The looming threat of plastic pollution is undoubtedly one of mankind’s greatest challenges. More than 381 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide each year,1 and plastic is now found in our soil, lakes, rivers and oceans, as well as in the bodies of humans and wildlife.
According to Environmental Health News,2 “Two-thirds of all plastic ever produced remains in the environment,” which helps explain why tap water, bottled water,3 sea salt4 and a variety of seafood5 all come with a “side order” of microplastic.
Remarkably, while most media attention has been focused on plastic pollution in the ocean, estimates suggest four to 23 times greater amounts are released on land than the ocean by way of biosolid fertilizers.6
A primary problem is the fact that plastic can take up to 1,000 years to break down. Researchers estimate a single plastic coffee pod may take up to 500 years, the duration of the Roman Empire.7 As reported by Environmental Health News, there are health risks associated with each phase in the life cycle of plastic:8
- Fossil fuel extraction results in air and water pollution and a number of other direct effects to communities, such as increased traffic and pipeline construction (more than 99% of plastic comes from fossil fuels)
- Refining and producing plastic resins and additives releases cancer-causing compounds and other toxics, some of which “can be difficult to detect” as they “are colorless and tend to have mild-to-no odor”
- Plastic products and packaging, when in the consumer’s hands, lead to inhaled or ingested toxic and/or plastic particles
- Plastic incineration releases toxic compounds
- The degradation of plastic leads to microplastics getting into people, wildlife, soil and water
Nurdles — A key plastic pollutant
As explained in the featured TED-Ed video by Kim Preshoff, a key plastic pollutant you may never have heard of is nurdles — tiny plastic pellets that form the raw material for plastic products of all kinds. Ranging in size from microscopic grains to millimeter-sized pellets, nurdles are now found in lakes, rivers and oceans across the globe.
As noted in the video, they’re unable to biodegrade, allowing them to persist and accumulate in the environment for generations to come. Being raw material, just how do these pellets get into the environment? It turns out there are countless ways for the pellets to escape, and spills have been found to occur throughout the entire manufacturing chain.
While research is limited, one study9 estimates British production companies lose somewhere between 5 billion and 53 billion pellets per year through accidental spills during production, transport, processing and waste management procedures.
Disturbingly, loopholes in wastewater permits have allowed companies to wash these plastic pellets into waterways for years on end.10 In fact, California is the only U.S. state that regulates plastic pellet pollution specifically.11,12 Alas, understaffing means enforcement is lax.
Nurdles are everywhere
As reported by the Environmental Investigation Agency,13 a shipping accident involving two vessels in 2017 resulted in the spillage of 49 metric tons of nurdles (some 3.4 billion individual pellets) into the sea. An estimated 1,243 miles of South African coastline was subsequently coated with plastic pellets.
Similarly, Hong Kong’s Lamma island was inundated with nurdles in 2012 after a typhoon knocked containers off the shipping vessel.14 According to Danish estimates, nurdles are “the second-largest direct source of microplastic pollution to the ocean by weight.”15
Like so much other ocean trash, the nurdles end up congregating in ocean gyres. There are five gyres around the globe, but the primary collection point for nurdles is the Pacific Ocean gyre, colloquially known as the great Pacific garbage patch.16
In addition to their inability to degrade, nurdles (like other microplastics) act like sponges for toxic chemicals.17 Bird, fish, whales and filter feeding marine life all end up eating these toxic nurdles, which look much like floating fish eggs.
Aside from their toxic influence, nurdles and other plastic bits can cause starvation as they build up in the stomach, tricking the animal into thinking it’s full. Needless to say, microplastics and their toxins build up the higher in the food chain you go, as smaller sea life is consumed by larger predators.
Can we end the cycle of plastic pollution?
How can this toxic cycle be broken? As suggested in the featured video, the best solution would be to eliminate plastics altogether, using a combination of recycling and replacing plastics with paper and glass. Unfortunately, the U.S. is going in the opposite direction, with plans to open more than 300 new plastic factories.18
As reported by Quartz,19 oil and gas companies such as Exxon and Shell are shifting toward plastic production as a way to boost growth as natural gas prices decline. A report20 by the Center for International Environmental Law projects production of ethylene and propylene (used in the production of plastic) will grow by 33% to 36% by 2025.
