Planet vs. Plastics
7 Big Things I Learned About Plastics That Shocked Me
November 21, 2023
Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to read deeply about the subject of microplastics for an EARTHDAY.ORG report, BABIES VS. PLASTICS. Although I had heard the term before, I couldn’t have told you much about them, aside from the facts that they were in the oceans, and that this was likely very bad. What I learned both surprised and concerned me — not only for the natural environment, but for human beings, too.
Here is a snapshot of my seven big takeaways from EARTHDAY.ORG’s BABIES VS. PLASTICS:
- Microplastics are everywhere — even in the most remote parts of the world. Microplastics are located as high as Mount Everest (29,000 feet above sea level) and as low as the Mariana Trench (about 33,000 feet below sea level). Closer to home for me in Colorado, microplastics have been found polluting the snowpack of the Upper Colorado River Basin, blanketing the Rocky Mountains.
How can this be? Microplastics travel great distances by way of weather patterns. When water laden with microplastics evaporates, those particles are carried to the sky where they form clouds, which move from place to place and culminate in precipitation. That rain carries the microplastics back to the earth, even in places where humans may never have taken a step. Microplastics can also travel thousands of miles via air currents.
- They’re inside of us, too. Scientists used to believe that microplastics, if ingested, would benignly pass through the gastrointestinal tract. However, recent research suggests that the smallest pieces of plastic are able to bioaccumulate in various parts of the body. Bioaccumulation takes place when a body takes in microplastics faster than it can dispose of them. Once bioaccumulation occurs, microplastics have been shown to cross cell membranes, such as the blood-brain barrier (BBB). To date, a mixture of animal and human testing has found microplastics in the gut, heart, lungs, and brain, not to mention urine, feces, and blood. Needless to say — this is not good.
- Once in the body, microplastics can cause a host of health issues, including inflammation, oxidative stress, and endocrine disruption. Chronic inflammation can lead to gastrointestinal issues, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Oxidative stress increases the risk of myriad other diseases later on, including cancer. Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, both commonly found in microplastics, have been shown to contribute to hormone imbalance in humans, which can result in a litany of unwanted symptoms.
- We are force-feeding babies plastics. Many of the products we put in front of babies, like plastic feeding bottles and toys, are leaching microplastics at dizzying levels. Plastic feeding bottles can expose infants to 16.2 million particles per liter, according to a study by Nature Food. Babies have more microplastic in their feces than adults and some of this is almost certainly coming from the toys we give them to chew on. How often those toys are cleaned impacts exposure to microplastics as well. Playgrounds are some of the worst culprits of microplastic particle exposure, owing to something called crumb rubber. Which is actually the plastic from old, used car tires.
- Plastic recycling is a lie. Less than 10% of the plastic produced globally is recycled. Many of us are familiar with the triangle formation found on a plethora of plastic products. This symbol surrounds what are called resin identification codes (RICs), which range from 1 to 7 and serve to identify both what type of plastic is present and how and where it can be disposed of.
We may assume that a plastic marked with one of these resin identification codes will ultimately be recycled. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. Although RICs #1–6 are all technically recyclable, trucks only routinely collect plastics #1 and #2 in curbside recycling bins across the United States. Meanwhile, those marked #3 and #6, deemed “hard to recycle materials,” often require special collection programs. RICs #4 and #5 typically end up in the landfill because they cost more to recycle than companies are willing to pay. RIC #7 is virtually never recycled. Recycling plastics is a dud.
- Plastic producers don’t want to pay; extended producer responsibility, or EPR, is the answer. In brief, EPR is the idea that those who produce a product, such as plastic, ought to be liable for any damages caused by that product. Some version of limited producer responsibility already exists in the form of recalls and personal injury claims, but one problem with the system as it currently stands is that the burden of proof for those harmed can be insurmountably high.
To illustrate this point, consider the case not of plastic, but of mold. Most would assume that mold has been long established as injurious when growing in the home. In Fraser v. 301-52 Townhouse Corporation, a group of former tenants sued their former landlord because they believed that they had sustained breathing problems, rash, and fatigue from mold infestations inside the apartment building in which they had lived. An expert witness testified on behalf of the plaintiffs, arguing for the association between upper respiratory complaints and indoor dampness. The district court and then the Supreme Court of New York both ruled that the burden of proof of causation between mold and respiratory problems had not been met, “reject[ing] the entirety of the plaintiffs’ medical expert testimony” (AMA Journal of Ethics).
But would any of us choose to spend significant amounts of time in a building with known mold infestations, given the choice not to do so? I certainly wouldn’t. I’m betting that the folks at 301-52 Townhouse Corporation wouldn’t either, whether or not they were required to pay damages. By the same token, shouldn’t the producers of plastics bear responsibility for the waste and damage created by those products?
- The pro plastic lobby is well funded, and, like microplastics, they are everywhere. There were 143 of them at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3), convened in Nairobi, Kenya, in November 2023, to negotiate a Global Plastics Treaty. The plastic industry and oil-rich nations who make the primary ingredient for plastics, oil, are fighting back against the creation of a meaningful treaty, insisting on NO production cuts in plastic, NO definitions of chemicals of concern, and NO independent scientific body to study the health implications of plastics and their additive chemicals. We need the Treaty to resist these demands and insist on binding regulations to reduce plastic production around the world; it is time we acknowledge the health risks associated with microplastics and their additive chemicals.
Which is why we need your support — you can assist in the creation of a meaningful treaty by signing the Global Plastic Treaty petition.