By Alejandra Ureno. For my chosen object of concern, I focused on an object that is abundantly present in our lives and all throughout the world. Although we live in a complex world and society that uses numerous environmental and physical harmful elements and processes to produce our commodities that support our style of living, one of the less looked at entities is the use of plastics and what they eventually become – microplastics. These plastics are a part of almost every item that involves plastic as a part of its construction, included in baby toys and bottles, pet toys and dishes, our own dishes, cosmetics we put on our face, and so forth. They are made of a complex mixture of chemicals that have chemical additives and residual monomers (Environmental Research and Public Health, 2017). The comprehension of the risks posed to our environment and potentially human health is critical to understanding why microplastics pose such harmful implications to the well-being of our ecosystems and what we think to be the future of our Earth. We will delve into the risks and hazards produced by the presence of these plastics in our environment, followed by the health implications they could risk to our health. During World War II, a huge boom in the expansion of the plastics industry in the U.S occurred due to the desire to conserve natural resources for the war. This lead to the production of synthetic alternatives, such as plastic, as the new primary resource. Plastics replaced traditional materials used in various items like steel, glass, paper, and wood and were thought of as a great opportunity to gain wealth through its inexpensiveness, what was considered to be safe at the time, and the fact that people could use it to shape nearly anything they pleased (Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2011). After the war was over, Americans had more money to spend and nearly everything they bought was made of or contained plastic. It wasn’t until the 1960’s when Americans had started to become more aware of environmental issues that the finding of plastic debris in oceans and additional ecological implications were occurring due to human negligence were beginning to stir cognizance among the American people (Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2017). One of the biggest issues surrounding the use and waste of plastic is the fact that it remains in the environment forever, never breaking down. The industries that produced plastics came up with recycling programs, making consumers think that it could be properly and responsively taken care of after its use, but in reality plastics still ended up in landfills and the environment, not necessarily being a very effective solution. Though so much of our waste comes from bags, bottles, and other disposable items, the majority of the rubble found in our oceans is the broken-down remains of what used to be a larger form of plastic – microplastic. How does this tiny debris make its way inside of our oceans? It breaks down from the bigger plastics (e.g. water bottles, plastic bags, cigarette lighters, and additional trash) that have already made their way into the water. They can also find their way into oceans through drains; it is not uncommon for micro particles to be in face washes, scrubs, or industrial cleaning products that get washed down into waterways (GreenFacts, 2017). Over time, they continue to break down into smaller particles. This process has enormous potential for implications in marine life. We’ve all seen images of seals or sea turtles with entangled fins and flippers because they’ve gotten caught in plastic soda rings, posing risks of drowning and death to these animals. These microscopic elements are also ingested by other animals like whales who filter feed, birds that feed off of smaller creatures in the water and even microscopic organisms like zooplankton. While we might think that the larger plastics are the ones playing a bigger danger to marine life, even the tiny particles that result as the break down of those bigger effect the structure of various sea life. We’re becoming increasingly familiar with the dangers of ingesting fish with high levels of mercury in them; who is to say that traces of microplastics in fish will not cause further health risks to humans? Furthermore, microplastics can seep into inland waters, soils, our indoor and outdoor air, and the water we drink, not just our oceans. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), flame retardants, hormone disrupters, and pesticides are only some of the known ingredients used to comprise plastics (Owlcation, 2017). As plastics break down, these chemicals are leached into the surrounding environment. Although we know that these elements have the ability to disrupt the balance of certain ecosystems and organisms, scientists are not currently too familiar with the absolute impacts it plays in regard to the health of humans. We can be certain that traces of these substances are indeed harmful in certain concentrations, but some argue that until we are aware of the undeniable effects they play in the lifespan of a human, we cannot make inferences. I see the reasoning behind this logic to be quite problematic because we can make connections between destructive effects of these compounds in aquatic and terrestrial life, so why exclude ourselves from that same toxic equation? While the effects to humans are still being investigated, it is no secret that the presence of plastics affect the surface of the planet. Plastics that are left behind on the surface of our planet also have effects. Plastics that sit in heat give off UV radiation, which warms the surrounding area (Weisman, 2007). At first look this may seem like it has very little effect, however; when one takes into account all the plastics that are used and left behind, the effect becomes greater. This heat stays trapped in our atmosphere, increasing temperatures. Already the biggest issue that many scientists and society are facing is climate change. Increase in temperatures has many effects varying from decline in crop production, to our wildlife. “The most direct emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels for energy…plastics are made from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, which release toxic emissions when extracted from the earth” (Glazner, 2017). Now that we are more familiar with the risks and hazards associated with the ever increasing presence of plastics in our environment and bodies, we can shift towards the discussion regarding the environmental ethics surrounding the production, consumption, and waste handling of plastic. One of the biggest issues that human kind faces is its tendency to continuously consume and destroy, rather than return and sustain. A part of environmental ethics is having a relationship and playing a role with the environment; when we constantly take from our natural resources to produce things that don’t even have the ability to