By Susan Freinkel
A century ago when plastics first began to be used in everyday life, people fell in love with them. And for good reason: plastics made possible many of the benefits of modern life, from wash ‘n’ wear clothing to computers and cell phones to the replacement joints and organs that keep many of us going late in life. Yet that love affair has a darker side, much of it stemming from the careless and shortsighted ways in which plastics are all too often produced and used. Let me share five anecdotes that speak to that:
1. Plastic trash can now be found in all the world’s oceans, and on even the most remote and pristine beaches, from the Alaskan wilderness to islands bordering Antarctica.
During a visit to a beach near the tip of Point Reyes (a big protected national park in northern California) I found dozens of pieces of plastic debris, including shotgun casings, dead disposable lighters, half of a plastic patio chair, hunks of nylon rope and a bunch of pre-production pellets. When I scooped up handfuls of sand and looked at them closely, I realized the sand was suffused with tiny plastic fragments. Plastic doesn’t break down; it only breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces. That “accumulation and fragmentation of plastics” is “one of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet,” says British biologist David Barnes.
2. Plastic pollution is exacting a heavy toll on wildlife. It’s been documented as the cause of injuries or deaths in 267 different species, including seals, seabirds and amphibians like the Leatherback Turtle, a species that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Midway atoll, a tiny speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, serves as nesting ground for the Laysan albatross, magnificent birds that fly great distances in search of food for their young. Because they scavenge from an area in the ocean where plastic debris accumulates, the birds are now also accumulating plastic. Studies suggest nearly every one of the 1.2 million albatross on Midway has some quantity of plastic in their stomachs. In autopsies of dead birds, biologists have extracted toothbrushes, lighters, toy soldiers, bottle caps, pen caps, plastic fragments, and in one case, a dog tag traced to a U.S. Navy fighter who was shot down in 1944.
3. One of the plastics most widely used in medicine and in consumer goods—vinyl—can leach chemicals that may interfere with hormones. I visited a neonatal intensive care nursery where I saw a tiny fragile, premature baby who was hooked up to multiple vinyl IV bags and tubing. The bags and tubes were delivering medicines and nutrients the baby needed, but they were also leaching phthalates into her bloodstream—chemicals that can mimic testosterone and during critical points of development may affect a child’s system in ways that lead to various health problems years from now, including fertility issues, allergies, and liver toxicity.
4. We have produced nearly as much plastic in the first ten years of the 21st century as in the entire preceding 100 years. In the U.S. alone, consumption of plastic has risen tenfold since 1960. But it’s the undeveloped world where we’ll see the biggest jump in consumption in coming decades—in places like India, China or Africa where people understandably want the same consumer goods and conveniences that the developed world enjoys. Unfortunately these are also places with less developed systems for recycling and disposing of plastics, raising the specter of even worse plastic pollution.
5. Most used plastics are recycled in China. I learned this when I tracked what happened to the plastic soda bottles I put in my recycling bin and discovered they were being shipped from San Francisco to China. There the bottles would turned into polyester fiber, used to make clothing, carpet, pillows among other things. That fact is 40 years after the first recycling programs were established in the U.S., we are still recycling only about 28 percent of all plastic bottles and less than ten percent of plastics in general.
What Can We Do About Our Plastic Consumption?
Plastic is so integral to modern life that we can’t—and probably don’t—want to entirely relinquish it. But there are ways to make for a better, healthier relationship:
1. Refuse single-use freebies: Bring your own bag when shopping. Carry a travel mug for your daily caffeine fix. Tell your waiter you don’t need a straw. Instead of buying bottled water, stay hydrated from reusable bottles made of metal or BPA-free plastic.
2. Reuse where possible: Give that sandwich baggie a week’s workout; use that empty yogurt tub for leftovers.
3. Use your purchasing power to support companies that are trying to use less packaging and healthier kinds of plastic.
4. Learn what you can recycle. Find out what plastics your community recycler accepts. Explore other recycling resources: UPS stores will take back shipping peanuts; many grocery chains will take used bags and plastic film; many office supply chains will take back used printer cartridges.
5. Don’t cook in plastic. Heat can cause hazardous chemicals to leach out of some polymers, so transfer food to glass before microwaving.