Earth Matters: Are we becoming plastic people?

Earth Matters: Are we becoming plastic people?

By Patti Wood

The conversation about plastic has changed from those unsightly discarded plastic bags and Styrofoam cups to the nanoplastics we are inhaling with every breath we take. Nanoplastics (100 nanometers or less) and microplastics (5 millimeters or less) are the worrisome result of the breaking apart of the billions of plastic items that we throw away every day.

These ubiquitous tiny plastic pieces are nature’s way of reminding us that there is “no away.” There is only “here on Earth.”

Try to live for a day without using plastic. Our daily shower routine usually includes using plastic bottles filled with shampoo, conditioner and body wash. Our newspapers get delivered in plastic bags. We grab our morning coffee at a local shop, handed to us in a plastic cup with a plastic top. We wear clothes made from plastic fabrics. Food deliveries come in plastic containers with plastic utensils.

We pour water, milk, juice, and soda out of plastic bottles. We clean our dishes and clothes with detergents that come packaged in plastic. Our kids play sports on plastic fields. Their lunchboxes are filled with food wrapped in plastic. We work at computers with plastic keys and screens. We talk on plastic phones, drive cars with plastic dashboards, sleep in plastic sheets and buy our kids plastic toys… think about all those Legos!

When you consider that every bit of plastic that has not been incinerated is still here on Earth somewhere, slowly breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, day after day, month after month and year after year, you can begin to understand how fast this global crisis is growing. What you may not realize is that things are going to get a lot worse before they ever get better. We’ve loaded up the world with plastic debris, and now we – and our kids and their kids, and their kids – are going to pay dearly for it.

Plastic is not safe for anyone to ingest or inhale. It’s made from a combination of fossil fuels and chemicals, including those proven to cause a long list of human diseases and conditions, from cancer and endocrine disruption to reproductive problems. Many of the diseases showing up in survivors and people who lived in the area around the 9/11 attacks are in part related to the burning of plastic and inhalation of nanoplastics from the building materials and contents.

Research is showing that nanoplastics are far more toxicologically active than microplastics. This is primarily due to their smaller size and ability to penetrate biological barriers. There is already evidence that humans are suffering from exposure to nanoplastics in the air, which can be inhaled into our lungs and wind up in our blood, with the potential to damage internal organs and critical body systems.

Every once in a while we hear news reports of some microorganism that will consume or break down plastic into its organic elements. But we don’t hear much after that, because they seldom work. The chemical bonds that are formed when making plastic are extremely strong, and not typically found in nature. Microorganisms that naturally break down biodegradable materials do not recognize the bonds that hold plastics together. Researchers estimate that it will take hundreds of thousands of years for plastics to decompose into some kind of natural state. But by then, the damage will be done.

So, will every human on Earth eventually have to wear a filtering mask to venture outside? Are we hoping that some miraculous technology will be developed to filter all of the air on Earth to take out tiny plastic particles? Or maybe big pharma will develop new blockbuster drugs to treat the medical problems caused by breathing nanoplastics?

Actually, the only answer is producing and using less plastic. Some scientists say we can’t afford to make even one more piece of plastic. But if you are looking for immediate practical solutions, here are some thoughts…

Kitchens, bathrooms and laundry rooms are spaces in our homes that are typically filled with plastic items. If you have children, their plastic toys will wind up in every room, and teenagers and adults fill their spaces with plastic technology and entertainment devices. I haven’t even mentioned plastic furniture, carpets, lamps, etc….too many to list.

The good news is that many companies are making non-plastic alternatives! I just bought dental floss that is packaged in paper, we have switched to a dairy yogurt that comes in beautiful and reusable pottery jars (with a foil top) and coconut yogurt packaged in a paper container. I bring my cotton mesh produce bags to the store and try my best to buy staples in bulk, put them in a paper bag and then store in glass jars when I get home.

Powdered laundry detergent comes in a cardboard box, shampoo and conditioner come in bars. Installing your own drinking water filter in your home keeps plastic water bottles out of the environment. Plastic alternatives for kids include books, puzzles and board games.Parent Alert! Keep track of LEGO pieces and put all the right pieces back into the box to pass along or save for the next generation. Don’t throw them out!

There are many more examples of non-plastic essentials and new ones are being developed daily. Try switching one thing a week – everyone doing one thing makes a huge difference.

I read a recent article in The New York Times entitled “Trying to Live A Day Without Plastics” and was not happy with the message. The author made it seem hopeless and comical. It was about trying not to touch or use plastic on just one day. That’s not the point. We need to reject single-use plastics and replace commonly used items with non-plastic alternatives. Due to the serious nature of this problem, the message needs to be hopeful and encouraging. I hope you’re feeling encouraged and empowered.

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