By Jackie Burns
Earth Day theme and campaign
The 48thannual earth day is fast approaching. The theme this year is “ending plastic pollution.” Why are these seemingly stable polymers a problem? And what can we do about them?
Plastics are used to make many things: beverage bottles, clothing, porch decks, carpeting, electronics, etc. Plastics are used because they are long lasting. With additives they can be rigid or flexible, depending on the need. In hospitals they keep things sterile. In fast food places they make things convenient. They make some electronics lighter in weight. They make some decks more weather resistant.
Plastic is wonderful for many uses because it is durable. But in the waste stream, plastic is horrible because it is durable. Think about this. We have been making plastic for 100+ years, and nearly all of the plastic we have ever made still exists as plastic. If we go on like this for another 100 years will we smother the planet?
Carelessly discarded plastics wash down rivers. They may be filtered out in wetlands. But much makes its way into our oceans. United Nations Oceans Chief Lisa Svensson told the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) “we are ruining the ecosystem of the ocean.” The ocean is where we have most studied the effects of plastic pollution.
How much plastic waste is out there?
Studies have estimated that as of 2015, 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste has been generated. Only 9% of that has been recycled and 12% has been incinerated, leaving 79% to fill our landfills or get washed into the oceans. Plastics in the oceans come from every continent and many nations. The trick to keeping it out of the ocean seems to be managing the waste stream. Asian countries seem to contribute the most plastic to the ocean, but the US is in the top 20 contributors, and contributes more per capita than other countries.
An estimated 10 million tons of plastic waste per year wash into the oceans. This trash is not evenly distributed across the ocean; it is moved about by ocean currents. These currents tend to spiral around the oceans forming gyres. There are five main gyres worldwide: the North Pacific Gyre, the South Pacific Gyre, the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre, and the Indian Ocean Gyre. Plastic trash concentrations occur at the center of each of these. The one that has been studied the most is the North Pacific Gyre. The trash collection there is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Here is a bit of what we have learned.
Exposed to sunlight (UV rays) and salt water, plastic molecules stay stable, but the plastic becomes brittle and breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming micro-plastics (less than 5mm). These pieces, micro and macro, typically have rough edges. Contaminants in the water attach to these rough places. When these small pieces of plastic are eaten, in the digestive tracts sea animals, the contaminants may be absorbed into the tissues of the animal, and may bio-accumulate as they move through the food web. We humans eat some of the top predators of the sea, like tuna and salmon. So these contaminants may be accumulating in us.
Impacts to animals
Structurally, plastics pose two problems for wildlife in and out of the ocean. It may be mistaken for food, or an animal may become entangled and trapped in it.
When plastic is eaten, it doesn’t break down, so by itself it isn’t poisonous. But we have observed instances where plastics lodged in digestive systems create blockages that keep animals from feeding and absorbing nutrients, causing them to starve. In the ocean, whales, seals, dolphins and birds have all been found dead with stomachs full of plastic. Plastic waste kills up to 1 million sea birds, 100,000 sea mammals, marine turtles and countless fish each year.
Ever see a raccoon, or some other animal with its head stuck in a plastic jar? The reach in for a tender food morsel and get stuck. It might be comical for a moment, but it can also be deadly if they can’t get out of it. They might asphyxiate, overheat or starve.
Tiny little pieces of plastic, less than 5mm in size, are known as micro plastics.
We were adding micro-plastics to our waterways when plastic micro-beads were added to personal care products as micro-abrasives. This was stopped by law in the US in 2015. Natural micro-abrasives, such as salt or sugar are still permitted and pose no threat.
Plastic in Our Water
In our world, plastic has become pervasive. It is everywhere; even in our bottled water. Researchers from the State University of New York at Fredonia tested bottled water. They gathered 259 bottles from 27 lots and 11 brands in 19 locations in 9 different countries. They found an average of 10 plastic particles per liter, each thicker than a human hair.
Impacts to human and animal health
Plastic molecules may be stable, but studies have revealed problems with additives.
BPA (bisphenol A) is added to plastics to make it harder, more stiff. Studies now show BPA leaches into food. In 2003-2004 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found traces of BPA in the urine of 93% of people over the age of 6. The Mayo Clinic has found that BPA may be harmful to the brain and may cause increased blood pressure.
