Updated: Oct 5, 2019
Our survival depends on a global emergency response
In 2013 I finally realized my childhood dream of traveling on a riverboat up the mighty Amazon. But my adventurous carefree self was no match for the unbearable site of plastic trash that filled the inlets, covered shorelines, accumulated in villages, and burned in heaps along the way.
I ended the trip only a few hundred miles upriver, as it was just too much to wrap my mind around. The largest river basin in the world that supplies 20% of all freshwater to the ocean and is home to an estimated 10 million people (and more species of plants and animals than any other terrestrial ecosystem), was being destroyed by a seemingly endless stream of plastic waste.
It was painfully obvious that, if plastic products could do this much damage to such an important remote region of the planet, we are all in for a world of hurt. As soon as I recovered from the shock of witnessing this, I decided to go down the rabbit hole where there’s 6.3 billion tons of rotting plastic dating back to the 1950’s when plastics were first made into consumer products.
Once I faced the reality of this situation, simple truths surfaced out of the muck. “Earth is completely trashed.” “We are all screwed as a result.” “This disaster happened on my watch.” “I need to do something about it since I helped create it.”
“There is no time to waste.” “With action there is hope.”
During the past 6+ years I tried desperately to find a way back to a plastic-free world. After exhaustive research, study, and contemplation I believe it is not possible unless we are actively engaged in solving all aspects of the plastics problem including:
Mitigating the harmful effects of plastic pollution on our health.
Eliminating plastic waste from the environment (land, water, and air).
Protecting the biosphere from all-pervading micro and nano plastic particles.
Putting an end to plastic products with a “we choose to go to the Moon” type
commitment to develop eco-friendly alternatives.
Accelerating change in consumer behavior, highlighting personal and corporate responsibility, supporting calls to action, and encouraging a global emergency response.
By early 2019, my commitment to understand all things plastic was getting me down both physically and emotionally as more and more of my waking (and dream) states were spent worrying about the consequences of inaction. The further I fell into the bottomless pit of inquiry the more problematic, complex, and insane my obsession with plastics became. There was no slowing down or resting, no way to turn back, and nowhere to hide.
The enormity of devastation, caused by a 70 year old love affair with plastic products, led me to a frightening conclusion with burdensome responsibility. If we do not treat the mismanagement of plastic waste as a true and immediate crisis, life as we know it will come to an end in the not too distant future.
I don’t expect you to take my word for it. I can only hope this sharing inspires you to do your own research – to find out what might be lost if we continue down the same path and how your personal behavior fits into the plastics equation.
Perhaps you will discover, as I did, that plastic waste is rapidly destroying the environment and slowly killing human beings. You may realize that your response to this catastrophe could make all the difference in the world. .
"The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance." - Benjamin Franklin
Plastic pollution is far more pervasive worldwide and detrimental to the survival of planetary life forms than our scientific community was aware of just a few decades ago. Only recently have we begun to understand the extreme dangers associated with fragmentation of plastic - the state of being broken into smaller and smaller parts. The deterioration of plastic products, especially those first mass-produced in the 1960’s, have now reached the micro and nano scale, which is raising hell with ALL forms of life on Earth.
Abundant evidence of these tiny particles is found literally everywhere; from “the highest microplastic concentrations of all the world’s oceans in the most remote reaches of arctic sea ice”, to microscopic fibers “raining down from the sky” in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and the Pyrenees in France, to “extraordinary” levels of pollutants 36,000 feet below sea level in the Mariana Trench (and the entire hadal zone) where “every tiny animal tested had plastic pollution hiding in its gut”. Trillions upon trillions of micro and nano plastics have already entered the food chain, water we drink, and the air we breathe at an alarming rate and with devastating consequences.
