With the discovery that micro-plastics have been found in human stool samples we can now confirm that the scourge of plastic has thoroughly permeated the world’s food chain. It’s unknown if the plastic discovered in the human gut has been ingested directly or through eating fish or other animals which themselves ingested plastic. Whichever, neither polyethylene nor polypropylene are in any way nutritious; to the contrary, many plastics are endocrine disrupters and suspected carcinogens.
Plastics, of course, are manufactured using petroleum by-products, yet another by-product of our fossil-fuel dependence. It’s said that at the rate discarded plastics are filling the oceans, plastic will soon outweigh fish. Dead fish decompose and become food for other living things, of course, while plastics simply break down into ever tinier pieces, particles so small as to be indistinguishable from oceanic, one-celled phytoplankton. Unless and until a new form of life evolves based on polyethylene, the plastic in our environment will continue to poison the existing food chain for eons to come.
When plastic became popular in the mid-twentieth century it was hailed as a technological marvel. Either rigid or flexible, plastic quickly replaced organic materials such as wood, bone, leather hides and paper. Despite plastic’s durability, inexpensive, readily-available oil ensured it would become “single-use” in everyday applications such as cups, straws, clam-shell packaging, and shopping bags. Today, billions of tons of single-use plastic jams land-fills and floats tangled in massive islands in the Pacific Ocean.
The recycling of plastic first appeared as an important solution to the plastic trash problem, and recycling bins are now part our standard waste stream. Unfortunately, plastic recycling in a profit-driven world means its cost must compete with virgin materials, and recycled plastic has lost that competition. As fracking has proliferated, the low cost of abundant oil continues to drive down the value of recycled plastic; China, once the importer of the west’s recycled material has stopped accepting it, and the plastic we recycle at home is ending up in landfills instead, our good intentions notwithstanding. As often the case, economics trumps environment.
On a local level, we can and have taken actions that reduce our contribution to the waste plastic problem. Banning single-use plastics in the commercial sector is likely impossible, but refusing to buy products in single-use plastic is an option. Reusable water bottles made of lightweight metal, for example, are an easy way to stop generating plastic waste. Using cloth or recycled material shopping bags instead of plastic is another, as is buying in bulk while using glass containers for storage. Skip the plastic bags in the produce aisle and eat fresh foods instead of packaged. Admittedly, the shift away from plastic is challenging and inconvenient, and also means giving up purchasing some items altogether. In the case of shopping, less convenient means more ecologically healthy.
Like many other problems due to our industrialized world and its commensurate psychology, the solutions are radical; in other words, going back to the root of our behavior. Plastic is about convenience, transport, higher profit and economics. One radical approach means getting back to activities such as growing food in home gardens, canning what we grow, and sharing harvests with others. Ultimately, it means re-accommodating ourselves to pre-industrial habits of thrift. Zero waste is not packaged in plastic.