Plastics and our planet
Every one of us can make small changes to reduce plastic waste.
Waste is a natural byproduct of civilization. While the world at large engages in large-scale efforts to curtail pollution and waste, each one of us can contribute by taking individual steps to help the planet. Recycling the majority of the waste we produce lowers our carbon footprint, preserves existing natural resources and saves energy (and money). However, and before that, we’re best served by reducing our plastic waste in the first place.
The most visible form of waste is plastic. The reason for that is that it is the most lasting and least biodegradable of all. That means that the time it takes nature to break down plastic into the environment –be it soil, water or air- is much longer than most other materials.
For millennia the world didn’t use plastics. To purchase, pack and carry we humans relied on cloth, metal and paper materials. Then oil was discovered and with it, crude oil feedstock, the byproducts of oil that were put to use in the creation of mass-produced cheap plastics. This shift started in the 1950s. Since then plastic has become an ingrained part of our culture.
Now, plastic is one of world’s major polluters, as the accumulation of human waste plastics, microplastics and nanoplastics in the environment affect wildlife, humans, and everyone’s habitats.
We have all seen the images and videos: plastic is ubiquitous and is destroying our landscape and marine habitats. The dangers of plastics to our wildlife are three:
- Entrapment – animals become entangled and/or trapped in plastic.
- Ingestion – animals eat food with plastic or plastic they mistake for food.
- Interaction – large plastics interact and damage animals and their habitats.
Microplastics and nanoplastics are small pieces of plastic that make their way onto land, water and food chains of both animals and humans alike.
Microplastics are visible to the naked eye, while nanoplastics are not. There are two types of nanoplastics, those that come from further breaking of microplastics, and nanoplastics that enter the food chain from the decomposition (often via heat in microwaves).
While there are no studies yet that have analyzed the toxicity of these plastics from ingestion by animals, there are clear and quantifiable issues arising from the abundance of microplastics and their smaller version in the guts of animals. Because these plastics are indigestible, these animals eat less, have less energy and are dying off more easily to external factors.
Toxicity to humans
Doctors worldwide are beginning to study the effects of nanoplastics on the human body. The most recent study shows that nanoplastics bind with proteins in the bloodstream, which can cause obstructions; these minute plastic particles, when involved in other chemical processes in the bloodstream caused the death of white and red blood cells.
Protecting yourself, protecting the planet
While recycling is a great way to address our own consumption of single-use plastics, we and the planet are much better served if we make a concerted effort to stop using so much plastic in the first place. Here are some very simple things that you can do to lower your own use of plastics:
- You can buy sturdy, washable, reusable grocery bags and use those for groceries week after week.
- Do you eat takeout? Buying a
- You can avoid purchasing prepackaged produce using your own produce sacks when buying fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Buying unpackaged fresh bread from your local bakery.
- Examining your bathroom daily routine. Did you know that nowadays you can buy shampoo, conditioner and skin lotion in bar form just about everywhere? Imagine the amount of plastic waste you can save the planet by switching to all three of them!
- Stopping your use of plastic straws, utensils and other single-use plastic items such as cotton swab sticks. Non-plastic alternatives exist to all of them.
- You can make it part of your lifestyle to have and use refillable water bottles and to-go food containers.
- Washing your laundry only when strictly necessary. This will lower the amount of plastic fibers you put in the water supply.
- Wet wipes are made of plastic and packaged in plastic. For centuries humankind has used washable washcloths, and they still exist and are for sale wherever you can buy towels!
In our next article we’ll address how you can make the most of your plastic recycling.