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