Hid­den dan­ger that may force us to tackle plas­tic ‘apoc­a­lypse’

Western Daily Press (Saturday) - - WDP 2 -

SU­SAN Gold­berg wrote in a Na­tional Geo­graphic ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled, ‘The Plas­tic Apoc­a­lypse’: “It’s hard to get your head around the story of plas­tic. The facts and fig­ures are so stag­ger­ing as to seem al­most fan­tas­ti­cal.”

She quoted some dis­turb­ing facts couched in ques­tions: “Can it re­ally be true that half the plas­tic ever made was pro­duced in the past 15 years? That a tril­lion plas­tic bags are used world­wide each year, with an av­er­age ‘work­ing life’ of just 15 min­utes? And that es­ti­mates for how long plas­tic en­dures range from 450 years to for­ever?”

To il­lus­trate the im­pact of the last ques­tion, the fol­low­ing anec­dote was de­liv­ered by Laura Parker: “If plas­tic had been in­vented when the pil­grims sailed from Ply­mouth to North Amer­ica – and the Mayflower had been stocked with bot­tled wa­ter and plas­tic-wrapped snacks – their plas­tic trash would likely still be around, four cen­turies later”.

I think Su­san Gold­berg got it spo­ton: we find it al­most im­pos­si­ble to get our heads around the plas­tic scourge fac­ing earth’s en­tire ecosys­tem. The num­bers quoted above

What has of­ten seemed a dis­tant prob­lem is now in­side our bod­ies, says Mario Du Preez, an en­vi­ron­men­tal econ­o­mist liv­ing in Ex­eter

re­main just that, mere num­bers. For many of us, I be­lieve it re­mains a dis­tant prob­lem, a pe­riph­eral one, one to be faced or dealt with by an ex­ter­nal en­tity, maybe govern­ment, plas­tic pack­ag­ing pro­duc­ers or su­per­mar­ket chains.

Ev­ery now and again we are re­minded of the prob­lem. We are shown beaches in­un­dated with plas­tic flot­sam and jet­sam, seals wrapped in plas­tic cord, fish en­tan­gled in plas­tic fish­ing line, and seabirds with plas­tic straws lodged in their throats. Na­tional Geo­graphic mag­a­zine even has a pho­to­graph show­ing a sea­horse off the coast of the In­done­sian is­land of Sum­bawa us­ing a plas­tic cot­ton swab, in­stead of nat­u­ral de­bris, to ride the cur­rents. Th­ese pho­to­graphs af­fect our most ba­sic hu­man in­tegrity. Some of us even shed a tear. It is hoped th­ese scenes will spur us into ac­tion, but I am afraid many of us soon for­get.

Some ob­servers may ar­gue that this is a new prob­lem. Not so fast… Prince Charles raised this very ques­tion in a speech in 1970. He re­ferred to the per­ils of “in­de­struc­tible plas­tic con­tain­ers”.

But to be fair, yes, we try to do our bit – we re­cy­cle plas­tic, we re-use shopping bags, we buy loose fruit and veg­eta­bles (in­stead of the plas­tic-wrapped ones), and some of us have even sub­sti­tuted clothes made from syn­thetic fi­bres with ones made from nat­u­ral fi­bres.

All th­ese ac­tions are very com­mend­able, but two un­com­fort­able ques­tions re­main: are we do­ing enough to stem the plas­tic tide (in a col­lec­tive sense) and, if not, what will get us to this point? The an­swer to the first ques­tion is an un­equiv­o­cal no. For ex­am­ple, the Chan­cel­lor has de­layed the in­tro­duc­tion of a levy on vir­gin plas­tic by three-and-ahalf years. In re­sponse, plas­tic re­cy­clers have ar­gued that this move will stall re­cy­cling. This is only one ex­am­ple of our dither­ing re­solve!

I sus­pect the an­swer to the lat­ter ques­tion has presented it­self in the form of a re­cent sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery. Researchers, led by Philipp Sch­w­abl, from the Med­i­cal Univer­sity of Vi­enna, have found tiny mi­croplas­tic pieces (par­ti­cles un­der 5mm long) in the di­ges­tive sys­tems of peo­ple around the world. Plas­tic pol­lu­tion has now spread to our guts. More specif­i­cally, the researchers found 20 mi­croplas­tic pieces, on av­er­age, in 10g of bod­ily waste. The most com­mon cul­prits were polypropy­lene and poly­eth­yl­ene tereph­tha­late, which are fre­quently found in cloth­ing, bot­tles and food wrap­ping.

Now then, the prob­lem is no longer one lurk­ing in the dis­tance or one con­stantly ban­ished to our col­lec­tive pe­riph­eral vi­sion. The prob­lem ap­pears to have found its way into our own sys­tems.

Ear­lier re­search car­ried out on an­i­mals has shown that mi­croplas­tics can en­ter the blood stream, the lym­phatic sys­tem and may even spread to the liver. Wor­ry­ingly, chem­i­cal con­tam­i­nants as­so­ci­ated with mi­croplas­tics could leach off dur­ing the gut pas­sage phase and col­lect in tis­sues. The un­set­tling thing is that we are not sure what the im­pact of chem­i­cal con­tam­i­nant ac­cu­mu­la­tion in hu­man tis­sue will be, as fur­ther re­search is needed.

This puts a dif­fer­ent spin on the plas­tic pol­lu­tion ques­tion. Now, we no longer ask ques­tions about how plas­tic pol­lu­tion af­fects our oceans, our wildlife and our skies, but how it af­fects our own health. In other words, the prob­lem has taken on an in­tensely per­sonal com­plex­ion, es­pe­cially for the lovers of fish and chips, tap wa­ter, bot­tled wa­ter, beer and honey.

What’s worse is that the prob­lem seems to be in­escapable as even house dust, food pack­ag­ing and plas­tic wa­ter bot­tles may ex­pose our bod­ies to mi­croplas­tic pol­lu­tion. Could it be that only now that our own health may be in peril will we tackle the plas­tic pol­lu­tion prob­lem with the verve and en­ergy it re­quires? But, at the same time, isn’t it a sad in­dict­ment on us that only po­ten­tial ill health will truly com­pel us to act?

The dam­age caused byplas­tic bot­tles to the en­vi­ron­ment re­mains a dis­tant prob­lem for many,but their ef­fect on our own bod­ies may bring adif­fer­ent per­spec­tive

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