investigators found particles the size of sesame seeds – including polyethylene terephthalate (PRT) and polypropylene (PP). There is also a possibility that airborne plastic particles can land on our food and then be eaten. Of further concern is that the microplastics could absorb contaminants such as Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), and then release them to our digestive systems. Additives used to manufacture plastics, could leach out upon ingestion. So far, these things have not been documented. But, the possibility is worrisome.

Recently, Oceanic Society’s Hutchinson created a list of seven steps we can all take to help solve these problems. The list includes: reduce use of single use plastics (straws, utensils, grocery bags, etc.); recycle properly; participate in a beach or river cleanup; support bans; avoid products containing microbeads (found in face scrubs, toothpaste, etc.); spread the word; and, support organizations addressing plastic pollution. Even something as simple as using a thermos instead of disposable water bottles can have a big impact over time. Think twice before taking that plastic straw. Do you really need it?

By: Susan Reel-Panish, FCW Board Member