We all know what it feels like to walk on a beach littered with a mass assortment of plastic stuff. What is harder to get a sense of is the enormous quantity that lies beyond our trashed shorelines. According to an updated report released by the World Watch Institute, 10-20 million metric tons of discarded plastic is accumulating in the oceans each year - substantially more than the rate it is breaking down. Of the total quantifiable marine plastic pollution, only 1% is floating on the surface and 5% is washed up on shore. The rest is below the surface painfully killing whatever gets trapped in its web and suffocating creatures that mistake it for food.
Although the average lifetime for plastic products is several hundred years on land (and as much as a thousand years in landfills), in marine conditions it can degrade into smaller pieces over shorter time scales due to the action of waves and currents, sunlight, and living organisms in the water. When the breakdown of plastic reaches micro size, the particles can transfer through a three-level food chain - from algae to zooplankton to fish - before reaching our dinner table.
And, it is not just smooth clean particles with their many varied polymers and plasticizers that we are eating. We are also consuming a long list of toxicants including organic pollutants (e.g. dangerous bacteria and parasites), metals, and other harmful contaminants (e.g. chemical fertilizers and pesticides), which are absorbed by and stuck to the tiny pieces of ocean plastic that enter the food chain.
Over half of all plastic manufactured becomes trash in less than one year with the vast majority (79%) accumulating in landfills or being discarded indiscriminately. According to the Earth Day 2018 fact sheet: “More than 480 billion plastic bottles were sold worldwide in 2016. About one trillion single-use plastic bags are used annually across the globe. More than half a billion plastic straws are used every day. Around the world, people litter more than 4.5 trillion cigarette butts every year. The amount of bubble wrap that is produced annually is enough to go around the Equator ten times.”
Over time these throwaway products are subject to photo degradation from UV rays, which in turn helps transform natural landscapes into human wastelands. Researchers in Germany say “terrestrial plastic waste is four to 23 times higher than marine litter, depending on the location.'' They are now warning that “the impact of microplastics in soils, sediments and freshwater could have a long-term negative effect on such ecosystems”. But it is not only the accumulation, breakdown, and leaching of billions of tons of discarded plastic (primarily single-use packaging) that are having a direct and deadly effect on where we live. The crisis resulting from mismanagement of plastic waste is far more serious than just what we see and touch.
“I think the exposure pathway for us, the main exposure pathway, may be the air that we breathe,” says Melanie Bergmann, a marine ecologist with the Alfred Wegener Institute. Pervasive airborne plastic nano fibers (acrylic, nylon, spandex/elastane, polyester including polar fleece, and synthetic rubber) are inhaled with every breath we take. These microscopic health hazards originate from wear and tear of car tires, washing synthetic clothing, and aging paint and coatings.
According to a recent study cited by Water World, more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers could be released into the environment during each cycle of a washing machine. Also contributing to global contamination are minute particles released from carpets, furniture, toys, beauty and personal care products (including tiny plastic beads in products like exfoliates and toothpastes), and restorative dental composites that contain plastic in the form of highly toxic methacrylates, which degrade in your mouth.
What is especially disturbing is that the bulk of plastic produced since the 1990’s (when manufacturing began doubling roughly every 15 years) has only begun to break down. Plus there are billions of tons of products just recently tossed, which have barely started the process. Worse yet, is the coming apocalyptic tsunami of billions upon billions of tons of new plastic products in the decades ahead. All total we will need to manage over 26 billion tons of plastic waste by 2050 according to Science Advances. Almost every piece of plastic that has ever been made is still around with the exception of 12%, which has been incinerated.
According to the World Economic Forum, if plastic production isn’t curbed, plastic pollution in the ocean will outweigh fish, pound for pound, by 2050.
It does not take a rocket scientist to know that what we are currently experiencing is just the tip of the plastic waste iceberg compared to what will be surfacing in the near future.