The report21 also notes that China is “investing heavily in plastics infrastructure,” as is Europe and the Middle East, and that “this massive expansion in capacity could lock in plastic production for decades, undermining efforts to reduce consumption and reverse the plastics crisis.”
Royal Dutch Shell is currently building a new plastics factory just north of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. As explained in the Quartz article:22
“The Shell plant will rely on a process known as ‘ethane cracking,’ where ethane gas, once seen as an unusable byproduct of gas extraction, can be molecularly ‘cracked’ — its carbon and hydrogen atoms rearranged — to form ethylene, the main building block of plastic. When completed, the new facility will pump out 1.8 million tons (1.6 metric tons) of plastic each year.”
You’re eating and inhaling plastic every day
The enormity of the microplastic pollution problem is demonstrated by studies showing the average person is ingesting and inhaling plastic particles on a daily basis. Most recently, a study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and carried out by University of Newcastle, Australia, found people, on average, consume the equivalent weight of one credit card — about 5 grams — of plastic each week.23
Primary ingestion routes are from water and seafood, according to the report.
Other research by the nonprofit journalism organization Orb Media found major bottled water brands like Evian, Aquafina, Dasani and San Pellegrino contained significant amounts of microplastics.24
Similarly, research published in Environmental Science & Technology suggests people drinking bottled water exclusively may ingest more microplastics than those drinking tap water.25
Other recent research26 suggests the average person inhales 11.3 microscopic pieces of plastic each hour. According to co-author Jes Vollertsen,27 “This is the first evidence of human exposure to microplastic through breathing indoor air.”
Plastic particles identified in indoor air include synthetic fibers such as polyester, polyethylene and nylon, and nonsynthetic particles composed of protein and cellulose.28
As in the environment, plastic does not break down in the human body. Many of the chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics are also known to disrupt embryonic development, dysregulate hormones and gene expression, and cause organ damage. They also have been linked to obesity, heart disease and cancer.
So, while researchers claim the health effects of all this plastic in our diet is still unknown, it seems logical to suspect it can wreak havoc on public health, especially younger people who are exposed right from birth.
As Pete Myers, Ph.D., founder and chief scientist of the nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences and an adjunct professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University told Consumer Reports, “There cannot be no effect.”29 Consumer Report adds:30
“There is evidence,31 at least in animals, that microplastics can cross the hardy membrane protecting the brain from many foreign bodies that get into the bloodstream.
And there’s some evidence that mothers may be able to pass microplastics through the placenta to a developing fetus, according to research that has not yet been published but was presented at a spring conference32 at the Rutgers Center for Urban Environmental Sustainability.
According to Myers, some of these microplastic particles could potentially also leach bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates.
[Jodi] Flaws [Ph.D., associate director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Toxicology Program at the University of Illinois] says the particles can accumulate PCBs … linked to harmful health effects,33 including various cancers, a weakened immune system, reproductive problems, and more. And once these chemicals are inside of us, even low doses have an effect.”
US plastic pollution just got a whole lot worse
Plastic is considered cheaper and more convenient than conventional alternatives such as glass, but “cheap” is relative. The true cost of single-use plastic on human and environmental health is astronomical, and the burden of that cost is unevenly distributed.
Some of the world’s largest plastic producers often ship their waste to poorer nations for recycling, such as Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, which have few to no environmental regulations on how that waste is processed and disposed of.
Since 1991, nearly half the world’s plastic waste has been sent to China,34 but as of 2018, China stopped accepting plastic waste imports, saying it no longer wanted to be the “world’s garbage dump.”35 As a result, an estimated 111 million tons of plastic will have nowhere to go by 2030.36
An August 2019 NPR article37 quotes John Caturano, senior sustainability manager for packaging programs at Nestlé Waters North America, “The water bottle has in some ways become the mink coat or the pack of cigarettes. It’s socially not very acceptable to the young folks, and that scares me.”
