A Plastic Future — Recycle, Reuse and Avoid

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Ranging in size from 5 millimeters to microscopic lengths, microplastics are being ingested by fish, plankton and other marine life, as well as the creatures on land that consume them (including humans)
  • It’s estimated that close to 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, more than half of which is for single-use products
  • Tiny plastic particles don’t simply pass through sea creatures unnoticed but, rather, accumulate in their circulatory systems and organs
  • Exposure to microplastics has been shown to be catastrophic across multiple generations of zooplankton, with the potential to lead to extinction

By Dr. Mercola

The plastic piling up on the shores of Manila Bay in the Philippines is disturbing, and the first thought that comes to mind when you watch the video above may be along the lines of, “Where does all that plastic come from?”

It comes from around the globe, in the form of plastic bags, bottles, utensils, straws, microfibers and more, which make up both large debris and an estimated 15 trillion tons of tiny microplastic particles floating in the ocean.1

You’ve probably seen the tragic photos of sea turtles and other marine life entwined in plastic bags or six-pack rings, but some of the most pernicious plastics may be those that aren’t so readily visible; some can’t even be seen with the naked eye.

Ranging in size from 5 millimeters to microscopic lengths, microplastics are being ingested by fish, plankton and other marine life, as well as the creatures on land that consume them (including humans). What this means for the future remains to be seen, but studies conducted to date have painted an ominous picture.

Ingested Microplastics May Damage Organs, Leach Poisonous Chemicals

It’s estimated that close to 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, more than half of which are for single-use products. Those discarded plastic bottles, bags, straws and other plastic waste end up largely in our oceans, to the tune of more than 8 million tons a year.2 Carried along with the ocean’s currents, swirling gyres of “plastic smog”3 now cover about 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces.4

In 2008, researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney showed that tiny plastic particles don’t simply pass through sea creatures unnoticed, as was once thought. Using mussels as an example, the study revealed that ingested microplastics first accumulated in the gut but, within three days, traveled to the circulatory system where they remained for more than 48 days.5

Not only may microplastics moving throughout the bloodstream and organs cause physical damage like inflammation, but they may also leach poisonous chemicals, including both those added to the plastic and those picked up from the surrounding water.

Microbeads, for instance, those tiny plastic beads once widely used in personal care products, may concentrate such toxins at levels 100,000 to 1 million times higher than the levels found in seawater.6

The beads, which resemble fish eggs, are then eaten by many forms of marine life, including plankton, fish, seabirds and whales. According to one 2015 study, there may be as much as 236,000 tons of microbeads filling the water columns of our oceans.7

Exposure to microplastics has also been shown to prove catastrophic across multiple generations, with the potential to lead to extinction. When researchers exposed the zooplankton Daphnia magna to microplastics, they experienced decreased growth and reproduction rates.

Those born to the plastics-exposed plankton still showed reduced growth, reproduction and population growth rate, even though they were raised in clean water.

“Overall, these results indicate that D. magna recovery from chronic exposure to microplastics may take several generations, and that the continuous exposure over generations to microplastics may cause population extinction,” the researchers explained.8

Microplastics May Be Collecting in Food, Drinking Water and Air

Most studies on plastics in the environment look at only one type of plastic using relatively short exposure periods. But the reality is much messier, with organisms exposed to multiple types of plastics at varying levels over the course of their lifetime.

One set of researchers are looking into how polyester microfibers may be affecting microorganisms in the soil, especially since sewage sludge, which is applied as a fertilizer in industrial agriculture, is loaded with microfibers.9 They found that the microplastics did, indeed, lead to changes in the soil, including altering the bulk density, water-holding capacity and microbial activity.

Microplastics are well-known to accumulate in seafood intended for human consumption as well. In a study of fish markets in California and Indonesia, one-quarter of the fish were found to have plastics in their guts.10 Plastics and other man-made debris were also found in 33 percent of shellfish sampled.11

In a study of freshwater environments, 83 percent of the fish also had plastic debris in their gut, mostly microplastics, particularly microfibers.12 Microfibers were also found to be the predominant type of microplastic found in beer, tap water and sea salt samples.

“Based on consumer guidelines, our results indicate the average person ingests over 5,800 particles of synthetic debris from these three sources annually, with the largest contribution coming from tap water (88 percent),” according to researchers in PLOS One.13 Even the air you breathe may be a source of exposure to microplastics that are literally falling from the sky. Scientific American reported:14

Stephanie Wright, a research associate at King’s College London, is trying to better understand how much microfiber humans are actually exposed to and whether airborne microplastics might penetrate the lungs. She is also teaming up with the university’s toxicology unit to examine their lung tissue collection for signs of microfibers and related damage.”

We Are Recycling Less, Not More — Should Plastic Be on Loan?

Even as the realities of plastics pollution loom larger than ever, recycling rates remain dismal in much of the world. In the U.S., nearly 260 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) are generated annually, but only 90 million tons of this MSW is recycled or composted, making up a recycling rate of close to 35 percent.15 That’s down from 37 percent in 1995.16

Even though most plastic water and soda bottles are made from highly recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET), most such bottles end up littering oceans and landfills. The Guardian reported that fewer than half of the plastic bottles purchased in 2016 were recycled, and only 7 percent were made into new bottles.

In contrast, Norway recycles up to 97 percent of its plastic bottles, the spoils of an environmental tax plastics producers in the country must pay — if they don’t reach a recycling target of 95 percent or more. Producers who meet the target recycling rate do not have to pay the tax, which most accomplish by attaching a deposit of about 15 to 30 cents to every plastic bottle.

Reverse vending machines are found all over Norway, in schools, grocery stores and more, making it easy for consumers to bring their plastic bottles back for recycling and the return of their deposit. Adding to the simplicity of the system, in Norway companies can only make plastic bottles with two particular PET resins.

