Beware the Plastics…

I’ve been doing lots of reading recently about the diverse negative effects of using single-use plastic items. Things I used to not think about, from taking a plastic bag from the grocery store, or using a plastic fork at a taco truck, have detrimental effects, not just on the environment, but, ultimately, on the human population of our planet as a whole.

So I learned more, and more and more. And the more I learned, the more horrified I was, and the more motivated I was to change my ways. I wanted to put what I know, and what other experts know, into an article that details why throw-away plastic is such a negative thing in the hopes that you all will make different choices also. Together, we can make a positive impact on our planet.

First, we need to understand what the landscape looks like now.

Plastics constitute the majority of marine litter, hovering somewhere between 60-80% of the litter at any given time. It is found throughout the marine environment: floating on the surface, throughout the water column, on the seafloor, and stranded on the shoreline. Plastic debris is even being found in places unoccupied by humans. The lightweight yet sturdy nature of plastics allow them to be shifted by ocean currents from place to place. Plastic and other garbage is tending to accumulate in the oceanic gyres, which are like swirling vortexes of accumulated trash. The Great Pacific Garbage patch is located between the U.S. and Asia and is as far away from land as you can possibly get, yet it is twice the size of Texas, and composed of human garbage.

Sea animals, from turtles to fish to dolphins to whales to sea birds, often mistake microplastics (tiny fragments of partially degraded plastic) for food. Microplastics have a larger surface area than macroplastics, and therefore both absorb and secrete larger quantities of dangerous chemicals, like DDT, BPA, pthalates, and other additives that are harmful for any living thing. These toxins increase up to 10-fold when ingested, meaning that if a small fish eats some plastic, then a bigger fish eats that fish, then I eat that fish, I’ve ingested 1000x more toxins than the original fish.

A study released by the CDC indicated that 93% of us have BPA in our bodies. BPA and pthalates have been linked to hormone disruption, cancer, diabetes, and allergies, just to name a few. Disturbingly, these chemicals are often present in products marketed for children, such as toys, and food containers.

The situation on land is not much better. 32 million tons of plastic waste was generated in 2011 in the US, representing 12.7% of total municipal solid waste. 14 million of those tons were plastic containers and packaging, 11 million tons were “durable” goods (I use quotes, because their obsolescence is still planned) such as appliances, and 7 million tons were nondurable goods, like plates and cups and cutlery. Only 8% of the total plastic waste generated in 2011 was recovered for recycling. The resin identification coding system for plastic, represented by the little numbers with the triangle on the bottoms of containers, was introduced by the plastics industry. This symbol has almost no regulation surrounding it, and, to top it off, most facilities are not equipped to recycle plastics #3-7, mostly because there’s not as much of a global market for non-PET/HDPE plastics. Contrary to popular belief, just because a plastic product has the resin number in a triangle does not mean it is collected for recycling. Recycling plastic is often very problematic. It’s expensive, and not as efficient as recycling aluminum or glass. It also involves adding additional chemical plasticizers and/or strengtheners to the recycled material, making it that much more unsafe for any living beings.

Finally, the fact hit me that really made my jaw drop: Conservative estimates state that plastic takes 450-500 years to biodegrade. That means that every single piece of plastic that has ever been produced is still around.

These were the things that made me realize I needed to write this article. I do not want plastic or plastic chemicals in my body, and I assume a lot of you feel the same way. I cannot continue to harm other animals through sheer negligence. It was time to talk to some experts, so I started frantically emailing people who knew more about our disposable plastic problem. Both of them were nice enough to not only respond, but to give me some time with them on the phone, and to provide their time, passion, and insight.

(If I don’t get a chance to say it any place else, THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU to Beth and Dianna who contributed. This article would not be the same without your expertise and your passion.)

To get started, I interviewed Beth Terry, author of Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too and, for information and tips about how we can all change our habits to create a positive impact on our oceanic landscape. She had a great perspective on how one person can change not only personal habits, but affect the habits of those around us as well.

Her inspiration for a plastic-free life came from an article in Men’s Health called “Our Oceans Are Turning Into Plastic…Are We?” which had an accompanying picture of a dead sea bird, its belly full of plastic bottle caps, cigarette lighters, and tooth brushes. That picture is still part of what keeps her motivated to live plastic free. Now, with a high-traffic blog, a successful book, and a TEDx talk, just to name a few, on her resume, she feels inspired by other people who choose to live this way, and feels responsible to help humanity kick the plastic habit.

