The Effects of Plastic

A hero of mine – Tim Silverwood [Image originally from http://www.surfwx.net

The use of plastics in Western society is so illogical and so blatantly flawed that it makes my head spin. We are using plastic (a man-made material designed to last forever) to create products that are designed to be thrown away! It wasn’t always like this. You just need to sit with your grandparents for a chat about the good ol’ days to see where we started going wrong. Milk used to be delivered in little glass bottles that would be collected and reused. My Grandma used to send soda and beer bottles back to the factory to be sterilised and refilled. When she would send fragile things in the mail it was wrapped in newspaper – not bubble wrap. She would wash my mothers’ material nappy rather than throw them in the trash. It is all making sense now. We are so focused on convenience that we are literally turning the earth into a trash can.

“We currently recover only 5% of the plastics we produce. What happens to the rest of it? Roughly 50% is buried in landfills, some is remade into durable goods, and much of it remains “unaccounted for”, lost in the environment where it ultimately washes out to sea” – 5 Gyres Institute

Since watching “Plasticized” (a documentary about ocean plastic pollution) I have declared not only to make it Plastic Week here at Olive on Blonde, but also to entirely banish plastic from my life. Before I make massive life changes though I always like to have a really good understanding as to why I am. So I got out my reading glasses…

The Problem with Plastic

Firstly, where it comes from. Plastic bags are made from ethylene, a gas that is produced as a by-product of oil, gas and coal production – all non-renewable fossil fuels. Ethylene is then made into polymers which are in turn made into pellets. These pellets can be used to produce a whole range of items. The problem is a huge amount of plastic products fall into two main categories; Single Use Items or Short-term Use Items.

Single Use Items

Items like plastic bags, water bottles, packaging or lolly-pop sticks. These items can have a usability of 2 minutes but a lifespan of 1000years! To put this into perspective, the amount of petroleum used to make one plastic bag would drive a car about 115 metres! By that logic, in Australia we use approximately 6.9 billion plastic checkout bags every year which would be enough to drive a car 800 million kilometres which is nearly 20,000 times around the world or 4 round trips to the Sun!

Short-term Use Items

Do you find that every time you buy something a better, more efficient, trendier product has replaced it the next day? This can range from TV’s to phones or even toothbrushes… “Wow – that brush has a unique bristle design to clean my tongue and cheeks… my old one only has whitening cups. I better go get the new one”. And then there are all those dentist recommendations telling you to buy a new brush every 3 months. These are very well-thought out marketing ploys by the name of either ‘Planned Obsolescence’ or ‘Perceived Obsolescence’. It is basically a way to shame you into buying a new product when your existing one is still completely functional.

Effects on the Natural Environment

The polluted coastline of Kamilo Beach, Hawaii [Image by http://www.rozsavage.com

Other than being unbelievably ugly, disposed of plastics have massive effects on both the urban and natural environment. Details about the natural environment are spoken about in all the below points; things like animal death and injury, biotoxificaton and the fact that it is non-biodegradable. Biodegradable plastic is not all it is cracked up to be; some plastics only degrade when in contact with sunlight (not buried in landfill), others can take 500 years to decompose and others are actually more dangerous as when they finally do breakdown they release methane into the atmosphere. With roughly 50% of the plastic we use ending up in landfill this is all of serious concern.

Effects on the Urban Environment

Flood victims waiting to receive aid at flooded port city of Narayangonj. Aug 26, 1998.[Image by Pavel Rahman

Plastic can also be extremely dangerous for urban environments and the people that live in them. In 1988 and 1998 over two thirds of Bangladesh flooded – the capital, Dhaka, aws 2m underwater. In the 1998 floods 1,070 people died and 30million were left homeless. The main culprit for this flooding was discarded plastic bags covering and getting caught in drains. This led to a complete ban on plastic bands being imposed in 2002. Similarly I went to Bali last year and could not believe my eyes! Along the streets, in the rivers, in the ocean even in the jungles of Ubud – plastic rubbish was everywhere. In Bali (also a developing country) it is too expensive to dispose of so they just have to leave it there unless they come up with their own solutions…. I walked past as a Balinese man lit his pile of plastic on fire to destroy it. It was horrendous seeing the plumes of black smoke whirring up into the atmosphere, and watching people and children talking near the fire and surely inhaling the toxic chemicals it was producing.