Polymateria CEO Niall Dunne told Huffington Post, “Then they lined the whole value chain up behind it, all the municipalities, the recycling machines and processes, and achieved great results.”17 Polymateria is producing next-generation biodegradable or recyclable plastics, another strategy to reduce some of the plastic going into the waste stream.

As for the U.S., the idea of attaching deposits to plastic bottles has been suggested but lobbied against by manufacturers who worry the increase in price could affect their sales. Even in areas where bottle return centers have been built, like California, they haven’t been widely frequented, and in fact have dwindled in numbers by 40 percent over the last two years.18

Plastic Attacks Take Off

A growing “plastic attacks” movement is also taking off in the U.K., Hong Kong, South Korea and Canada, where shoppers purchase groceries, remove all the plastic packaging and return it to the store. The cartloads of plastic waste, much of it not recyclable, are eye-opening, helping to raise awareness of just how much throwaway plastic is added to packaged foods.

The British Retail Consortium has said they’re making strides toward reducing plastic waste, including offering nonplastic utensils and straws, putting tomatoes on cardboard trays and letting customers use their own containers for fish and meat.

Still, global plastic production continues to rise, growing from just over 300 million metric tons in 2014 to an estimated 625 million tons by 2038.

While plastic manufacturers tout the merits of plastics in helping food to stay fresh longer, travel longer distances and avoid contamination, those involved in the plastic attacks movement say people should buy local, purchase sensible amounts of food that don’t go to waste and use reusable containers in home fridges to avoid disposable plastics.19

More Phasing Out of Plastic Bags

In another positive move in the fight against plastic waste, Kroger supermarkets, one of the largest chains in the U.S., announced it will be phasing out plastic bags from its stores, with complete elimination by 2025. They’re encouraging customers to switch to using reusable grocery bags instead. Other companies and governments have also stepped up, including:20

  • Starbucks and Marriott International, which have plans to eliminate plastic straws from their locations
  • California, which has banned single-use carryout bags in grocery stores and large retail stores
  • Kenya, which introduced a plastic bag ban in 2017

If you’re still using plastic grocery bags, keep in mind that they usually can’t be added to your curbside recycling bin. Municipal recycling facilities often do not recycle plastic bags because they can get caught in their machinery causing damage.

Many grocery stores, however, have collection bins where you can drop of plastic bags to be recycled. A better bet, however, is to use reusable bags and ditch the plastic ones entirely.

Common Items That Can’t Be Recycled

Many people toss questionable items in their recycling bins hoping to give them a shot at being recycled, but the reality is that certain nonrecyclable items will only be tossed into the trash bin at the recycling center.

Worse, some of the items may end up contaminating entire loads of recyclables that would otherwise have gone on to other uses. In addition to plastic grocery bags, the following items also typically cannot be recycled (to verify the recycling guidelines in your area, contact your local facility):

Anything smaller than a Post-it Note, as it's too small to be sorted properly. This includes plastic bottle caps, unless you screw them onto the bottle.

Just be sure to empty all liquid first, or the bottle will be discarded.

Plastic that does not hold a shape

Bubble-padded envelopes

Wax paper and wax paper liners (such as those in pizza boxes)

Diapers

Electronic gadgets

Paper cups with shiny coatings, such as hot-serve coffee cups

Paper food bowls with plastic lining

Foil potato chip bags

Greasy pizza boxes (if you rip off the unsoiled cardboard lid, that can be recycled)

Foil lids from yogurt containers (however, foil food trays and pie tins may be accepted as long as you remove as much food as possible)

What Can You Do to Cut Down on Plastic Waste?

With the amount of plastic used worldwide, it may seem an insurmountable feat to cut back, but it can be done, one piece of plastic at a time. Don’t underestimate the impact even one person can have by making simple tweaks to their daily life.

Will you really miss that plastic straw with your water? Do you really need a throwaway bag to carry home one or two items from the store? In the U.S., it’s crucial that we rethink our throwaway society and become more sustainably creative. Ideally, seek to purchase products that are not made from or packaged in plastic.

Another important point is to choose reusable over single-use, which is possible in most instances. Opting for the following will help you to inch closer to a minimal-waste lifestyle while keeping your share of plastics pollution out of the oceans:

Use reusable shopping bags for groceries

Take your own leftovers container to restaurants

Bring your own mug for coffee, and bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles instead of buying bottled water

Request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning

Store foods in glass containers or mason jars rather than plastic containers and plastic freezer bags

Avoid disposable utensils and straws and buy foods in bulk when you can

Opt for nondisposable razors, washable feminine hygiene products for women, cloth diapers, handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, rags in lieu of paper towels, and infant toys made of wood rather than plastic

Avoid processed foods (which are stored in plastic bags with chemicals). Buy fresh produce instead, and forgo the plastic bags

The Ocean Cleanup Brings Hope

It’s easy to get down about the amount of plastic swirling in the world’s oceans, including in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which covers 1.6 million square kilometers (nearly 618,000 square miles) of the Pacific ocean’s surface, making it the largest mass of ocean plastic worldwide.

The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization developing advanced technologies to rid the oceans of plastic, estimated it would takes thousands of years to clean up this garbage patch using conventional nets and vessels, but fortunately they’ve got another plan — a passive trash-collecting system that they estimate may remove half of the plastic from the patch in just five years.

Using natural oceanic forces, including wind, waves and currents, the system funnels plastic into an artificial coastline. The plastic is then picked up by a support vessel or “garbage truck of the ocean” and transported to land. Let’s hope that the system is a success, and also that we can all come together to reduce the amount of plastics being generated, used and discarded.