The Perils of Plastic

Twenty-two million pounds of plastic go into the Great Lakes every year. The Great Lakes is the largest freshwater system in the world, but it has been used as a dumping ground. The oceans also are filled with plastic, with 80% of it coming from the land. Plastics break down into small microplastics, which we eat when we consume fish and drink beverages. Lake Erie contains more microplastics than any other of the Great Lakes and more than any other body of water on earth, according to Sherri A. Mason, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and chair of the Department of Geology and Environmental Science at the State University of New York at Fredonia, who spoke at the Cleveland City Club on August 14.

Plastics were created at the turn of the last century, but manufacturing of such products ramped up after World War II. Disposable items became all the rage. The use of disposable items increased over the years and, by 2015, 300 million tons of plastic had been produced. Unlike glass and metal, plastic is moldable, light and durable; however, this durability is a big problem now.

So where does plastic go? A 2012 study found that 8 billion tons of plastic have ended up in the oceans; a 2004 study found that 80% of ocean plastic is coming from the land. Photo-degradation causes plastic to break into smaller and smaller pieces, resulting in microplastics. These tiny particles, which are less than the width of a hair, accumulate in the water. Lake Erie has 230,000 particles/km. Tributaries have an even higher abundance of microplastics.

Even more distressing is how much plastic people are ingesting (see the table below). For example, a survey of bottled-water consumption worldwide found that 93% of the bottles contained plastic contamination and that the contamination from microplastics was anywhere from double to 16 times greater than with tap water! No brands were found to be plastic-free. 

No studies have been conducted on how the consumption of microplastics affects human health; however, it is known that certain plastics are tied to cancer, obesity in children under 6 months of age, increased sperm counts, for example. The best course of action is to err on the side of caution. A United Nations working group rates plastics as the No. 2 worldwide problem, just below climate change.

The real problem, however, is people. People need to stop the flow of plastics into the environment by changing their behavior. Start here: 

  • Reject single-use plastics. Carry your own bamboo utensils for eating on the go.
  • Use a refillable metal water bottle rather than disposable bottles and cups for holding beverages.
  • Bring reusable bags to stores. Advocate for consumer fees on plastic bags provided at stores and that the fees increase over time as a way to encourage the use of reusable bags.
  • Carry your own metal straw if you want to use a straw. Advocate that straws should not be given out with every single drink at restaurants.
  • Decrease the way plastics come into people’s lives. Skipping the straw, the plastic bag and the plastic bottle is important because these three items comprise 65% of the plastic people use. Other ways to curb the use of plastics include the use of crushable toothpaste tablets and carrying your own containers to stores and restaurants.

Efforts aimed at advocating for a ban on microbeads were successful, with the ban going into effect on July 1, 2018. Antilittering campaigns face an uphill battle because so much corporate money is behind bottled water, and cities cannot compete with these businesses.

The development of an infrastructure to collect, market, buy and reuse plastics is a problem that society, as a whole, needs to address.

Granted, plastics are recycled today, but postconsumer plastic often is a combination of so many different kinds of plastics that it is easier to use new material to make plastic items. At the same time, the global market price for recyclables has dropped considerably. Many people are working on making plastics more biodegradable using different processes.

In the end, Mason encouraged the audience to not underestimate the influence of individuals.

Look for more information on plastics in our next newsletter.

–Lorraine McCarty

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