by Paul Goettlich 21 Aug 2020 (rev 9 Nov 2021)
It’s impossible to overstate how much plastic surrounds us. As a rough guide, it’s within and on all life, all water in rivers and oceans and lakes. In your tap water too. In the soil and air. In the grasses and trees. In your ear and nose. In your stomach, blood, sperm and ovum. In your coffee and tea, as well as your breakfast, lunch and dinner. In the dogs and cats and sheep and chickens. Your mum and dad. Auntie and uncle. Probably a lot of dead relatives too.
Use Your Imagination
And it doesn’t just sit there. It circulates. It gets around. A lot of it sits at the bottom of the oceans, but it mingles throughout all levels. As ocean water evaporates, plastic nanoparticles go up with it into the sky and rain down thousands of miles away because the particles are so bloody small that gravity fails to drag them down.
During the Gulf Wars, depleted uranium (DU) did the same thing, circling the globe. Add the two, shake them up and we get radioactive microplastics. That mixed with pesticides creates magic. Then come antibiotics and hormones. The list of chemicals and their combinations is endless. I’d like very much for you to visualize all of it, every last bit, flowing throughout all areas of the world, from the deepest oceans to the highest atmosphere, interacting and recirculating almost endlessly.
We know all this now as fact. But still, most people deny it. Mostly, they’re polymer scientists or toy salespeople who could easily get a job in the EPA of the Trump administration or on any of a million other unrelated Trump offices, perhaps a court position. Apologists and propagandists flood the news and commercials with the miracles of plastics that fail to include the decades of deleterious effects on society and environment. The plastics industry isn’t satisfied with their slick advertising. It also sends out armies of ruffians to threaten academics who publicize the truth about its omnipresence.
All that aside, I see a daily stream of news articles describing new scientific studies that “prove” what we’ve known for decades and longer. There used to be several environmental news nonprofits. The number is dwindling. Not sure if consolidation is responsible. But I rather think that nobody really cares about the reality of plastic, that we as a species are destroying the entire planet of life with this miracle called plastic. Given enough thought, it appears that ocean life is being crowded out by our plastic waste. As a metaphor it’s slightly accurate but not exactly what’s happening. The plastic is killing oceanic life.
I saw it floating around in the Atlantic in the early 1960s when I sailed in the Long Island Sound. Later we learned about the rapid increase in pelagic plastic from Dr Carpenter in 1974. Yet absolutely nothing was done. But a plastics industry representative threatened the researcher who wrote about it. Then in 2001, we learned that there was 6-times more plastic floating plankton in the North Pacific central gyre by weight. And the response was not commensurate with the damage being done. By the time that scientific paper had been published in 2000, its author told me he’d found even worse concentrations. It’s 20 years later and thousand of research have illustrated that the conditions are severely worse, both in terms of quantities but also in terms of how much is know about the harm that these environmental toxicants case to all life. Not only has there been no effective action taken in reducing plastics production, there’s considerably more going into the oceans, up into the air and down into the earth.
Then tons of proof are placed before us. And we continue to research for more proof of the harm. The longer we wait to take action, the more plastic is produced and the more it goes into the environment. I ask, what is the distinction between enough to kill the entire ocean and more than enough to kill the entire ocean? It’s logically not worth considering. Because more data won’t change the laws or public opinion. But the mass of annual production increases. My solution is a wee bit Quixotic, but it’s the only logical way to end the constant spread of plastic pollution. We must halt its production.
We’re taught from very young ages that plastic is good, that we should have no fear of it and that it serves many useful purposes in our lives. We get lessons in school and learn by seeing it every moment of every day. I did not see it in such abundance in my early years, seventy years ago. Now it’s being produced by computer-driven machines now. Plastics producers will be dramatically increasing production of the next decade, as if we don’t already have enough. Every day a new use is created and instigated.
The regulated industries generally create the laws that regulate the products they make. It’s a powerful delusion that allows people to think that the regulated community can come to consensus with the public, especially an educated public. But consensus is required to change regulations. Science also requires consensus. But it obviously doesn’t result in truth for either one. If it did, there would be no plastics and people would be taught to maintain their health instead of popping pills and/or having operations.