Human extinction is now a real possibility. First reported in 2017 in Scientific Reports, Karin Mattsson and her colleagues found that plastic nanoparticles reduce survival of aquatic zooplankton and penetrate the blood-to-brain barrier in fish, which causes behavioral disorders. This was the first time that direct interactions between plastic nanoparticles and brain tissue were uncovered. Brain damage discovered in aquatic animals is the game changer because humankind is similarly defenseless. No one is exempt from the potential risks of plastic permeating their body, crossing cell membranes, moving into tissues, lodging in lungs, accumulating in lymph nodes, and even entering the central nervous system.
In 2018, a pilot study by Environment Agency Austria found that 100 % of the human subjects in 8 different countries had plastics in their stools. It is likely that our bodies will eventually be overrun by plastic waste just like what is happening to sea mammals, fish, and birds who were first observed suffocating to death in the late 1970’s.
We have known as far back as 2008 that plastic particles do not always pass through the body harmlessly. It was then that scientist Mark Brown discovered that ingested micro plastic particles “can physically damage organs and leach hazardous chemicals”. Last year, findings published in Environmental Science & Technology revealed that plastic pieces lodge in the intestinal tracts and tissues of oysters, clams, mussels and scallops, which humans eat whole. In the reported study micro plastics were found in 73% of the sand and gravel samples and in 100% of the mussels collected.
Admissions about the toxicity of additives in plastics and their impact on human health date back to the early 1990’s. The plastic chemicals Phthalates (that make plastic more flexible), BPA/Bisphenol-A (that makes plastic hard and clear), and brominated flame retardants (that are commonly used in plastic consumer products) are well known by the medical community to be hormone disruptors when ingested or inhaled. They directly affect the supremely important endocrine system, which regulates our metabolism, growth and development, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood.
Consider the findings from the Earth Day 2018 The Plastic Threat to Human Health Fact Sheet: “A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey produced by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that BPA was found in 93% of urine samples taken from people above the age of six. Based on the weight of existing evidence, it is likely that elevated urinary BPA levels are associated with prostate cancer. Some animal studies have indicated adverse effects of BPA on newborns and fetuses. Breast milk of most women in the developed world contains dozens of compounds including BPA that have been linked to negative health effects. Growing literature links many Phthalates with a variety of adverse outcomes including weight gain and insulin resistance, decreased levels of sex hormones, and other consequences for the human reproductive system for both females and males.”
“If we could feel what we are doing to the earth, we would stop immediately.” - T. McKenna
Not in my back yard unless you fish in the most polluted water bodies on Earth.
Every day consciousness is exposing the harsh realities of the plastic waste crisis to an ever-increasing percentage of the world’s population. There appears to be no debate among us about the cause, the effects, or what is ultimately at stake. Yet, our slow collective response does not represent the kind of action one would expect in a state of emergency. Our house is burning down and we still haven’t turned on the fire hose.
In 1954, I was born into a world mostly void of plastic. In my 65 years more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic products were manufactured globally to satisfy a world population that grew from 2.5 to 7.7 billion. Of that total only approximately 9% has been recycled. In 1976, on average, each person used 2 kg of plastic annually. In 2017, that figure jumped to 43 kg. The World Watch Institute estimates that the average American or European person typically uses 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of plastic every year, most of which consists of packaging. By my 100th birthday, there is expected to be another 2 billion global inhabitants and the annual demand for plastics is projected to increase from 400 million tons next year to a staggering 1.8 billion tons. If plastic consumption increases at its current rate, by 2050 there will be nearly 1 billion metric tons of plastic in our oceans and 12 billion tons in landfills according to National Geographic.
It is my belief that in 2019 we reached a tipping point in the stability of the environment – humanity’s ability to evolve and prosper is now in question. According to a recent report carried out by Tearfund (an international relief and development agency), one person dies every 30 seconds in developing countries from diseases and illnesses caused by plastic pollution and uncollected rubbish. Researchers found that up to one million people are dying each year from conditions such as diarrhea, malaria, and cancers caused just by living near dumping grounds for waste and plastic.