In the past six years of living plastic-free, Beth estimates that she has personally saved somewhere between 700-1000 lbs of plastic from entering the oceans or landfills by choosing not to buy it or use it. If everyone in my town alone chose this lifestyle, that would mean saving somewhere between 10 and 15 million lbs of plastic from entering the ocean or landfills each year. I’ve been having trouble figuring out where to get started on my path to a carbon footprint of 0, and Beth said she started her mission to live plastic free by collecting all her plastic waste for a week, then seeing what she used the most of and finding alternatives for those items. To-go boxes, straws, cups, and plastic bags were at the top of the list, so those are the things she always carries reusable alternatives for.

Beth emphasizes that people, by choosing to live differently themselves, have a larger impact by enabling those around them to make more eco-conscious choices, and by influencing corporate decision-making. Corporations spend ungodly amounts of money trying to figure out how people think so that they can market products to us. If we change our thinking, they will change their products and policies too.

Beth’s 2008 campaign to force Clorox to take back Brita water filters for recycling in the US is proof! They already had a recycling program in Europe, they just didn’t introduce it here automatically because the demand was not there. “Clorox didn’t think Americans cared about recycling,” Beth explained. “16,000 signatures later they changed their tune.” As soon as consumers got organized and started to be loud about it, they changed their ways and implemented the recycling program here. I asked Beth if there were any other corporations on her radar who could change their ways to help reduce plastic pollution, and she responded with a resounding “TRADER JOE’S!”. They do seem to wrap everything in plastic, and although their food is “healthier” for you in a lot of ways, it is all about convenience, and convenience=plastic! The food becomes much less healthy when it’s full of chemicals from its packaging! Yuck!

We all know that plastic consumption is dangerous for our planet, but it is dangerous for us too! Beth emphasized that BPA, phthalates, dioxins, and other additives in plastics leak into food and contaminate human bodies. With the recent craze about BPA, which has been linked to everything from hormone disruption, to cancer, to gender neutrality, it’s easy to think that a plastic product that is labeled as “BPA Free” is safe. Unfortunately there are so many chemicals and additives in plastic, it’s impossible to know which plastics are safe and which ones are not. PVC plastic (#3 resin code) has the highest content of toxic chemicals, according to Beth.

Despite all the evidence that the damage humanity has done to the planet might be permanent, Beth believes that if we all change our ways now, all of this can be reversed. She says, “I have to believe that it’s possible, or else I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.”

Beth recommended I speak with Dianna Cohen, from the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Dianna was so informed and so passionate and so helpful! She and I started by talking about these supposedly “biodegradable” plastics. I had my doubts about the possibility of a biodegradable plastic from my own research, but Dianna said she’s been doing her own home tests to see if these products will biodegrade in a composting environment. Not one of them has lived up to their claims so far. “Advertising is loosely regulated in the US.” Dianna explained, “Those water bottles from Dasani that say they are made of up to 30% plant material are usually closer to 1-2% plant material. And even that doesn’t make any difference if the plant-based plastic doesn’t biodegrade.” Plastics made from plants are often made from GMO corn or other GMO vegetables, exposing the consumer to even MORE chemicals.  They often require a low pH, hot composting environment to biodegrade. Oceans do not provide this type of environment, nor do most household composting efforts.

I asked if she thought that labeling plastics with exactly what’s in them would make a difference. Dianna said she thinks we are getting to that point, particularly when it comes to plastics that come into contact with food. We, as consumers, have a right to know exactly what we are buying, and how it will affect us. We have surgeon general’s warnings on tobacco and alcohol…why not plastics? They are linked to things like cancer, and hormone disruption, the same things that require labeling of other products. Why wouldn’t we label plastics?

The simple answer is lots of money and careful lobbying. The ACC (American Chemistry Council) and SPI (Society of the Plastics Industry) have spent lots of money to make you think not only that plastic itself is safe, but that the foods and beverages contained in plastic are safe also, despite the mound of evidence that is accumulating to the contrary. “I have to ask, when I order a drink in a reusable cup, that they not put a plastic straw in my drink.” Dianna always carries a reusable stainless steel straw with her, and has friends who use glass ones. You can find a link to a site that sells reusable stainless steel straws on my “Eco Resources” section of this blog. Even canned foods have a plastic lining, that contains BPA, among other dangerous additives. All these additives are very weakly bonded to the plastics, which means they are readily leached into food. Surely, we consumers at least have a right to know that these things are there. Dianna emphasized that plastics are now a part of our food at every step of the way, from plastic films used to deter pests and keep the soil warm in farming, to plastic liners for large containers of foods, to consumer packaging.

