As we have learned, when one-sided information is presented it is often distorted. In fact, plastic pollution from microplastics is known to be problematic and there is plenty of documentation to prove it. Furthermore, plastic is not a food, it is man-made from synthetic chemicals that have zero nutritional value, though we all eat it. Those facts are reason for concern, questioning and further research - not downplaying, diminishing or dismissal of the issue.
I was astonished to read the December 9th SCRATCH article on microplastics in the NYTimes. It was in the Business section and had a sole source weigh in - one with industry-ties and no other views. I was disappointed that my criticism wasn't published, so I am posting it here.
To start, I am the founder and Executive Director of MADE SAFE, a nonprofit organization and program of Nontoxic Certified. We use an Ecosystem Approach to assess data, both real and modeled, in order to determine if ingredients, inputs and/or manufacturing processes are harmful to humans, soil, sediment, air, water, aquatic or terrestrial life. Using this rigorous, scientific approach we can determine or anticipate problems in substances and goods before products are brought to market. I also write about how chemicals impact our lives for Moms Clean Air Force.
The premise of the article says microplastics are everywhere, which is true. What it downplays significantly is that many scientists, doctors and agencies around the globe also see this as a problem.
The Endocrine Society, a global community of doctors and scientists studying the impacts of endocrine-related issues, says that "many common plastics contain and leach hazardous chemicals, including Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, that are harmful to human health. These chemicals disturb the body’s hormone systems and can cause cancer, diabetes, reproductive disorders, neurological impairments of developing fetuses and children, and death."
Some describe the age we live in as the Plasticene Era, since plastic is ubiquitous and is expected to leave a mark in the fossil record. Plastic is a man-made chemical that has been proliferating since the 1950s. Unlike other things left on the earth, however, plastics are not found in the natural cycle as are, say, bones or even dander from pets, or microscopic bits of skin. (Those last two are casually compared in the article, which appears to be a poor attempt to link them.) While microscopic bits of plastic are indeed found in household dust, this fact should not normalize its presence or imply that it's therefore acceptable.
Plastics, and the microplastics they shed, do not readily degrade in the environment and are not of value to the natural system in any way. Plastics and microplastics are voluminous pollutants. They pollute the environment when they are made, again when they are used, and continue to do so as they degrade.
For example, a simple thing like a plastic bag will take around 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill, if it makes it there. Along the way, it will slowly release microscopic bits of plastic and leach chemicals that impair other necessary microorganisms and bacteria. In 2019, when the World Wide Fund for Nature commissioned the study with the University of Newcastle in Australia, the findings were the first to quantify how much plastic we might be ingesting: ~5 grams/week, ~21 grams/month, or just over ~250 grams/year from 2,000 microplastics. Marco Lambertini, WWF International Director General, said “these findings must serve as a wake-up call to governments. Not only are plastics polluting our oceans and waterways and killing marine life - it’s in all of us and we can’t escape consuming plastics. Global action is urgent and essential to tackling this crisis.”
When put through the Ecosystem Approach, plastics and their additives are found problematic on a number of accounts. Their longevity is an environmental hazard. Their chemical additives can be toxic to biological systems. Their properties for absorption, where they can take up other toxins in the environment and carry them into our food chain, is also an issue. Many plastics and plasticizing chemicals are known to be endocrine active (or are called EDCs), which means they are endocrine disrupting chemicals that pray on our own hormone systems and cause harm ranging from neurodevelopmental issues to fertility problems to cancers.
In 2020, a group of researchers gathered to assess some of the potential worst harms from plastics. The authors emphasize the most toxic and dangerous substances in plastic products, which is an opening salvo for the potential impacts and where to focus future research. It’s worthy of a read for anyone interested. But until we have more human studies, we must rely on what evidence we have in the real world and in the animal species.
When birds eat plastics it sits in their bellies taking up space that should go to food. Eventually they die, and autopsies/dissections display the plastic feast that was the cause of death. It happens with small and big animals alike. Consider the whales found dead and filled to the brim with plastics – most likely cause of death: plastics.
While the SCRATCH article says that the concentrations we humans are ingesting are “very, very low,” I disagree. One hundred years ago we did not eat any plastic particles. Now it’s so pervasive we eat over 250 grams a year. Plastic is not a food. There are only chemicals in plastic. There is no nutritive value in plastic. Eating any plastic should be cause for alarm.
Looking at bird populations we see why it’s problematic. According to the Ocean Blue Project, an estimated one million birds die annually as a result of plastic. They report that over 80% of seabirds now have plastic in their stomachs, up 75% since the 1960s. Plastics found in their stomachs can lead to starvation, as the plastic hogs up the space and crowds out room for food.
The SCRATCH article asserts “we need to understand a lot more before we call it a horror film,” and says that the media insinuates that plastic is “evil” saying again that “plastic serves a purpose.” The article says that “shifting away from plastic altogether would be a problem.” I acknowledge that we are very dependent on plastic at this point. However, while the US may still be betting on plastics, the EU and others recognize our dependance on plastics as problematic, and have named the imperative to change and appreciate the opportunity that such change presents.
While we may not yet know every way that these plastics are impacting humans or the environment, we know enough to take action, to reduce, switch and recycle. But do not fall for the lazy argument that recycling alone is the answer. Especially with plastics, which often can’t be recycled (and also degrade when they are recycled), the obvious answer is to reduce your use of the material.
Plastics pollution is being committed on a catastrophic scale. While that may seem too big for them to fail, it is exactly the reason why they deserve a deeper look, more research, and less use. I do not think it is the Star Trek model pointed out by the article, or that “as a species we have to get better at our ability to handle waste.” It is more that as a species we need to work within the natural cycle we have forever evolved alongside. If we don’t adopt a broad assessment of reviewing chemicals before widespread use, we will continue to find our air, water, soil, our animals and ourselves, contaminated with unwanted chemicals - perhaps with terribly unwanted impacts.
There is a problem with pretending that persistent plastic pollutants are not harmful. It takes away from the real conversation that is needed, which is what do we do about it and how do we protect ourselves? I am confident that with focus, ingenuity, intention and innovation, industry can help.
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