Effects on Animals

A very famous image of a Green Sea turtle eating a plastic bag                       – Image found at http://www.kropes98.global2.vic.edu.au

According to Care2 “more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die every year from ingestion of or entanglement in plastics”. These animals (including whales, seals, turtles and dolphins) die slow and painful deaths either from intestinal blockages or drowning. Considering  we use approximately 500 billion plastic bags alone every year that is a lot of potential deaths – especially when you realise that plastic bags can be serial killers. The animals that swallow the plastic decompose quicker than the plastic inside them which then releases it back out into the water for another poor soul to mistake as a jellyfish.

“24 August 2000 – a Bryde’s whale died in Trinity Bay (2 km from central Cairns). An autopsy found that the whale’s stomach was tightly packed with plastic, including supermarket bags, food packages, bait bags, three large sheets of plastic, and fragments of garbage bags. There was no food in its stomach”

                                                                                                        ~Federal Department of Environment & Heritage website

Effects on Human Health

Mahi Mahi Fish full of plastic – Image from RozSavage.com

As I also explained in my last post fragments of plastic are also breaking up into small nodes – can be microscopic – allowing a large range of animals to eat and then absorb it into their bodies. Our throw-away items are leading to mass bio-toxification of our oceans and consequently our food chain. Scientists are only now starting to really understand the long-term effects this plastic will have on our own biochemistry, but many studies have linked our increased plastics consumption to cancer (breast and colon), infertility, birth defects and obesity.  These scary statistics should not just be attached to the plastic that is in our food chains either. Considerable findings are starting to point to how we package and heat our foods as well. Plastic bottles, cheese, tofu, canned goods (inside of cans are lined in plastic), meat on Styrofoam trays and wrapped in cling wrap – these products have all been linked.

(If you are interested, Mens Health had this fantastic and thorough article about plastic and how it effects our health)

Effects on the Economy

Public perception is that plastic is cheap. Hell! It is better than cheap… it is FREE! However, this is a classic case of not looking at the embodied cost of the product – the true cost! As reported by Planet Ark plastic bags, for example, are not free to consumers – they add an estimated $173 million a year to Australia’s grocery bills! Additionally the Australian local and state governments spend over $200 million a year clearing litter. Right there is $375million that the Australian taxpayer is contributing to pollution. In the 2010-11 budget our government cut $250 million from urban water initiatives and $80million from major national environmental protection program (Caring for our Country) because of ‘hard financial times’. Could we not just cut the pollution, saving the consumer $173m, the taxpayer $200m and the environmental devastation which is unmeasurable? That’s $375million which could be injected back into the economy, towards useful ends, not just a lazy convenience. I know that producing a budget for the entire country is more complicated than that but the overall solution is simple. Stop investing in pollution. Start investing in sustainable technologies and solutions.

Effects on our Self-Respect

Image by Manan Vastsyayana original found at CoastalCare.org

It is not fair that we treat our environment, other countries (predominantly third-world), the animals that live in it, our health or our oceans this way. It is not even for a noble cause. There is not one application that we use plastic for that could not have an eco-alternative that uses renewable energy sources. I throw down the challenge for you to think of one? We need to start having a bit more self-respect and respect for the rest of the planet. We need to stop biting the hand that feeds us.

“Don’t blow it – good planets are hard to find”

~ Quoted in Time Magazine

My Conclusion

Researching this post has really strengthened my resolve to eliminate plastic from my life and I hope it has you too. I will be documenting my challenge to be plastic free as I am sure there will be some hurdles but I am willing to jump them after the information I have read this week. It isn’t all doom and gloom – tomorrow I will be looking at solutions (individual and otherwise) to this massive problem. There are little and big things that we can all do.

Spring-Cleaning Spring!

 “6,000 pieces of plastic are estimated to float in every square mile of the ocean”

Can you believe that? It feels like an insurmountable task to even visualise, let alone change. Luckily though, there are some fantastic organisations out there that are set on doing exactly that… Continue reading