Plastics in our water
Plastic pollution has become an urgent, worldwide problem. The average person now ingests about 100 plastic particles each year from eating shellfish and up to 68,415 plastic fibers each year just from the plastic dust particles landing on their plates during meals. Tap water, bottled water and sea salt also come with a “side order” of microplastics.
Many of the chemicals used to make plastics disrupt hormones, embryonic development and gene expression, and are linked to obesity, heart disease and cancer.
Marine animals are also gravely affected. Microbeads, tiny plastic pellets that consumer product industries put in body washes, facial scrubs and toothpaste, now fill the bellies of sea animals and act as a sponge for other toxins. The death toll grows.
The Bane of Microbeads
In 2008, researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney showed that tiny plastic particles don’t simply pass through sea creatures unnoticed, as was once thought. Using mussels as an example, the study revealed that ingested microplastics first accumulate in the gut but, within three days, travel to the circulatory system where they remain for more than 48 days.
According to a 2016 National Geographic report, as many as 4,360 tons of microbeads were used in personal care products sold in the European Union in 2012, all of which were flushed down drains and ended up in waterways. One-third of the fish caught in the English Channel contain microbeads, as do 83 percent of scampi sold in the U.K.
Microfibers from clothing also seriously contribute to plastic pollution. When they are released into waste water systems during washing, the irregular shape of these plastic particles renders them more difficult for marine life to excrete than other microplastics. In addition to physical blockages and chemical poisoning, microfibers consumed by marine life can cause the animals to feel artificially full, eat less and ultimately starve to death.
All Types of Plastic Pollute the Oceans
Microplastic is the worst kind of plastic, says oceanographer Laurent Lebreton, who appears in the documentary because it can, and does, invade the entire food chain from honey and beer to bottled water, tap water and salt. A big challenge in containing plastic damage is keeping the larger plastic pieces from degrading into microplastics says Lebreton.
Approximately half of the plastic in the Great Pacific garbage patch is fishing nets says Lebreton, displaying the unsightly clusters to the camera. In the middle of the clusters are massive “knots” of plastic twice or three times the size of beach balls which, despite their heft, are able to float.
Finding production codes on the plastic debris is useful in understanding their source and their behavior, says Lebreton, noting that one piece of plastic debris The Ocean Cleanup has collected has a production code from the 1970s.
Another piece of plastic that Lebreton displays for the camera, the size of a baseball, had been in the ocean so long, coral had wrapped around it. Yes, plastic is actually changing the ecostructure of oceans.
Harm to Animals
Many colorful plastics are thought by marine life to be “food” says Lebreton in the documentary, and he displays plastic pieces with teeth marks where animals have pathetically sought to “feed” and ended up with bodies full of plastic.
Lest anyone doubt the harm ocean plastic is wreaking on marine life, employees in the documentary are shown a videotaped autopsy of a sea turtle. Sure enough, as it is sliced open, plastic bags and other plastic objects are retrieved from the turtle’s body –– greasy, black and lethal to the turtle being autopsied.
“This is 30 seconds of what was a four-hour autopsy” of four turtles, explains an Ocean Cleanup employee who was involved with the autopsy. “When we opened them up, the conditions were awful,” and all the cases of their deaths “were related to plastic.” “You are not just here for what the world says, you are here to save animals and they will thank you for that,” he concludes to applause.
Beyond Cleanup –– Plastic Use Itself
For years I have suggested that plastics should not be single-use and that people should recycle more. The truth is, recycling has been a dismal failure, especially in the U.S. Even as the realities of plastic pollution loom larger than ever, recycling rates remain disappointing in the U.S. and much of the world.
In the U.S., nearly 260 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) are generated annually, but only 90 million tons of this MSW are recycled or composted, making up a recycling rate of close to 35 percent. That’s down from 37 percent in 1995. In other words, even though plastic production and pollution are way up, recycling is less common than it was 24 years ago.
Even though most plastic water and soda bottles are made from highly recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET), most such bottles end up littering oceans and landfills because people fail to recycle them. The Guardian reported that fewer than half of the plastic bottles purchased in 2016 were recycled, and only 7 percent were made into new bottles.
In contrast, Norway recycles up to 97 percent of its plastic bottles, the spoils of an environmental tax that plastics producers in the country must pay if they don’t reach a recycling target of 95 percent or more. Producers who meet the target recycling rate do not have to pay the tax, which most accomplish by attaching a deposit of about 15 to 30 cents to every plastic bottle.
Reverse vending machines are found all over Norway, in schools, grocery stores and more, making it easy for consumers to bring their plastic bottles back for recycling and the return of their deposit.
The Spin of Plastic Manufacturers Should Be Ignored
Plastic manufacturers tout the merits of plastics in helping food to stay fresh longer, travel longer distances and avoid contamination but environmentalists know that a better solution is that people buy “local,” purchase sensible amounts of food that don’t go to waste and use reusable containers in home fridges to avoid disposable plastics.
In the U.S., the idea of attaching deposits to plastic bottles has been suggested but lobbied against by manufacturers who worry the increase in price could affect their sales. Even in areas where bottle return centers have been built, like California, they haven’t been widely frequented, and in fact have dwindled in numbers by 40 percent over the last two years.
Certainly, properly recycling plastics, and better yet, opting for items that are not sold in plastic containers to begin with, refusing straws and bottled water, and using refillable bottles and coffee mugs are simple ways to reduce plastic pollution. Nor has The Ocean Cleanup’s project ignored the problem of recycling existing plastic objects, observes Fast Company.
“The long-term plan is to recycle all the plastic collected into items like car bumpers, chairs and eyewear, and for companies to sponsor each boom with prominent logos. That will help defray the cost, he says. It’s a fail-proof, wonderfully imaginative, scheme. We’ll just have to hope it’s as seaworthy as Slat imagines.”
Addressing Food Plastics Is Not Enough
Luckily, many are now aware of the harm of plastic bags, plastic containers, plastic straws and bottled water. Many are now using refillable bottles and coffee mugs are other simple ways to reduce plastic. Still, fewer people are aware of the significant harm to our oceans from the microfibers in their clothing.
People may believe by avoiding plastic food-related items they have done all they can to help with plastic pollution without looking at their clothing at an important source of plastic pollution. For example, a synthetic jacket may release up to 2.7 grams (250,000 microfibers) with each washing. Wastewater treatment plants filter 65 percent to 92 percent of microfibers, which isn’t enough to prevent environmental pollution.
One “solution” to the microfiber pollution problem would be to install filters in washing machines — similar to lint traps in dryers — that could catch the fibers prior to them being released with the wastewater. The problem with this solution, however, is what becomes of the microfibers when they’re disposed of in landfills? Clearly the plastic pollution problem persists.
One logical solution is not to add to the problem by buying bottled water.
A purifier pays for itself in a few months compared to the cost of bottled water so it just makes sense. Especially if the purifier makes better quality water than can be found in any bottle.