decay, we are contributing to the lack of care for the earth. We are not being responsible global citizens when we are aware of the implications a particular element brings to our environment, wildlife, and even us and still continue to support its production instead of look towards new and innovative ways of replacing the object or finding more sustainable ways to use it. The public needs to be educated about the ways that these substances are affecting the balances of our ecosystems and the organisms that inhabit them. Being that we are largely an anthropocentric society, it might be difficult to incorporate environmental ethics into our traditional ways of thinking. Additionally, since we are living in a consumer driven world, we are largely susceptible to falling into businesses agendas, constantly striving to sell products, using cheap materials (like plastic) to appeal to the consumer’s pocketbook. We need to keep in mind that dominant corporations will always continue to produce what is most economical for them, regardless of the consequences it has for the environment or those who labor hard hours to produce our commodities; their goal is to remain wealthy and in control. While we do need supplies and various other materials, we must keep in mind that the people have the influence to demand structural changes both in policy and corporate approaches and also have the choice to make informed purchases and conscious decisions in regards to what we buy, how we use it, and how we dispose of it. Furthermore, we need to take into consideration the legacy we’re leaving behind as modern humans. What kind of conditions are we leaving our planet in to be inherited by our children and generations of theirs? If left untreated or cared for, we will continue to see the degradation of our diverse marine species, land species, potentially even our own well-being. Additionally, we are creating an atmosphere that embodies allowing the further pollution of our world through continued use and irresponsible discarding of what plastics we already have. While society focuses on what we can make and how it can “improve” our lives, we need to shift the focus on how we can improve our already existing foundations of development and transition into a more viable way of consuming and existing. While we do have problems, we also have solutions. We are caught in a web of being part of a complex society that strives off of producing commodities for the public, maintaining power structures based on profit and wealth, and maintaining traditional uses of the things we have and have been using for so long. Moreover, we are part of a world that values human convenience and welfare largely over other things, especially when related to the environment or animals. However, though we are shaped to value or care about certain things more so than others, we can re-program our minds to be collectively responsible and caring for the impacts we have on our world. We can further educate ourselves and those around us to become more involved in the dialogue surrounding eco-friendliness as well as make more progressive lifestyle choices. So now that we know the dangers related to the presence of plastics and microplastics in our environment, what are the solutions and what word can we help spread? We can start by informing our audience and calling to the attention of others a noteworthy piece of information: “Americans are currently generating more plastic trash than ever…littering our cities, oceans, and waterways, and contributing to health problems [potentially] in humans and animals” (Ecology Center, 2017). This effects us in more ways than we are probably conscious of. Loss of diverse species and healthy soil, water, and air quality will eventually directly affect us all. Why should we care? Plastics in all stages of its existence present a threat not only to the well being of our environment and animals. There is a very real possibility of serious health implications that can give rise in humans due to the direct exposure of some of these toxic substances. “There is a large body of scientific evidence demonstrating the harmful effects of BPA in laboratory and animal studies…there is a very strong suspicion in the scientific community that this chemical has harmful effects on humans” (Science Daily, 2008). Although we are currently still in the process of investigating the absolute consequences of the chemicals in plastics to human health, there are strong correlations to be made about its impacts on the earth and other living organisms. We wouldn’t want to expose our children or pets to chemicals like BPA that are released from certain plastics when simply washed with hot water. What are the alternatives to using plastics? Among the most resourceful is source reduction, in other words reducing the use of plastic. Even more specifically, reducing plastic packaging. Not only will this decrease the amounts of large plastic wastes, it decreases the amounts of microplastics in our water and air, and helps keep emissions and energy consumptions at a new low. How can we do this? Retailers and consumers have the option of purchasing products that use little to no packaging. Even when it is necessary, there are selections that include the use of recycled materials like glass, paper, or aluminum (Ecology Center, 2017). As previously mentioned, we have the influence as consumers to demand changes in products and their production. This means that our purchasing power interprets the ways in which companies and manufacturers continue to make their products. Another effective way in which we can reduce our plastic footprint is by reusing our materials. A little creativity can take us a long way; using glass mason jars for drinking variety of drinks is much more sustainable than drinking coffee out of a cardboard cup, water out of a bottle, juice from a pouch, or milk from a separate carton. While common misconception tells us that all of those resources are recyclable, we should take into consideration the materials and energy used to ship, manufacture, transport and sell every individual element we separately used. While education and the passing on of important information to friends, family, and the public is critical to helping spread the word, getting involved on a deeper level is also incredibly beneficial. Consider volunteering at a recycling center, bringing others to visit a landfill and personally witnessing the large impact plastic presents, or even proposing concerns and solutions to companies, even city council officials to bring awareness in your own community. With the combined efforts of all of us as concerned, global citizens we can strive towards the shift from harmful components to more sustainable and eco, as well as health friendly options.
Plastic Bottles Release Potentially Harmful Chemicals (Bisphenol A) After Contact With Hot Liquids. (n.d.). Retrieved December 11, 2017, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080130092108.htm