The World Is Made Of Plastic

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.”

-The Lorax

It should come as no surprise that micro-plastics have now been identified in 80% of human lungs and  blood samples that have been tested. Plastic residue and trash have been found at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean’s Marianas Trench, six and a half miles beneath the surface, the deepest location in all the seven seas. Traces of plastic exist in every aspect of our lives.

Members of older generations may suffer the illusion that we lived much of our lives basically plastics free, but that is not the case unless we are very old indeed. In 1869, John Wesley Hyatt experimented with a new type of billiard balls. Up to then, billiard balls were made of elephant ivory. Hyatt, instead, created them by converting cotton treated with camphor into celluloid, thus saving the lives of many elephants. In 1907, a chemist named Leo Baekeland produced an early form of plastic which he named after himself, Bakelite. For years, many uses for Bakelite were found, including electric insulators, radio and telephone cases, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous cigarette holders.

As with so many other products, uses for plastic proliferated during World War II, as it was used to replace ingredients necessary for industrial production but were in short supply, including steel, paper, glass and wood. During the postwar years, from 1950 to 2015, plastic production in the US increased by 8.4%. annually. We now produce twenty times as much plastic every year as we did twenty years ago, but it is estimated that only 10% is recycled. The rest goes into landfills or into the sea. All too much finds its way into fields, woodlots and roadsides as litter.

According to the journal Science, the numerous components utilized in plastic production, include coal, salt, natural gas, cellulite, and crude oil.

More and different uses for plastics continue to be found. The computer keyboard that I am typing on this very moment is made of plastic, as are the pens I use to keep notes, the TV set in the corner, the lamp- stand on this desk, parts of picture frames, a flowerpot, the coffeemaker, clock and thermometer on the wall, my cell phone, the handle on my Swiss Army knife, water and soft drink bottles, the flatware—knives, forks and spoons—given out by fast food businesses and many of the components of our Toyota. Plastic is cheap and convenient. Plastic has become such a part of our lives and such a benefit to manufacturing that until the 1960’s, few even questioned any negative side effects that might be associated with its use. For most of us, not a day goes by that we do not eat, drink or breathe micro-plastics.

During that decade known popularly as the Sizzling’ Sixties, many previous assumptions  called into question for the first time. When Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published, many began to express concern about man’s activities negatively affecting the natural environment. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, bisecting the major industrial city of Cleveland, had been so riddled with pollutants that it had burst into flames more than once. But this time the national press got hold of the story. A reporter was on hand, and  the outrageous state of the Cuyahoga’s waters as well as many other US waterways entered the public consciousness.

Mayor Carl Stokes, the nation’s first mayor of African descent to lead a major city, worked closely with his brother Congressman Louis Stokes to support legislation to clean up the Cuyahoga. At the same time,  President Richard Nixon signed the Environmental Protection Agency into law in December, 1970. On April 7, 1972, President Nixon also signed into law the Clean Water Act. The American people were waking up to threats to the environment and human health on many levels. As a consequence, The Endangered Species Act was also signed into law by Mr. Nixon on December 28, 1973.

Thomas Jefferson wisely observed that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. It is also the price of every other good thing, including the sanctity of the natural environment that sustains us. Despite the many successful efforts during past decades to improve and protect life on our island home, threats to health and safety continue to surface. So it may be with plastic.

We have all seen the heartrending news photos of sea turtles strangled with those plastic rings used in packs of soft drinks, of others with plastic straws impaled in their nostrils, of dolphins choked with plastic items, of the guts of seabirds packed tight with indigestible plastics cast off thoughtlessly by a careless or indifferent human populace.

Coca Cola sells an estimated 120 billion plastic bottles each year. The company has pledged to make 25% of its packaging reusable by 2030. That is tragically insufficient. Sadly, many plastic soft drink and water bottles are used once and then tossed away. Such bottles constitute one of the major forces behind fossil fuel use. More petrochemical plants and most incinerators that burn plastics are located near impoverished or minority municipalities, adding to the health threats of the citizenry.

The ingestion of plastic residue may also constitute threats to human health. The reality is that we don’t know for certain, but it stands to reason that it cannot be a good thing. Harvard Medical School warns that heating plastics in a microwave may cause chemicals to leach into food, possibly contributing to metabolic disorders like obesity. The National Library of Medicine cautions against small children chewing on plastic teethers and toys, that doing so could lead to impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and even some forms of cancer.

The US Food and Drug Administration has ruled that the Bisphenola (BPA)  used in the manufacture of many plastic products is safe “in small amounts”. BPA is used to coat the inside of bottle caps, food cans and water supply lines. BPA is used in the manufacture of water bottles and soft drink bottles. In the body, BPA behaves like estrogen, possibly causing chromosomal abnormalities that could lead to birth defects and childhood disabilities. Given such widespread use, one is left wondering what constitutes “small amounts.”

Chemicals called phthalates, sometimes called plasticizers, used in the manufacture of plastics can leach out into food and water and into human bodies in sufficient amounts to disrupt the endocrine system. The concern is that such chemicals may especially pose a threat to small children.

What, then, can be done? What can we as individuals do, and what needs to be done nationally and globally to curb the growing menace of plastics pollution? Individually, of course, we can commit to recycling. While only an estimated 10% of plastic bottles are recycled, it does make a difference. We can urge our members of Congress to support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Bill and the National Bottle Bill. We can urge national leaders to work toward a Global Plastics Treaty. The problem is huge, but there are solutions if people and their representatives recognize the potential threats and create policies to deal effectively with them.

It has been said that since the end of World War II, mankind has been engaged in a vast, global chemical experiment, with no real idea of the possible consequences. The presence of plastic molecules in human blood samples adds to that concern. It is uncertain at this juncture whether or not those plastic molecules constitute a threat to human heart. And yet, exactly how comfortable are we with the knowledge that we may be carrying traces of plastic around in our bodies?

July 2022 Issue

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Lorin Swinehart
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