Recent data indicates that our food chain is almost entirely contaminated by micro and nano plastic. According to a study published in Environmental Pollution the average person is eating 70,000 microplastics each year (as much as 100 bits per meal), which is certain to increase as our insatiable appetite for consumer goods packaged and made with plastic continues unabated. New research by the University of Newcastle, Australia, shows you are probably ingesting a credit card’s worth of plastic each week (about 250 grams of microplastics) or the equivalent of a small plastic jar per year.
Yet we still don’t know how much plastic one can consume before his/her body shuts down. However, sooner or later we will all succumb to this plague of our own making unless we put an end to it. Drinking water alone could take us out. A study published in 2018 in Frontiers in Chemistry found that 93% of bottled water sampled in several countries contained an average of 325 micro plastic particles per liter. The 11 brands of bottled water tested “are among the most popular and widely available in the U.S. and around the world”. Research on groundwater systems is in the early stages but the presence of microplastics is being discovered wherever scientists look including fractured limestone aquifers – a groundwater source that accounts for 25 percent of the global drinking water supply.
Whales lie dead on Germany’s North Sea coastline with stomachs full of plastic.
According to the United Nations, ingestion of plastic kills an estimated 1 million marine birds and 100,000 marine animals each year. Additionally, more than 90% of all birds and fish are believed to have plastic particles in their stomach. Research from Plymouth University has found that close to 700 species of marine life are facing extinction due to the increase of plastic pollution.
Nevertheless, with action there is hope. But the clock atop this ticking plastic time bomb indicates there is absolutely no time to waste. Even with comprehensive worldwide recycling efforts and huge reductions of single-use products, there may already be enough plastic particles in the biosphere to trigger a mass extinction event that includes Homo sapiens. Many scientists think a sixth mass extinction is already under way - perhaps the fastest in Earth's history with more than half of the world's marine and land species gone by 2100. According to a 2014 study, current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than they would be if humans weren't around and that was reported 5 years before another billion tons of plastic entered the environment.
"The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it." - Robert Swan
In my humble opinion, the last thread of hope for survival of life, as we know it, depends on the elimination of the entire worldwide plastic waste stream (past, present, and future). In 2015, Wharton magazine claimed “plastic waste is more pressing than climate change”. Four years later, Salon stated “it remains to be seen if humans can extricate ourselves from the plastic mess we have created.” (April 2019 “How plastic waste could destroy the Earth in a few centuries”)
A global effort unparalleled in modern history must begin immediately. It will require everyone’s participation in cleaning up plastic waste from the land, waterways, and air. AND, we need to remove plastic that is accumulating in our bodies – wellness practitioners must introduce comprehensive plastic detox protocols before it is too late. Proper management of ALL plastic waste absolutely needs to be an international priority supported by ALL government and institutional leaders.
Clearly plastic pollution knows no boundaries. It is an equal opportunity out-of-control affliction. No matter where you live, what you have or don’t have, or what you believe or don’t believe, you and your family are currently at risk. We have all benefited from plastics albeit in an irresponsible way. So . . . every single one of us must unite in a common cause to clean up the mess we made, which amounts to about 1 ton of plastic for each person living on the planet today. It has never been truer to say; “We are all in this together” for better or worse.
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” - Albert Einstein
Nearly all plastic is derived from oil, natural gas and coal. It is estimated that by 2050 the plastic industry will account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption. Currently it takes an estimated 12 millions barrels of oil per year just to make the plastic bags used annually in the U.S.
Plastic is considered the most sustainable use of crude since it “borrows” fossil hydrocarbons that can be returned afterwards to the fuel cycle. Furthermore, used plastics have a higher caloric value than coal. Unfortunately, in many underdeveloped countries plastic is burned in households as a source of heat for cooking, which causes severe medical complications.
Since most plastic packaging is used only once, 95 percent of its value (worth $80 billion to $120 billion per year) is lost to the economy according to The World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2016). According to National Geographic, “90.5% is the estimated amount of plastic waste ever been made that has never been recycled”.