And what about water? Bottled water has an enormous carbon footprint, not only because of the disposable nature of the plastic bottle itself, but also because of fossil fuels used to transport the water to the consumer. In addition, flats of plastic bottles are usually wrapped in MORE PLASTIC!

Water quality varies enormously depending on what kind of socio-economic environment you are in. Dianna shocked me when she said “Some of my friends who live less than 4 miles away from me have water that comes out of the tap brown. It is not safe for them to drink and they don’t. If something like that happened here, in Hollywood, people would go nuts.” It’s hard to believe if you live in a place with clean, safe tap water that these kind of conditions exist in this country, but they do. And these conditions force people to buy “safe” bottled water, which has all kinds of other things in it that can make you sick. Water readily accepts chemicals from the plastic containers it comes in, exposing unsuspecting consumers to a cocktail of carcinogens and hormone disruptors. It appears to me, that the plastics industry is creating their own market by disenfranchising people and forcing them to buy bottled water by making them believe it is safe.

After talking for about half an hour, Dianna suddenly stopped, and asked “Why are you doing this?” I thought I knew, but it didn’t really come to me until we talked. I am writing and reading and seeking these things because I saw the harm I was doing to myself, to marine animals, to my planet, and I just can’t do it anymore. Change is coming, and I want to be part of the solution. Though this issue is vast, and complex, a can of worms of sorts, I want to continue to learn about the problems with plastic, so that I can address them.

Dianna laughed, and said, “Welcome to the can of worms!”

So then, we talked solutions. Public policy has to lead the way on single-use plastic reform, but that has to start with us: the public. Whenever you can, Dianna encourages everyone to DIY (Do it Yourself) or BYO (Bring Your Own)! If you’re craving cookies, make them. If you do eat out, use a reusable container for leftovers. There are some stainless steel take-out containers available now, you can find the link on my “Resources” section. The information and public opinion of single-use plastic bags has led to state- city- and even country-wide bag bans all over the world, including her native LA recently. “Progress is great, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.” Dianna believes “more progress is coming.” I sure hope so!

After being so inspired and motivated by all this new information, my question became “What can I do about this? How can I choose to be part of the solution?”  Here is a (by no means complete!) list of some things we can all do to help alleviate the pressure we’re putting on the environment:

  • BRING YOUR OWN. Get in the habit of carrying a reusable bag or two, a reusable take-out container, a reusable straw, a reusable cup/water bottle, etc. This is the hardest part, is getting started, but once you do you’ll wonder how you ever created so much waste for the sake of convenience before.
  • DROP BOTTLED WATER. Not only does it have a super high carbon footprint, but it’s just not good for you. It’s not necessarily better water; more often it is just purified municipal water. Get a water filter, like a Brita, and you can produce the same, if not higher, quality water at home!
  • SAY NO TO #3-7 PLASTICS. They are just not as recyclable. If you must buy plastic, be sure it’s a #1 or 2 resin (PET or HDPE).
  • SUPPORT LEGISLATION THAT REDUCES OUR DEPENDENCE ON PLASTIC. Whether that’s a bag ban, or restrictions on additives, or whatever other creative solutions law makers come up with, it doesn’t get anyone anywhere if you don’t vote for it!
  • SUPPORT NON-PROFITS WHO ARE WORKING TO CLEAN UP OUR MESS! We made the mess, after all. Surely we can support the folks cleaning it up, whether you donate money or your time.
  • SHOP IN BULK, WITH REUSABLE CONTAINERS. You’ll save money, and resources. Processed food is usually the most packaged, so doing this will also force you to eat more raw, whole, and un-processed foods, which will keep you healthy. Shop locally whenever possible.
  • DON’T GET DISCOURAGED. Although the situation may look bleak right now, any mess we have the power to make we have the power to clean up. I encourage everyone to get creative in thinking of ways to clean up our oceans. Progress is happening everywhere, every day. We need only participate and support it to see it realized.
    “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford

I hope all of this inspires you the way it did me. We simply cannot continue to live in a throw-away culture and economy. In the long haul, it will be better for everyone and every living thing if we learn to live in harmony with our planet.


Plastic Waste: Ecological and Human Health Impacts

Environmental Risks of Microplastics

EPA Information on Plastics

Beth Terry’s Blog: My Plastic Free Life

Plastic Pollution Coalition