by Liz Clift
This year, Earth Day (April 22nd) falls on a Sunday. This year, Earth Day is focused on plastic pollution. Plastics take many different forms—ranging from drinking straws and Styrofoam to mattresses and medical supplies to cigarette filters and shopping bags, and many more items we use on a regular basis. Since plastic is such an ubiquitous part of life, it’s sometimes easy to forget that plastic was invented just over a century ago in 1907.
Since then, we’ve produced 9.1 billion tons (8.3 metric tons) of non-recycled plastic. 5.5 billion tons of that has accumulated in landfills and the natural environment—and it’s estimated this amount will more than double by the year 2050 if current trends continue. The primary culprit in the increased plastic production is the rise of plastic packaging—in 2015, packaging made up 42 percent of the non-fiber plastic produce and composed 54 percent of the plastics thrown away.
This is part of what’s behind the various campaigns to reduce plastic consumption—ranging from plastic shopping bag bans (which, at least in some areas, is linked to increased rate in Hepatitis A outbreaks since those experiencing homelessness used these plastic bags to dispose of waste), plastic straw bans, and other single-use plastic restrictions or bans. And, it’s not just municipalities or countries enacting these bans. The BBC, which helped highlight the problem of plastic pollution through Blue Earth II has plans to eliminate all single-use plastics from its operations by 2020.
These efforts are not for nothing. The World Economic Forum estimates that by the year 2050, plastics will outweigh fish in the oceans. If you’ve ever done a beach—or a roadside or stream or playground—clean-up, you probably noticed that most of the things you picked up were plastic or plastic-lined. You’ve likely heard about the great Pacific garbage patch (now three times the size of France or a bit more than twice the size of Texas)—but did you know that there are five massive patches of marine plastics?
Birds, and other animals, can be harmed by these plastics. Birds may peck at plastics or swallow them whole. If you’ve ever done a clean-up and found a plastic product that looks like it has bite-marks all over it, this is likely from a bird pecking at it. Whales have washed up with bellies full of plastic. Turtles can become tangled in plastic causing them to die or grow deformed.
In addition, researchers have begun to find plastic in our food supply as well—and while this field is still new, and understudied, it may be a cause for concern since plastics contain known human carcinogens. One study indicated that consumption of shellfish means that an “average” European shellfish eater consumes 6,400 microplastics (defined in this study as smaller than one millimeter) each year. Other studies have found microplastics—which may be less than 150 micrometers, or roughly the width of a human hair—in tap and bottled water, sea salt, honey, and beer. This means that not only do we have little idea about the health implications of consuming plastic—we also don’t know much about how much plastic we’re consuming or the impacts of plastic-pollution as it moves through various trophic levels (i.e. – that salmon you ate is a predatory fish and accumulated toxins from things it ate before it was captured, through a process known as bioaccumulation).
Not only are plastics in so many products and foods we use daily, plastics can also pose problems when they are “biodegradable.” Biodegradable plastics (as opposed to other biodegradable products made without petroleum) create “fragments” of plastic more quickly than other plastics. These fragments can quickly deteriorate to microplastics, which can be harder to identify and clean up—in some cases you’d need a microscope to even see them. In other words, “biodegradable” plastic products may simply be another type of greenwashing—so, whenever possible, do your research and figure out if the product you’re considering buying—or putting in your compost pile—is truly biodegradable or not. By being an informed consumer, you can make choices that help reduce the plastic stream.
So, what else do we do?
There are a number of things you can do to both help clean-up plastic and reduce your plastic consumption. Here are a few:
All this week we’ll be posting more information about plastics on our social media—so be sure to check us out on Facebook and Twitter, if you don’t already follow us.