The plastic that was made between 1950 and today would cover the isle of Manhattan under 46-cubic-miles of plastic. And the plastics industry is clamoring to increase production by setting up factories near oil and gas sources in Pennsylvania. Can any of us visualize that 2-mile-high pile of plastic trash covering Manhattan?
In 2019, global plastic packaging market size was estimated at USD 234.14 billion. It’s expected to grow to USD 320.94 billion by 2027, driven by demand for plastic packaging from the food and beverage and industrial packaging industry. That’s troubling for many reasons. Plastic in contact with foods and beverages migrates toxicants into the foods. Not sure if any cares, but the food is absorbed by the plastic too. And there is no commercial demand for used food packaging because it is contaminated by the food and it’s difficult to handle in any recycling process.
I get a news-feed email each morning. Actually, two or three that deal specifically with environmental plastics. One headline this morning read, “Marin Teens Combat Plastic Pollution Through Eco Mats.” They make door mats by recycling plastic bags. Of course, it’s a happy alternative to the present dreary news cycle of Federal Troops invading our own country. However, it serves as a useful pastime for these young women. I don’t blame them for trying. And I might even encourage them. But how many door mats are needed, even if they’re given freely? And what is the definition of “Eco”? A bigger point is, where do they go once worn out in less than a year? Unfortunately, they will almost certainly go to a landfill or an incinerator. But even as they sit in front of entrances they emit greenhouse gasses.
Education as Culprit
Next in line for blame would be the educational system that deludes children into thinking that personal choice and activism such as this or cleaning beaches can make an actual difference to the ecosystem or life in it. But I hesitate. . . breathe and feel I shouldn’t blame the educational system either because it’s made of people who mean well. And actually, I pity any teacher in a public school in the entire USA who proposes a drastic change in production or even ending the production of plastic. Even after plastic has filled every crevasse on earth, they’d be summarily dismissed at a minimum. Jobless, out on the streets, that ex-teacher would be publicly ridiculed as an anti-scientific, socialistic nutter and run out of town on a rail.
That faulty education continues throughout all levels at university as the direct result of major corporate donations that come with both explicit and implicit caveats. Research that is most highly rewarded is that which generates corporate profit. And that which effectively reduces profit is scorned by corporations. Scientists prefer not being scorned because their livelihoods will most likely be diminished. I recently had an email conversation with a professor emeritus at a southern university. His subject is synthetic polymers. I was actually surprised he responded. I asked his opinion on a chapter I wrote on endocrine disruptors in Fundamentals of Naturopathic Endocrinology Edited by Dr Friedman Michael. His response was that this is the stuff of fairy tale. To which I asked him to be specific, to cite exactly which words were false. He then wrote that he must not comment as it could affect his academic status.
Here we are, in a world lacking truth. Even worse, intentional falsehoods reign supreme. And yet, who will save us? Who will tell the truth?
Humans are at a critical junction where falsehoods push all negative aspects of plastics to the max. There are at least three aspects of plastics that are at critical, endpoint stages with regard to life on Earth.
Let’s prioritize the negativity of plastics by volume, direct toxicity and Climate Change.
While the volume of plastic is unsightly and, as this is titled, it’s everywhere, that volume effects both direct toxicity and Climate Change by its surface area. (See Why is Surface Area to Volume Ratio Important? in All Plastics Cause Climate Change) One variable that increases the quantity of greenhouse gasses emitted from all plastics is the surface area. Temperature is another.
Surface area is equally relevant to direct toxicity to all lifeforms. See What are Endocrine Disruptors?
As surface area increases, so too do Climate Change and direct toxicity. The increase in global average temperature increases the both the release of greenhouse gasses and the increased exposure to direct toxicity at all levels of exposure.
Our love and admiration of plastics has caught is in a deadly feedback loop. And our elected officials are not engaging a thought process that will save us. I have no doubt that in spite of our actions, the Earth will continue, albeit without life as we know it.
Therefor, without truthful and accurate education, the fate of our species is grim at best. Our reliance on fossil fuels must end. And because all plastics are made from greater than 99% fossil fuels, they must end too. There can be no further equivocation.