His comment was delivered during a March 2019 panel meeting between executives from companies making or packaging their products in plastic. The meeting was aimed at figuring out what to do with mounting plastic pollution now that China is no longer accepting U.S. trash.
Can circular economy of plastics save us?
The situation in America is all the more dire due to our failure to implement stronger recycling standards. According to a 2017 analysis,38 a mere 9% of all plastic refuse gets recycled in the U.S. As reported by National Geographic:39
“Mass production of plastics, which began just six decades ago, has accelerated so rapidly that it has created 8.3 billion metric tons — most of it in disposable products that end up as trash …
Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only 9 percent has been recycled. The vast majority — 79 percent — is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter. Meaning: At some point, much of it ends up in the oceans, the final sink.”
While some believe the only way out of this plastic pollution conundrum is to eliminate plastic altogether, others are pushing for better recycling. As reported by NPR:40
“‘Circular economy’ is now a catchphrase that some say is a way out of the plastic mess. The idea is essentially this: Society needs plastic, but people need to recycle a lot more of it and use it again and again and again. That will eliminate a lot of waste and cut down on the avalanche of new plastic made every year.”
However, while companies are making progress when it comes to reusing plastic, a drawback is cost. According to TerraCycle, a New Jersey recycling company featured in NPR’s story,41 using recycled plastic can cost three times that of virgin plastic. The U.S. also does not have enough recyclers to keep up with the onslaught — a side effect of decades of outsourcing to China.
Biodegradable products aren’t all they’re cracked up to be
In recent years, many companies have pledged to address plastic waste by transitioning over to more biodegradable products. Unfortunately, we’re now discovering some of these “green” alternatives are anything but. A perfect example of this are the “biodegradable” and “compostable” bowls and takeout containers now offered by a number of restaurants.
Recent testing42 reveals that while these fiber-based bowls are indeed biodegradable, they’re coated with grease-repelling per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances43,44 (PFAS) — highly toxic chemicals associated with immune dysfunction45 and cancer46,47 that never degrade!
Not only can these chemicals migrate from the container into your food, but believing them to be biodegradable and safe, you might also place them in your compost, thus creating a vicious circle where the chemicals contaminate and ruin the compost, which is then mixed into the soil, where they contaminate the food grown in it. Ultimately, the chemicals end up on your plate again, now inside the food.
According to New Food Economy,48 San Francisco is banning bowls manufactured with PFAS as of January 1, 2020, and Washington’s Healthy Food Packaging Act49 — enacted in 2018 — bans all PFAS in paper food packaging, effective 2022.50 A drawback of the Act is that the ban will not take effect until or unless a safer alternative is commercially available.
How to reduce your plastic exposure
It can be extraordinarily difficult to avoid plastic, and it’s probably not possible to avoid all exposure. However, you can certainly minimize your exposure by taking a few common-sense precautions. One basic strategy is to opt for products sold in glass containers rather than plastic whenever possible. Another is to look for plastic-free alternatives to common items such as toys and toothbrushes. Other suggestions offered by Consumer Reports include:51
- Drinking tap water rather than bottled water — As mentioned, bottled water tends to have far higher amounts of plastic debris than tap water. I would add the recommendation to filter your tap water, not only to get rid of potential plastic debris, but also to avoid the many chemical and heavy metal pollutants found in most water supplies.
- Avoid reheating food in plastic containers — Instead, heat your food in a pot on the stove, an oven-safe pan or a glass container if using a microwave.
- Store foods in glass rather than plastic — Consumer Reports specifically warns against using plastic food containers marked with the recycle codes 3, 6 and 7, as these contain phthalates, styrene and bisphenols.
- Ditch processed foods and takeout for fresh food — Most food wrappers and containers, including cans, contain plastic.
- Vacuum regularly — Microplastic and plastic chemicals are found in most household dust, which can end up being either digested or inhaled. Maintaining your home as dust-free as possible is therefore recommended, especially if you have young children that spend a lot of time on the floor. Ideally, use a vacuum cleaner equipped with a HEPA filter.