Floating plastic disrupts critical microbiological processes that take place in the top millimeters of the oceans, and plastics are being found in the deepest abysses, at both poles, and in rain and snow.
Since they were first synthesized in the 19th century, plastics have proliferated into every corner of our lives and the globe. For the food industry, plastics have become the go-to materials for safety, convenience and consumer appeal. However, more and more consumers are becoming aware of the problems inherent in the manufacture, use and disposal of plastics, especially single-use plastics.
The concern used to be only the mass of nonbiodegradable plastic in landfills. Then it became common knowledge that an enormous amount of plastic never reaches containment, forming great gyres in all of the oceans of the world. Thousands of tons of plastic are dumped on third-world countries that are incapable of dealing with it. Recycling plastic is so problematic as to be impossible at a scale approaching a solution to the burgeoning problem.
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Threat to Planet and People
Thanks to scientific research, we have more detailed knowledge of the harm being done by plastics. We have all seen images of wildlife damaged by plastic waste. Floating plastic disrupts critical microbiological processes that take place in the top millimeters of the oceans, and plastics are being found in the deepest abysses, at both poles, and in rain and snow.
Under ultra-violet radiation, polymer bonds degrade. Microplastics (less than 5 millimeters long) and nanoplastics (less than 1,000 nanometers) have become ubiquitous, found literally everywhere on Earth and now incorporated into the body tissues of animals and humans, including hearts, placentas and brains.
We don’t yet know what the full consequences may be. Many potentially toxic chemicals are incorporated into plastics during manufacture, and further, the surface of plastic attracts and holds many other chemicals, which are delivered to body tissues as nanoplastic particles are consumed and assimilated. Some of these chemicals mimic the effect of reproductive hormones, interfering with normal growth and development in children, and fertility in adults. Some of the chemicals are carcinogenic.
As polymer bonds break, they release ethylene and methane, greenhouse gases far more potent than carbon dioxide in causing climate change. Since the vast majority of plastics are synthesized from fossil fuels, all of the problems of mining, pumping, fracking and exploration for new sources are implicated in the overall problem of plastics. Now that alternative energy sources (mainly wind and solar) and conservation measures are becoming widespread, plastics are “plan B” for the petrochemical industry; vast facilities are being built to increase the already enormous production of plastics.
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Consumers Take Action
Aware of all of these problems and more, some consumers are altering their purchasing habits. When they’re shopping for food, avoidance of excess plastic packaging is foremost in their minds, and they share information about which stores offer better choices. Tote bags are common (necessary where states have outlawed single-use plastic grocery bags). Many bring their own net bags for produce rather than use bags provided by the grocer. They bring containers to fill from bulk supplies. They eschew the plastic clamshell packaging that has become so pervasive.
Many of these careful, conscious shoppers prefer organic products, and it is a frustration for them that so much organic produce is more heavily packaged in plastic than nonorganic produce. Organizations like Citizens Concerned About Plastic Pollution, in New York state’s Ulster County, petition grocers for reduction of plastic packaging.
All of these efforts are like grains of sand – or microplastics – in the big picture. Regulation of the manufacture of plastic and legally mandated responsibility of producers for the entire lifespan of their products are necessary to effect real change. Just as all of us have contributed to the problem, all of us have the responsibility to inform ourselves about this issue and take what action we can to alleviate it.