We Didn’t Ask For It
We actually have no choice in using plastic. There is no way to avoid it. Even if you bring a cloth bag to the supermarket to buy bulk foods, the food comes to the store in plastic. And it’s grown in the fields using a great deal of plastic mulching, piping and water storage tanks. Everything you buy is made of plastic, coated with it or shipped in it. The rain that waters the crops in the fields is polluted with plastic nanoparticles. The air is contaminated with the inevitable byproducts of incinerating plastics and other waste. The groundwater is similarly polluted. People cleaning beaches can’t possibly keep up with the trash we can see. But the nanoparticles mixed thoroughly into the sands can’t even be seen. The stuff is literally everywhere. And as long as it’s produced, it will continue to do so.
It’s understandable that people derive an income from synthetic polymers. Whether it’s from academic, industrial or from regulatory aspects, they all count on it to continue as it has for over 70 years. The industry, as does our economy, requires a constant growth to maintain income. I’m certain many of them understand the harm they cause. However, the economic wheels must continue turning.
Today I find it difficult to convince environmentalists that plastics are all bad. Only a few years ago, some of my old environmental comrades jumped on the Green bandwagon – Green Chemicals and Green Plastics. In a YouTube video, Dr Pete Myers, a coauthor of the book Our Stolen Future, states, “I see a light at the end of the tunnel. ‘Redesign’ is the central, crucial, R for solving this problem.”
I’m deeply saddened when someone I placed so much faith in has essentially given up. Perhaps he’s just blinded by the bright lights of technology. Or he’s created a wonderland in environmentalism that garners fame, at least in his own mind.
But technology is how we got into this mess and it won’t be saving us at any point in the existence of humans. We’ve piled one technological mistake on top of another over at least seven decades. After such a long time to witness the colossal failure of plastics, we must cut our extreme losses and just stop making it.
If we make it, plastic will continue to pollute our bodies, the oceans and so on. It’s not possible to control it or recycle it.
The thing is, if polymer scientists work for the rest of their lives at creating green plastics, the best they’ll achieve is less-toxic plastics. The problem with only being less toxic is that it’s far short of enough. The chemicals in plastics are toxic at levels far below those which are presently regulated. If they mean to redesign plastics from which no toxins migrate, then that will be very big news. But just redesigning plastics by finding less toxic chemicals to make them will not achieve the level required to keep us alive in the long run over many generations. The extraction of petroleum and gas products must end too. That extraction causes a wide range of environmental harm. Then a huge amount of energy transforms it all into plastics. There’s the problem of the energy use causing climate change.
The creation of plastic is most definitely a major contributor to climate change. As of the time I am writing this article, California has over 560 fires that have burned over 771,000 acres. 12,000 firefighters have been deployed statewide. And 119,000 people have already been ordered to leave their homes. California Governor Gavin Newsom requests anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change to visit California. I personally think that climate change deniers have serious issues with awareness. They could also have misplaced loyalties to political parties and to the 45th POTUS, a uniquely deranged person who is the absolute worst president in the short history of the US.
It Never Ends
When an activist wins a major law suit blocking any particular chemical, that chemical is replaced quickly with something close in molecular structure. It’s sort of bait and switch routine found at carnivals. Many times, the replacements are at least as toxic as the ones they replaced. That corporation gets a slap on the wrist and streams past the environmentalist as they’re a fly that hit the windshield. Many millions of dollars are nothing but “chump change” to major corporations. Like political payments by lobbyists to politicians, fines are just another cost of doing business.
What will it take for scientists, activists and politicians to come to see that the only way to stop plastic from entering the oceans is to stop making it? The sooner the better because essentially none of it will be removed from the oceans or any other place. And yet, in spite of that basic logic, it continues to be made. Consider that plastic is not actually recycled as per industry’s image of that process. The vast majority of plastic waste is incinerated. A small percentage is remade into a new product, but just once. Only 10% has been recycled twice. And even those data are sketchy because it’s the plastics industry that defined the word ‘recycled.’ Far greater amounts of waste are being incinerated than being recycled. In short, the term recycling plastic is a scam perpetrated by the industry to give and appearance of sustainability. And I believe that most people already know that but look away because of the conveniences rendered by plastics.
Just Stop It
Without stopping the production of plastics, no amount of environmental good wishes will matter. Instead they just maintain the status quo. We can’t gobble up as many plastic products as are made daily and then complain when they fill in the oceans and soil our beautiful beaches. Our only logical choice in the matter is to start demanding an end to the stuff. Anything short of that is a daydream.