Just One Word … Plastics

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November 1, 2017

Sometimes you hear a news clip that impacts you due to where and when you hear them. A few weeks ago, I listened to a report on plastics on NPR while driving out to the Chesapeake Bay. The researchers who were being interviewed examined drinking water in developed vs. developing countries.  They expected to find that advanced water treatment in countries like ours would result in lower levels of plastics contaminating the drinking water than in countries that are less advanced. They were surprised to find the opposite.

For years I’ve been concerned that something in our environment, something we’re doing to our air and our water, is contributing to high rates of breast, uterine, ovarian and prostate cancers. Why are we seeing so much pancreatic cancer, when it seemed to be a rare occurence when I was in training, just 30-35 years ago? What is going on in the Chesapeake Bay that is causing us to find intersex fish in species that usually don’t experience that?

There is evidence that plastics, which are ubiquitous, can carry chemicals in and on them that may be hormone disrupters. I don’t want to misrepresent the NPR report – they didn’t say that plastics are causing these cancers, but personally I am concerned that this could be at least a part of the problem. 

Here’s what they did say:

Lately there has been an increased awareness that our polyester clothing (e.g., think yoga pants) are shedding tiny plastic particles into the water system every time we wash them. Not to mention disposal of all of our plastic containers from supermarket packaging, takeout food, store bags, etc. Plastics are a diverse group of products, made from a wide range of synthetic or semisynthetic organic compounds that can be molded into solid objects. They are often made from petrochemicals, although some can be created from corn or cellulose products. Plastics are low cost, easy to produce and impervious to water, and sadly, decompose very slowly. We’re not only talking about packaging that is obviously made of plastics, but also Teflon, Formica, polycarbonate shells for iPhones, hard plastic chairs, toothbrush bristles, CDs, car bumpers, shower curtains, PVC plumbing pipes, silicone…. The list is VERY long. And evidence of their widespread use is everywhere.  According to an article in the Washington Post on Wednesday, November 1st, plastic bags have been spotted on the slopes leading to the Mariana Trench, the very deepest part of the Pacific. If they’re there, we can expect that they’re everywhere!

Water treatment plants and home water filters can not eliminate these plastic particles from our drinking water. What about bottled water? Yes, there are plastic particles in that water too – not to mention the irony of trying to avoid plastic pollution by buying water in plastic bottles!

The main takeaway from the NPR show was that decreased plastic use has to start from the point of manufacturing and packaging. Trying to catch up by recycling after the fact doesn’t work. Putting pressure on the retailers to decrease plastics can work only if there are other available options and if they see it as a profitable change. Compare it to the surge in availability of organic or gluten-free foods. Store owners are carrying them not because they necessarily care about those products (although, perhaps they do), but because that’s what their shoppers are seeking.

By raising public awareness of the issue, we make it more likely that retailers will make changes in orders, that in turn may affect what is being produced. But most effective would be pressuring the producers to innovate so they can at least decrease disposable packaging. Simply substituting paper or cardboard for plastic, is likely to result in other disposal issues. The speakers fully acknowledged that changing packaging and production is a slow, expensive undertaking, and would take many, many years to implement. The point was made, that companies have been studying packaging for 50-100 years, making the most of plastic. It’s time for them to research how to do the job while minimizing its use. Considering that plastic products are ubiquitous, as evidenced by the list of products above, it is unreasonable to think we can avoid using them altogether, but perhaps we could at least decrease the impact. 

Some practical suggestions were:
– encouraging more incentives to use reusable cups at coffee shops. If you forget your own, you could pay 50 cents to take one, and bring it back the next time you have a caffeine craving.

– similarly, take out food can be given out in real bowls, to be brought back on your next visit.

– use fewer (or no) plastic bags for produce and carrying out purchases at the supermarket – just charging 5 cents per bag in Montgomery County has tremendously decreased use.  

– use stainless steel straws instead of plastic ones.

– use more glass containers and fewer plastic bags and containers at home.

– try to increase use of cotton and wool, and decrease polyester in clothing.

These changes would be just a drop in the bucket.  This is not a problem that will be solved easily, but if we all start using less plastic and raising awareness, and incentivize research into alternatives, at least we’ll be moving in the right direction.  So, why did this story impact me – even more than expected, given my longstanding concern about hormone disrupters in plastics and many other products?  When I got to the Bay, I took out the lunch I picked up at Trader Joe’s on the way. Not only was the salad in a plastic container, but there was a cellophane bag of dressing and a plastic cup of tiny berries within. Trader Joe’s is one of my favorite stores, but next time I’ll make a different choice for a quick lunch!