Every day, millions of us purchase and consume items either packaged in plastic or containing plastic. Plastic water bottles, plastic soda bottles, plastic containers for veggies and fruit, plastic soap and shampoo bottles, plastic eating utensils, plastic ‘to-go’ containers, plastic straws, plastic bags to carry our grocery items home, plastic toys and more. There are even micro-plastic beads in our toothpaste and skin scrubs, and microfibers made from plastic to make our fleece jackets warm.
Where does all this plastic come from and more importantly, where does it go?
There are about 300 million tons of plastics produced every year, worldwide, and less than 10% of it is recycled. According to National Geographic (July, 2017), mass production of plastics, which began 60 years 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 in landfills—or worse yet, as litter. And at some point, much of that ends up in our groundwater runoff, river systems, farms, and finally in our oceans, where fish and shellfish eat it. And unfortunately, plastic takes about 400-1000 years to degrade, so much of it still exists.
Some of the worst offenders of this plastic pollution are microfibers from clothing—as in your fleece jacket—which get washed out every time you do laundry and drained into our water systems. Micro-beads, which are added to toothpaste, facial and bath scrubs, travel right down your drain and into sewer systems and wastewater treatment facilities, which clog waterways, and fill up the bellies of fish and other river and sea creatures. According to a this report, around 4500 tons of micro-beads were used in personal care products just from the European Union in 2012, all of which were flushed down the drain. Like microfibers, these tiny balls of plastic are too small to be filtered out of the wastewater systems, and huge quantities end up in the sea.
Besides the fact that all this plastic is being ingested by animals, fish, and other smaller creatures, we humans are also eating plastic—daily. And while we do ingest quite a bit from the fish and other animals we eat, a surprising amount of plastic fiber comes directly from our own homes, floating around the air.
One research team placed Petri dishes next to dinner plates, and a team of researchers found 114 or more pieces of plastic by the end of the meal. It is thought that much of this plastic ends up in house dust. This same study estimates that the average person swallows 68,000 plastic fibers a year just from dust. And just think if you are frequently wear a microfiber jacket, or if you use toothpaste or body wash with plastic beads in it—you’re probably ‘eating’ even more plastic fibers!
Plastic microfibers are found in dust in homes and the air we breathe. These can come from carpet fibers, furniture, clothing, personal care items, blankets and more. By comparison, the researchers measured plastic fibers in mussels and other shellfish, and they calculated that eating this type of seafood would cause someone to ingest around 100 micro-plastic fibers.
However, last August, the results of a study by Plymouth University caused a stir when it was reported that plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish.
Contaminated fish and shellfish have been found everywhere from Europe, to Canada, to Brazil and to China, and plastic-eating fish are now showing up in supermarkets. The question is no longer: are we eating plastic in our seafood? The question is: Just how bad is it for humans to eat plastic?
We don’t really know whether micro-plastics from seafood and other sources are harmful to humans. It is difficult to tell—these micro-plastics are in our air, our water, our food, and our clothing. And plastic doesn’t just come from the obvious sources like plastic bottles and plastic bags. Plastic also exists in the form of pigments, stabilizers, flame retardants, stiffeners, and softeners. Plastics are even in the receipts we are handed at the store.
Many of the chemicals in plastic are endocrine disrupters—they disrupt our normal hormone function, causing weight gain, excess estrogen (which can be cancerous), diminish testosterone, and interfere with blood sugar levels. Some plastics, like those used in flame retardants are very dangerous to babies and children and can actually cause cancer or birth defects.
Plastic ingestion is difficult to study because you cannot actually ask humans to eat plastic for a study, and because plastics are in various stages of breaking down in our environment, their chemical structure is ever-changing, depending on physical environments, chemical contexts and more.
Bottled water is now showing up as containing significant amounts of micro-plastics as well. While most of the water is tested as pure, once it gets inside the plastic bottle, micro-plastics from the bottle are often released into the water. In one test of 259 bottles of water, researchers found at least five out of eleven brands of bottled water to contain micro-plastics—with an average of 325 pieces per liter. Brands that tested highest included Aquafina, Nestle Pure Life, Evian, Dasani, and San Pellegrino. The worst offender was Nestle Pure Life, which contained about 10,000 particles per liter. That’s a lot of plastic and just one more reason to avoid purchasing and drinking water from plastic bottles!
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) is paying attention and will be launching a safety review to assess short- and long-term health risks of micro-plastics. A person who drinks a liter of water a day may be consuming tens of thousands of microfibers in a year. Some of these particles may lodge in the intestines or kidneys, some may end up in the lymph system, some may end up in the liver, gallbladder, pancreas or spleen. And many end up in the bloodstream doing untold harm to the body.
Micro-plastics are increasingly found in our food from all different sources. One recent study looked at 15 different brands of sea salt and found almost 300 micro-plastic particles per pound of salt. Other studies have found similar amounts of micro-plastics in honey, and even beer.
Plastic pollution is not just limited to seafood. It also ends up in our farmland because of water runoff. According to research published in Science of the Total Environment, the annual release of plastics to land is estimated to be four to 23 times greater than that released to oceans.
Many conventional farms now use of sewage sludge as a fertilizer, which contains a large portion of micro-plastics used in homes. These micro-plastics are washed right down our drains and into our sewage. When you account for the vast quantities of sludge application to farmland, the total annual amount of micro-plastics in Europe and North American farmlands is considered to be around 63,000-430,000, and 44,000-300,000 tons of micro-plastics, according to Environmental Science and Technology.
What can we as consumers do about all this plastic? The single use plastic used for packaging, bottles, take-out food, plastic bags and more is one of the biggest problems. Many cities and communities are banning the use of plastic bags in stores, micro-beads in cosmetics and toiletries, and the use of plastic straws. Many plastics don’t biodegrade well, but they do break down in the sun, which causes more tiny pieces and nano-particles to end up in our water supply, our food, and eventually our bodies.
Plastic waste is a global issue of serious proportions and major steps need to be taken to reduce usage of plastics of all kinds. While many plastics do not get recycled, being more conscious of proper plastic recycling techniques in your community will help more plastic to make it to the recycling facility. Refuse to use plastic bags, plastic ‘to-go’ boxes for food, plastic straws, etc. Use a refillable water bottle instead of purchasing water in plastic bottles at the store. Be aware of the plastics in your environment and stop using them. Do not purchase any type of toothpaste, facial scrubs, or other scrubs with micro-plastic beads in them. Don’t purchase or wear fleece clothing.
Environmental organizations like Waterkeeper Alliance, an international water protection organization, are working to reduce plastic pollution from entering the oceans, lakes, and rivers. Nations can enact bans on certain types of plastic, focusing on those that are the most abundant and problematic. Chemical engineers can formulate polymers that biodegrade better than plastics. Consumers can eschew single-use of plastics. Industry and government can invest in better infrastructure to capture and recycle these materials before they reach the water.
Gaining control of our plastic use and waste is a huge global task. We must rethink our plastic chemistry, engineering, and recycling. Being an aware consumer and refusing to purchase items in plastic is a good start to helping curb this huge problem. While studies are still looking at the health impacts of plastics in our food system and in our bodies, doing our best to avoid any type of plastic packaging will be a step in the right direction, and perhaps slow the tsunami of plastic threatening to take over our earth.
If you found this article interesting here is another that will help explain the inherit dangers of plastics and our food.
You’ve probably heard that plastic containers can “leach” chemicals into your drinks, foods, etc, and this has potential dangers to your health… but let’s explore in today’s new blog just how bad this really is, and exactly what you should look for…