Plastics Have Become The Bane Of All Humanity

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Back when America was great, DuPont had a catchy slogan: “Better Things For Better Living…Through Chemistry.” We were all amazed at how chemists could concoct cool new stuff like Teflon or the polyester yarns that made leisure suits so terrific. (If you missed the golden age of leisure suits, consider yourself lucky.)  And who can forget the epic scene in the movie The Graduate in which a neighbor tells young Benjamin Braddock, “I have one word for you, Ben. One word — plastics.”

From that golden age where anything was possible, the world has descended into a living hell of plastic detritus that has totally infiltrated the earth and its oceans. A new study by Orb Media shows that 83% of the earth’s population is drinking water contaminated by plastic particles. Another study from the UN finds that plastic has now infiltrated sea salt available in the UK, France, Spain, China, and the US.

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What it comes down to is that we now live in an environment inundated with plastic waste products. The water that we drink and the food we eat are polluting our bodies with those plastic wastes, many of which are microscopically small. It shouldn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that such contamination is dangerous to all living things. “You are what you eat,” is still the supreme law of existence.

“We have enough data from looking at wildlife, and the impacts that it’s having on wildlife, to be concerned,” said Dr Sherri Mason, a microplastic expert at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who supervised the analyses for Orb. “If it’s impacting [wildlife], then how do we think that it’s not going to somehow impact us?”

Plastics in plankton
This planktonic arrow worm, Sagitta setosa, has eaten a blue plastic fibre about 3mm long. Plankton support the entire marine food chain. Photograph: Richard Kirby/Courtesy of Orb Media

Dr. Anne Marie Mahon at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Ireland, who participated in the Orb Media study, says there are two principal concerns — very small plastic particles and the chemicals or pathogens that microplastics can harbor. “If the fibers are there, it is possible that the nanoparticles are there too that we can’t measure,” she says. “Once they are in the nanometer range they can really penetrate a cell and that means they can penetrate organs, and that would be worrying.” The Orb analyses focused on particles of more than 2.5 microns in size — 2,500 times bigger than a nanometer.

“We are increasingly smothering ecosystems in plastic and I am very worried that there may be all kinds of unintended, adverse consequences that we will only find out about once it is too late,” said Prof Roland Geyer, from the University of California and Santa Barbara, who led the study. Maron adds that plastics are very useful. Among other things, they are essential to keeping food safe during shipping and storage. But she says management of the waste must be drastically improved: “We need plastics in our lives, but it is us that is doing the damage by discarding them in very careless ways.”

How do we cut down on the amount of plastics we consume and discard? Earlier this year, we focused on 8 ways to do precisely that. Recycling is clearly a big part of the answer. In the UK, less than half of all plastic bottles are recycled, but 98% are recycled in Germany. What’s the difference? Germany has a system that pays a small refund for each bottle returned. The UK does not, although it is starting to impose a fee on plastic bags with some success. More biodegradable plastics would also help.

plastic trash on Pacific Islands
Plastic waste washed up on an uninhabited Pacific island.

Like all environmental issues, citizens hold the solution in their own hands. Electing leaders who speak for the environment rather than corporations would be a good place to start. Making choices in our personal lives like using a cloth shower liner instead of one made from plastic is a good idea. Complaining about products swaddled is plastic packaging helps as well.

Running around saying the sky is falling and demanding somebody do something is mostly a waste of breath. Personal responsibility is the one thing that actually could make America — and the rest of the world — great again.

Source: The Guardian

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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