So, it’s Earth Day 2018 today and what does that mean to you and me? Maybe something, maybe not much, but nevertheless it’s here again, and this year’s theme has been very appropriately dedicated to Plastic Pollution. It’s also appropriate and probably a little ‘dangerous’ that my very first blog is on a topic that lights a fire under me like no other. So, this blog comes with a warning… if you want some light and fluffy reading, please click away NOW! OK, you’ve been warned…
As an environmental scientist in a former life, the plastic pollution issue is something that has literally kept me up at night. When, 5 or so years ago, I first read ‘Plastic Ocean’ by Captain Charles Moore, I literally didn’t sleep for 2 weeks. I ‘thought’ I was pretty across pretty much all of the environmental challenges we face on our planet, biodiversity loss and pollution being among the biggest two, but I wasn’t aware of this one!? Those weeks of lying, hopelessly awake, looking at the ceiling and trying to quiet the deep and over-whelming panic and sadness in my mind, resulted in a personal seismic shift as to how I view the way we live. The impacts of plastic on our health and the health of future generations, are something from a horror story that is still unfolding. An ever-increasing tsumani of plastic waste is entering our oceans every single year with no foreseeable slow-down. This is one of the greatest tragedies this planet has ever faced. Because we are directly responsible, no one else. There can be no argument between scientists such as we’ve seen with the climate change issue. The consequences of 'business as usual' on our little spinning blue sphere and for our future quality of life are unthinkable. Because our precious natural systems are so delicately and closely intertwined, without healthy oceans, and the critters that live there, many of our land systems could ultimately also collapse. Not to mention impacts on the global economy if fish stocks disappear. Don’t think you’re safe and it won’t affect you because a) you don’t actually like eating fish, or b) you aren’t actually a fish and don’t have gills and live in the ocean. Not so.
You’d probably have to have been living under a rock the last 3—5 years to not have heard of the issue and the giant plastic islands in the Pacific Gyres (think, big swirling plastic soups!). Perhaps you’ve also heard about the plastic micro-beads issue where we’ve discovered, that for years now, many manufacturers have been putting teeny tiny spheres of plastic in many types of personal care products such as facial scrubs and toothpaste. Who knew? Apart from the obvious health issues for humans from consuming plastic; we thankfully won’t stop here to examine that incredible piece of stupidity… no time. Due to their small size, these tiny bits of plastic (with an uncanny resemblance to fish eggs), have been passing through our sewage treatment plants to accumulate in our aquatic systems where they are promptly eaten up and enter the food chain and/or become lodged permanently in bottom sediment layers. Not surprisingly, plastic microbeads are NOT one of our greatest achievements.
Similarly, micro-plastics the ever-increasingly smaller bits of plastic formed in our environment as larger bits decay inevitably decay (plastics don’t decompose, they just drift about and break down into smaller and smaller and arguable more dangerous pieces forever). Because, it’s possible to argue that due to the inherent toxicity (plastic is toxic, full stop) and the additional heavy metal toxins they attract like magnets in the environment, the impacts of micro-plastics are arguably at least as harmful, if not more so, that any heavy metal contamination, or banned man-made persistent organics like PCB. This is due in part to the ubiquitous nature of plastic in our environment. It is simply everywhere we turn in our environment.
We are surrounded by plastic day and night… so much of food and drink comes packaged in it… we eat off plastic and drink out of plastic, the interior of our cars are plastic, we have plastic furniture and furnishing, many of the clothes we wear are plastic (think nylon, good old polyester and all their cronies). I now even sleep with a big chunk of plastic in my mouth every night as a ‘night guard’ to deal with a TMJ issue and we are filling children’s teeth with plastic. (I seriously doubt whether history will show that replacing mercury amalgams with plastic to fill teeth was a step in the right direction?) Our combined love of plastic and our inability to use and manage it appropriately, has seen it accumulating in our oceans since mass production began in the 1940s & 50s. The damage we’ve since done has therefore basically occurred within one human lifetime.
