Plastic. It’s everywhere! We use it in the morning to brush our teeth, shave, eat at fast-food restaurants, sip a drink… anything you could ever imagine. Many of these plastic items end up in the trash after a single use. Indeed, the largest contributors to plastic waste are single-use plastics, which are only ever intended to be used once before being thrown away or recycled. These items range from grocery store plastic bags, straws, utensils, water bottles, containers… you name it. For this year’s World Environment Day on June 5, the United Nations decided to focus on the need to beat back this wave of plastic pollution (#BeatPlasticPollution). Why the focus? Plastic waste is harmful to more than just the environment, and its ubiquity is alarming.
Marine and Environmental Impact
Plastics are pervasive in every country across the world. First created in 1907, single-use plastics now account for up to 84 percent of beach litter across the world. In just one year, more than 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans, adding to the estimated 150 million tons that are already in the sea. It’s estimated that only about 0.03 percent of that plastic is visible at the ocean surface. According to a report shared at the World Economic Forum, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050 if we don’t take action now.
For marine life, the threat of plastics is insidious. Plastics pose a double threat, both as an ingestion and strangulation hazard, as well as from the leeching of chemicals into aquatic systems. In 2015, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) estimated that 90 percent of seabirds have ingested plastic; according to its researchers, this number is set to increase to 99 percent of birds by just 2050. Birds eat plastic thinking its food, but derive no nutritional value from it and can end up starving to death, their stomachs full of plastic. Additionally, chemicals used in the making of plastics, such as phthalates and flame retardants, have been found in the tissue of fish, mollusks, sea mammals and other marine creatures. Plastic bags can take 400 to 1,000 years to break down, and even then, they are likely to persist as they are only broken down into microplastics.
Microplastics are tiny plastic pieces (less than five millimeters long—including pieces that are too small to measure) that still present dangers to our environment and aquatic life. While laws are phasing out the use of microplastics in consumer care products, plastics break down into microplastics in the open ocean. Both plastics and microplastics end up in the gastrointestinal tracts of fish, which think they are food. New research is suggesting that chemicals from microplastics are being absorbed into their bodies through their bloodstreams, meaning that humans are probably ingesting microplastics as part of their seafood.
The Impact on Humans
There is still much to learn about the impact low-level, continual exposure to plastics have on human health, but several studies have already raised alarms. As one example, BPA, or Bisphenol-A, a chemical commonly used in many types of plastics, including water bottles, is often found in humans and is a known endocrine disruptor. Biologist Patricia Hunt found early exposure to BPA can “cause early puberty, lower sperm counts, predisposition to obesity, increased rates of breast and prostate cancer,” and other adverse health impacts.1 While companies have voluntarily phased out the use of BPA in water bottles and food packaging, there are now also questions about the potential health impacts of BPA replacements. Another ubiquitous compound, phthalate, a plastic softener, found in various food containers, hard packaging, bags, and toys, has been tentatively linked to cancer, obesity, ADHD, allergies, and diabetes—and are also an endocrine disruptor.
A new area of research is the effect that microplastics have on human health. There is new evidence suggesting that microplastics can pass through the blood barrier, infiltrating our bodies simply when we use plastic items. Recently, the World Health Organization called for the study of the potential health effects of microplastic exposure, after an analysis found microplastics in about 90 percent of tested bottled water. There are also questions related to the potential impact of consuming fish that has absorbed plastic chemicals into its tissue. Minimizing the use of plastics would reduce pollution and likely have beneficial health impacts for humans, as well.
What Can We Do?
Many communities recycle hard plastics, but not all have the same recycling regulations. While some cities will take disposable coffee mugs, many often won’t because of the plastic lining on the inside on the cup. Soft plastics (plastics that can easily be broken when crushed by hand or crumpled into a ball—think plastic bags, Ziploc bags, etc.) can likely be recycled at your nearest grocery store. Accidentally throwing items into the recycling bin can do more harm than good—take the time to understand your local recycling guidelines! Washington, D.C., has just launched a site to help its residents sort their litter: zerowaste.dc.gov.
Though recycling is helpful, it’s important to first minimize our use of plastic. We all know the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra; precycling focuses on the "reduce" part of that triptych. Precycling is simply choosing packaging-free options. For example, opt out of the plastic bag you would usually place your produce in at the grocery store, or bring your own jars to buy your spices in bulk. With the growth of awareness about the harms of plastic pollution, the number of plastic alternatives is growing. Here are some alternatives for single-use items:
- Plastic bags? Try reusable canvas bags!
- Plastic straws? These may seem innocuous but over 500 MILLION are used DAILY in the United States alone! You can either not use one or buy reusable metal or glass straws online.
- Plastic water bottle or coffee mug? Try a stainless steel or glass water bottle. If you’re diving into your nearest coffee shop, ask for a mug! They’ll often give you a discount, too!
- Plastic tupperware? Glass tupperware or a stainless steel bentobox.
- Need some utensils when you go out for a quick bite? Try reusable cutlery made from bamboo!
- Toothbrushes? Bamboo toothbrushes with activated-charcoal-infused bristles are said to naturally whiten teeth!
- Plastic razors? Try a stainless-steel razor! A better shave, a better price, and cheaper replacement blades!
- Need cling wrap to keep your veggies fresh? Try reusable beeswax wrap!
You can also pressure companies and policymakers to take action. Ikea, Royal Caribbean, and Sea World have recently pledged to phase out plastic straws and bags from their operations. India has gone one further, announcing that it will seek to eliminate single-use plastic nationwide by 2022.
Author: Millie Bhatia
1. “Toxic Assets: The Growing Breast,” Breasts: a Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams.
- "What are microplastics?" National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- "Plastics Breakdown," One World One Ocean
- "Here's How Much Plastic Ends Up In the World's Oceans," Time
- "More plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, says Ellen MacArthur," The Guardian
- "Soft Plastics Waste," National Recycling Week
- "Plastics and their impacts on human health," International Centre for Creativity, Innovation and Sustainability
- "The impact of microplastics on food safety: the case of fishery and aquaculture products," Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations
- "WHO launches health review after microplastics found in 90% of bottled water," The Guardian
- "Almost all seabirds to have plastic in gut by 2050," Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)
- "SeaWorld, Ikea and Royal Caribbean are getting rid of plastic straws and bags," Washington Post