Plastics Use and Microplastics Pollution - It's Complicated
The Anti-Plastic Movement
There's been a huge movement across the globe about the problems single use plastics and plastics in general have caused, most notably by the awareness of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch but also across local communities as they deal with mounting garbage and recycling initiatives. And with China banning most recyclable plastics in January of 2018 - US communities have seen recycling programs stop due to their inability to recycle the amount of plastic coming into their system along with the poor economics of recycling versus throwing away.
And add to that the newly discovered impact of micro-plastics - tiny fibers of plastics that enter our waterways and are in the air, what we drink, and what we eat - there's a big movement to resolve this issue. Rightly so - the data on the impact of plastics in our environment and on our health is pretty scary:
- Plastic containers and coatings leave behind neurotoxins such as bisphenol A (BPA). Detectable levels of BPA have been found in 95% of adults in the US.
- Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) that is contained in some plastics, is a toxic carcinogen.
- PVC contains phthalates and heavy metals, and creates dioxins when it burns.
- When plastics are dumped into our oceans and waterways they end up being eaten by fish which are then consumed by humans, and the pollutants not eaten by fish are spread throughout the sea column.
So Where Does Most of the Plastic Pollution come from?
While it's noble for Americans to recycle and reduce their plastic use, it's important to realize that the plastic problem is global in nature and will require cooperation across countries. Most notable is the fact that 90% of plastic polluting our oceans comes from just 10 rivers in the world - so while we can make an impact at home, it will take our business and government leaders to work collaboratively across nations to solve this problem.
Eight of the 10 rivers are in Asia - The Yangtze, Indus, Yellow, Hai He, Ganges, Pearl, Amur, and Mekong. The other two are in Africa: The Nile and Niger rivers.
The good news is that the countries where these rivers reside are working actively on solutions. China most notably is working to curb its plastic waste, and India has an ongoing project to clean the Ganges with mixed results.
A Call to Banning Plastics - But What are the Alternatives?
Because of the latest news on plastics and it's impact on health, many businesses and governments have put in place bans of the use of various plastics. We've seen recently the banning of plastic bags at certain grocery stores. Bravo, right?
But there have been numerous studies that have shown alternatives to plastic bags - paper and canvas bags in particular - have a higher impact on the environment by using more carbon and creating more pollutants than plastic bags. A move to use more paper bags means cutting more trees, using more carbon, reducing carbon capture, and creating more pollutants during processing.
Another example is in the healthcare industry, where plastics account for a large proportion of overall waste and have replaced more costly materials that had to be washed and then eventually replaced. Given that plastics make up 85% of medical equipment (IV bags and medical tubing make up 25% of a hospital's waste according to one study) - a shift to a plastic free environment is going to take another re-booting across the industry to find alternatives.
While reducing plastics and microplastics pollution is a desirable goal, the approach to get there needs to be well thought out using data driven decisions to make the right choices. If we say no more plastic, we better know that the alternatives we are choosing will be a better choice environmentally. Perhaps the solution lies in our effective re-use and recycling efforts and technology to capture microplastics versus an alternative material?
Apparel and Plastics
The reason JOOB has been studying this issue is that the apparel industry is a key contributor to the plastics and microplastics issue. It's not just water bottles or plastic bags, the synthetic fibers that make up around 60% of the clothes made today contribute to the plastic and microplastic pollution problem. Our 1% for the Planet partner Huron River Watershed Council published recent documents on the sources of microplastics on the Great Lakes tributaries and synthetic textiles was at the top of the list as the major contributor to microplastics.
There are solutions today to help minimize the impact of apparel items discharging microplastics. The Guppyfriend and Cora balls can help reduce a significant amount of microplastics. A recent study showed 75-86% less shedding of microfibers using the Guppyfriend bag, and a 26% reduction of fibers using eh Cora ball. Still another solution are LUVR filters that connect to your washing machine and cost around $150, and have been shown to take out 87% of the microfibers from your wash.
Broken Recycling Efforts
I used to feel great about all of the recyclable material I put out to the curb every Thursday, but after reading more on the actual metrics of recycling it's not such a rosy picture. Only about 9% of our plastics gets recycled, another 12% gets burned, the rest goes into landfills or our waterways. The myth of plastics getting recycled pervades our world when in reality, our global recycling infrastructure is broken.
There are major efforts going on to upgrade recycling efforts which are going on across countries today. It's going to take individuals, businesses, and governments working together to get plastics under control.
So What Can an Individual Do?
It all seems pretty overwhelming when looking at the plastic and microplastics issue, but there are things that individuals can do and are already doing that can make a big difference. If we all make little changes, it adds up to significant global changes.
- Reduce/eliminate single use plastics - Bring silverware to work to use at lunch, bring a water bottle or coffee cup to use.
- Get a Guppyfriend bag and Cora ball, or install a LUVR filter to capture microplastics from your apparel.
- Re-use plastic bags versus throwing them away.
- Ask your local politicians about efforts to improve recycling, or volunteer at your local recycling center to learn more about the recycling process.
- Volunteer for river or ocean clean up near your town.
- Bring a re-usable container to a restaurant to carry leftovers, or ask for a compostable to-to container.
- Take the plastic-wise challenge at www.ocean.org - they have other great ideas to minimize our use of plastics and resources to educate yourself on the issues.
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