By Francis Koster
Imagine an evening (pre-COVID-19) where you take your family out for dinner and order a family meal of fish gumbo filled with clams, shrimp and other delights. You may get more than you expected.
Most of the plastic produced in the world ends up in the water, where it breaks down into invisible but long-lasting pieces that are eaten by wildlife. The bodies of fish, clams, crabs and other aquatic creatures contain plastic they have eaten. The bigger fish eats the small fish, you eat the big fish and you also get a dose of plastic. No charges will appear on your invoice.
If you’ve ordered hot tea for dinner, things could get worse because some tea brands contain plastic in the tea bag, dissolving surprising amounts of invisible microplastics in the hot tea water that ends up in your belly.
At home, as you get ready for bed, brush your teeth and make sure your children brush theirs. You thought you were practicing good sanitation, but some brands of toothpaste contain small bits of plastic to carry color and other chemicals.
Scientists around the world have confirmed that the average person eats or drinks the equivalent of a credit card’s equivalent of tiny invisible plastic particles per week!
The small invisible plastic acts as a sponge to clean in the environment. This sounds good as long as you don’t eat the sponge. When you swallow these invisible pieces of plastic, you carry those poisons into your body.
Not only do you consume plastic, you expel it. One study involved volunteers who donated their human waste for examination. Scientists found 30 pieces of microplastic in each teaspoon of solid waste they examined. The bottom line is that we have an uncontrolled industrial process that is creating a health risk for every citizen on earth.
World plastic production in 2018 was around 100 pounds for every citizen of the world, and the production rate doubles every 11 years. Plastic lasts about 450 years in the environment. There is now so much plastic in the oceans that six floating landfills are so large (and growing) that they are visible to satellites looking down on earth.
A less direct but equally important issue is the contribution of plastics to climate change. In 2019, the production and incineration of plastics was calculated to produce an amount of greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of 189 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.
A major problem is that existing government regulation makes public health protection your problem. This means that a company can do whatever it wants, and once they bought the bottle of water or the bag of salad, they gave you the responsibility to dispose of it so as not to harm others.
For the vast majority of all plastics there is no such method of disposal.
The only current solution is to require that the plastic be made using natural ingredients that can blend into the soil and water without causing damage. No regulation has been put in place to make this happen. Because?
Follow the money.
The source of the current ingredients used to make plastics comes from oil and gas companies. They fear regulation and reduction of oil and gas sales due to climate change regulation, so they are diversifying their product lines into plastic manufacturing.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been working since 2016 to put in place a multinational team of experts to study both the dimension of the problem of plastic pollution and possible solutions. In April 2020, the White House announced the suspension of American contributions and leaving the organization.
You can reduce your family’s plastic intake. Stop buying water in plastic bottles or using take-away plastic cups. Do not microwave foods in plastic containers or place foods wrapped in plastic in boiling water. Use paper bags when shopping.
You can also download an app on your phone that will scan some products and tell you if they contain plastic. Go to www.beatthemicrobead.org
To solve this crisis we need to bring out two different problems. The first is to make people aware of how terrible and fast growing this problem is. The second is to educate others on how the industry has created a situation where they are not held accountable for the type of plastic they produce or the damage it causes.
We have to make the invisible visible.
Francis Koster lives in Kannapolis and is a local activist who has been studying, teaching and implementing local solutions to national problems for over 50 years.