I Just Want to Say One Word to You…
Imagine sitting on a beach. It’s hot. You’re thirsty. So you pull one of those handy plastic bottles from your cooler, take a big swig and are instantly refreshed. Or maybe it’s been a long day and you’re on your way to meet your mates and hoist a few hefeweizen. Or your just got up and put the water on for coffee or tea. Then you eat, rinse the breakfast dishes, stick them in the dishwasher, take a shower, wash your hair, brush your teeth, maybe throw in a load of laundry and head off to work. (This is all assuming that you’re not one of the 2 billion people who don’t have access to clean water.)
What if I told you that with every one of those hydro-centric actions, you were also drinking or washing with plastic? That your tea, coffee, water, soda, beer, or other beverage of choice contains tiny bits of plastic so small you need a microscope to see them. That the water you shower or clean your clothes with is also awash in plastic. Well, first you’d call me a liar and then, when you read the data you’d be indignant, and finally, resigned and looking for a way to make sure it didn’t affect you personally by buying a water purification system or maybe moving to New Zealand.
Well, a water purification system probably won’t work and even if it did, it’s not going to help you control the 59 million other places you use or come into contact with water. The ubiquitous and handy little item that we call plastic has infiltrated our lifestyle so succinctly that it might someday be part of the human genome. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a teensy bit, but not when it comes to water. Recent studies have shown that plastic fibers were found in over 83% of tap water samples taken from at least a dozen countries around the world with the U.S. coming in first (“Make America Great Again!”) at a whopping 94% contamination rate. If you think that plastic is not an equal opportunity polluter then hear this — samples were taken at such erudite and lofty sites as Congressional buildings, the U.S. EPA headquarters, and the Trump Tower in New York City. Europe, bless their little recycling hearts only averaged plastic fiber contamination in 72% of the samples, but it’s hard to call that a win.
Plastic has not been found in just tap water. A small study in Ireland also found plastics in some well water samples, and natural springs in Beirut, Lebanon were at a 94% contamination rate. Remember all the hubbub about microbeads and plastic islands floating around the ocean? Well, it’s not just water and marine life that’s being affected by plastic, but also wildlife. As human beings occupy the highest rung on the bioaccumulation chain, it’s really only a matter of time until those nasty little fibers have entered our bodies as well, invading cell walls and generally creating chaos.
Microplastics are in fish, and honey, and the ambient air and seemingly everywhere we turn. Our clothes have plastics woven into them to make them last longer, wear better, keep us warmer, velcro us together, and there’s no denying that these have been terrific advances for humans because no one wants to go mountain climbing in wet wool when there’s Gore-Tex, but at what cost has it come?
One study suggested that 700,000 micro fibers were released with each load of laundry while another suggested that since the 1950’s, 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced with very little recycling to offset it. A staggering 91% of plastic is not recycled, a sobering statistic when we’re cranking out one million plastic bottles a minute and if you add that to all the car parts and phone parts and computer chips and circuitry and milk jugs and orange juice containers and fleece jackets and kites and car tires and all the other things we make, plastic accounts for half of all human waste.
Almost three decades ago when I was in law school and Editor-in-Chief of the Environmental Law and Technology Journal at Temple University, I wrote a paper entitled, “I Just Want to Say One Word to You … Plastics.” If you’re a movie buff, you know that it’s a line from the movie, “The Graduate,” (1967 – directed by Mike Nichols, starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katherine Ross) about a young college graduate who begins an affair with an older woman and later falls in love with her daughter. The line is from a scene at Ben’s (Dustin Hoffman) graduation party where everyone seems to want to give him advice on how to be an adult. I used it as the title of my paper because that period of time marked the beginning of the burgeoning plastics industry and simultaneously the recklessness and throw away attitude with which we began to view the natural world. The paper called for a federal plastics recycling law which I felt was necessary to give a uniform structure to the process. With plastics recycling, unless you know where the product came from, you have limited ability to do something with it in the future. For example, a plastic container that once held kitty litter cannot in its reincarnated state become a milk jug. To my mind, a federal recycling law that required coding on all plastics made in the country would go a long way toward helping the nascent recycling business take hold.
Without making a long story even longer, the paper never got published. The next editorial board couldn’t figure out where it fit in the journal’s publication since it wasn’t hard core science, discussing the manufacturing of plastics recycling, and it wasn’t hard core legal, citing lots of case law and arguments for and against mainly (because the case law was tangential or non-existent). At the time, recycling was in its toddler years, and the problem of plastic waste was not in the forefront of people’s minds. The paper was basically a call for more regulation, something no one is ever keen on, and by that time it got nixed, I had already been graduated and accepted a job happily protecting human health and the environment so while I was saddened by the reality that no one would read my brilliant treatise on why we needed a federal recycling law, I let it go.
[photo taken at the HAAC 2017 Sustainability conference]
Fast forward twenty-eight years later — we still don’t have a federal recycling law and we are literally awash in plastic. One thing is certain. Money is needed to conduct additional research as the preliminary studies are just the wart on the witches nose. Sources and pathways to ingestion — mouth, skin, lungs — need to be studied and waste water treatment standards and technology need to be improved. AND, we all need to cut down on our use. Buy a stainless steel water bottle, store food in glass containers, don’t buy throwaway items made of cheap plastic like straws and other one-time use items. All these are good places to start. Otherwise, sometime in the future, we won’t be able to tell the humans from the artificially intelligent beings, and where will that leave humanity besides swimming in plastic?
p.s. How about the answer to the question of how many plastic bags the average American uses each year? 335!