Phthalates increase flexibility in plastics. It may be in plastic film used in packaging, children’s toys, blood storage containers, etc. Research with animals suggests this may adversely affect our reproductive system. Also there may be a link between phthalates and obesity in children.
Plastic Bank, a for-profit company, was started in 2015 in Haiti by David Katz, CEO to help control plastic waste. His company’s collection centers accept plastic waste as currency in return for goods and services. Collectors may receive cash, or credit to an on-line account. The company then sells the plastic to manufacturers as a raw material. This idea is spreading quickly. In 2016 it started in the Phillipines. They are now working on expanding into Brazil, Indonesia, Ethiopia, the horn of Africa and India.
Sweeping the Sea
A group called the Ocean Clean-up is working on a way to take plastics out of the ocean, specifically starting with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. They are working to start this removal this year (mid-2018). They hope to clean-up ½ of the Great Pacific Garbage patch in five years. More information can be found on their website: theoceancleanup.com
What can you do?
So, what can we do about all that plastic? Earth Day Network breaks it down to the five R’s: Reduce, Refuse, Re-use, Recycle and Remove. What does that mean? You’ll see as we go through these that there is some overlap. When we refuse a straw at a restaurant we reduce the amount of plastics we use.
We can reduceour use of plastics, especially of single use plastics. Think – Do I need it? Can I use something else? A re-usable water bottle filled with good spring water, or filtered water perhaps? A re-usable bag taken to the grocery store or farmer’s market? How about waxed paper or waxed bag instead of plastic to carry your lunch sandwich.
Free items of disposable plastic often come with the things we buy. Consider refusingthem. For take out food, use utensils you have at home or bring with you instead of plastic. Also, is all that plastic packaging necessary? When shopping, choose items with less plastic wrapping. Let manufacturers know you want less plastic packaging. Also, choose clothing made with natural fibers instead of nylon and polyester.
In a restaurant you can ask for your drink with no straw. Restaurants may be certified Ocean Friendly by agreeing to only give straws on request, and giving non-plastic (paper) straws when requested. Certification is given by Plastic Ocean Project. See their website for details.
Re-usingitems helps us reduce our use of plastics. I keep a bag of reusable bags in my car. When I shop, I grab as many as I need. When I empty them at home, they go by the door to go with me the next time I go to the car. I travel with a re-usable water bottle and a traveling tea mug. We may also re-use by donating old clothes, dishes, toys, furniture, electronics, etc. Also, food containers from restaurants can often be re-used.
Do you know your local recyclingrules? They vary from one community to the next. Must things be sorted, or do they do that? Are items with food debris OK? What plastics do they take, or not? What do they do with what they collect?
Please also consider closing the loop by buying recycled products. Recycled paper and clothing are readily available. If you don’t see them in local stores, ask for them, and look on-line.
Finally, when we find trash lying around, we may remove it. Pick it up and dispose of it properly so that it doesn’t wash downstream causing problems as it goes. Many organizations sponsor Adopt-a-highway clean-ups in the spring. Find one and participate. Clean up in front of your home or business. Or carry a bag on your next hike and pick up any litter that you see.
You may also support organizations, like The Ocean Clean-up, that are working to clean up the ocean’s garbage patches.
As you see there is a lot that each of us can do to reduce plastic pollution. I hope that you’ll choose to make a difference today. Happy Earth Day.
BBC News. 10 December 2017. “Seven charts that explain the plastic pollution problem.” Online.
Earth Day Foundation. 2018. “Plastic pollution primer and action toolkit.” Online.
The economist. 3 March 2018. “the known unknowns of plastic pollution.”
Gall, S.C. and R.C. Thompson. 2015. “The impact of debris on marine life.” Marine Pollution Bulletin, Vol. 92, Issues 1-2, pp 170-179.
Mason, Sherri A, Victoria Welch and Joseph Neratko. 2018. “Synthetic Polymer Contamination in Bottled Water.” Stat University of New York at Fredonia, Dept. of Geology and Environmental Science.
Film – “A Plastic Ocean”. Plasticoceanfoundation.org.
Shukman, David. 15 March 2018. “Plastic particles found in bottled water.” BBC News. Online.
Film – “Straws”, http://www.strawsfilm.com
United Nations. 5-9 June 2017. “Factsheet: Marine Pollution.” The Ocean Conference. oceanconference.un.org.
UN Environment. 28 March 2018. “Is monetizing waste the secret to ending plastic pollution?” online.