I'm sure you've heard the figures, they've been picked up by the media in recent years. With no action, the predicted rate of plastic ‘leakage’ to the ocean (the majority of which is packaging used just once), it’s predicted that there will be at least as much plastic by weight in the ocean as fish. This means that plastic (and micro-plastics) will be utterly unavoidable in the oceanic environment and therefore will form a part of the diet of many, if not all, ocean-living organisms. This is of the gravest concern, not just because it can kill individual animals due to their toxic load they carry, but because it can permanently interfere with their ability to reproduce due to the ability of plastics to act as hormone disruptors. Combined with the current pressures of over fishing… think total collapse of oceanic fish stocks. These aforementioned hormone mimicking effects can upset the exquisitely delicate endocrine signalling that all life, including us humans, rely on (quite heavily I might add) for good and continued health. Impacts of plastic toxins on humans due to it’s endocrine-disrupting ability has been well known for some time. However, the specific and exponentially increased risk to a growing foetus (both human and fish, or any animal for that matter) exposed to plastic toxins in-utero, is perhaps less well known and so much more, deadly.
Scientists have been studying the impacts of plastic toxins (like BPA) on foetal neurodevelopment in animals and humans for some time. The toxic effects of exposure to plastic has been identified by world authorities as a grave threat to our survival. Hormones play the most fundamental and vital role in the earliest stages of in-utero development to signal and control development of the brain and spinal cord and every stage of development thereafter. They are the conductors of the most finely tuned and well-rehearsed orchestra – this is creation in action. Exposure to synthetic hormones, which mimic our natural hormones almost perfectly (the body can’t tell the difference) disrupt the way genes are expressed as the foetus develops. Think greater likelihood of developing cancer, reproductive disorders, reproductive cancers and reduced fertility, metabolic disorders and obesity (think what we call ‘modern’ disease). But very critically it has the ability to change our brain structure. The brain of a foetus exposed to plastic toxin potentially develops differently to that of an unexposed foetus. There is unequivocal animal-study evidence showing that exposure to common plastic ingredients (like BPA, DHEP and Phthalates) impact the neurodevelopment of a growing foetus, with the most critical stage being just the first few weeks of pregnancy.
Expose that foetus to a few weeks of plastic toxin and hey presto, unknowingly you have potentially changed the way the brain works forever. It's irreversible. Evidence shows behavioural changes, increased aggression, reduced attention, all pointing to ADHD-like behaviours. Given the profoundly greater prevalence of ADHD, autism and behavioural disorders in recent generations, scientists are interested in looking at this issue. And there is a body of evidence showing the cause and effect of exposure to plastic toxins, including those that industry have jumped on to replace BPA. (In some cases, the BPA replacements have been shown to be more dangerous than the original BPA ingredient). The take away message here is that NO PLASTIC IS SAFE. And you certainly can’t trust manufacturers to make products that are safe. That we have entire industries set up to tinker with DNA intentionally to create new organisms is well known (genetic engineering). The fact that we have been accidentally tinkering with our own genetics and that of our children's due to our love of plastic and convenience is less well known. It’s called Epigenetics… the little switches that turn on and off and decide ,which gene (DNA) will or will not be expressed and indeed, how they will be expressed. Once turned on, it’s potentially pretty hard to turn them off. That’s ‘evolution’ in progress. Epigenetics ultimately controls the Master Plan of our creation. And we have been unwittingly messing around with it. Clever? No.
So, where to from here? We’re all waking up to this mistake and that we need to remove this material from our lives if we are to avoid further harm to ourselves and future generations and save our oceans. The fundamental POWER we have, are in the choices we make every day about what WE choose to spend our hard-earned dollars on. The food we eat, the packaging we accept or don’t accept, the goods we buy, the materials we build our houses with. These are all our choices. Hooray, in that at least, we have the power! And if made from the heart, and not from the wallet and/or from convenience, we can change entire industries. If we stop buying it, they won’t make it. It’s as simple as that. If we start assuming some personal responsibility for the future we are creating… we can, as they say, create anything we choose.
If you’re interested in helping make some changes, here’s some ideas and links. There are some fantastically interesting blogs and stories out there that provide inspiration. And it's worth noting that many of the below links are local Perth or WA initiatives.
For a deeper understanding of the issue… read or watch the move, ‘Plastic Ocean’ by Captain Charles Moore
Any changes you make will be greatly appreciated by both future human generations and Mother Earth.
Happy Earth Day 2018 folks!