The Trouble With Eating Plastic: Microplastics are Making their Way into the Food Chain. But can We Give Up Our Plastic Addiction?

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Perhaps you’ve heard of, or read recent studies regarding where all those plastic water bottles we’ve all sworn off of at one time or another are ultimately ending up. Or maybe you’ve stumbled upon that cute little TED Talk in your facebook feed. The cheerful yet informative illustrated short detailing the various life-cycles of 3 “single-use” water bottles. And maybe by now you’re curious about the potential dangers of ingesting foods, mainly of the aquatic variety, that may contain some level of these ‘microplastics’ you’ve been hearing about. Is there cause for concern? The jury of the scientific world is still out but the evidence points to a serious need to address our prolific use of the ubiquitous man-made “miracle” material and just what it means for us humans to ingest the offensive substance.

So what’s the story in a nutshell and how is it that microplastic makes it’s way onto your plate? The short answer begins with one simple fact: Plastic never biodegrades. Never. It breaks down into smaller and ever smaller pieces known as microplastics. These tiny pieces of plastic, ranging in size from 5mm down to 10nanometres, then attract micro-organisms. These micro-organisms use them as floating barges to grow on. This and the subsequent leaching of chemicals that are contained within the plastics over time and continued UV exposure (chemicals we use for the desirable attributes that they then create within the polymers – flame retardancy, antimicrobial properties, etc.) sometimes give off an odor that then tricks smaller animals into thinking of it as food. Small animals get eaten by larger animals. Up and up the food chain it travels until it finally makes it’s way in some form or other onto our plates and into our bodies.

But did you know that the consumption of tainted seafood is not the only way in which we ingest plastics? Microparticles of plastic are even finding their way into our drinking water. Microparticles of plastic in the form of fibers that are far too small to effectively filter out of our waste water. Straight out of the tap and into our bodies on the cellular level.  A quick google search of the long term effects of exposure to chemicals contained within plastics show them as linked to such ailments as hormone disruption, genital malformations, reduced fertility and even cancer.

To this end and with so many variable points of contact, it is difficult to assess ultimately to what level exposure to and the consumption of plastics and the chemicals contained within it produce these and many other harmful side effects to humans. Regardless, there is enough evidence out there to hopefully begin to create pause within our minds. Have we gone too far into the depths of our addiction to this miracle of modern science. This product we have come to know and use so frequently, that has made daily life all the more convenient and single-serving friendly for so many of us. A product able to save lives as indiscriminately as it would take or end it.

Now you may be asking yourself, “So am I supposed to abandon plastics altogether? Is that even possible?” See the trouble tends to stem in large part from the ubiquitous use of what is known as ‘single-use plastics’ in our everyday life. Single-use plastics typically refer to the shopping bags we get at markets and shops; the plastic wrapping we unceremoniously rip away from packaged goods ranging from food items, electronics, to beauty and cosmetic products; to the inexpensive plastic containers we get our take-away food orders neatly packaged into for us which are then put in yet another single-use plastic bag to cart off and enjoy at home or at our desks at work. Walk not ten steps into your average grocery store or corner convenience mart and you’ll be confronted with row upon row of pre-packaged food goods, cleaning supplies, cosmetics and sundries all pre-packaged, wrapped, and bagged in the offensive, chemical laden, miracle polymer.

It all seems so unavoidable and an impossible endeavor to take on. Giving up plastic in it’s entirety seems completely unrealistic to almost every single person I’ve approached with the idea. And unless you’re extremely mindful and intentional about foregoing the use of it altogether it’s easy to overlook just how much plastic you consume and consequently throw out on a daily basis or even on your weekly trip to market.

But believe it or not the plastic-free, zero-waste lifestyle is gaining popularity in light of so much attention and support from various scientific communities confirming the presence of plastics in our food and water supply. Many municipalities are adopting ordinances banning the use of plastic bags altogether or charging the consumer for it’s use rather than give it for free as a courtesy upon checkout as it was previously done. In December 2015, President Obama signed into law the Microbead-Free Waters Act which banned the production of rinse-off cosmetic products (products including toothpastes, shower gels and cleansers) containing plastic microbeads as exfoliating agents. A ban on production of these products in the U.S. began in July 2017. The sales of which will be banned from July 2018 onward. Other countries participating in similar efforts include Canada, EU, UK, Japan, China and Korea.

The spotlight of social media and grassroots community support along with the ever-growing mountain of evidence in support of the need for alternative options for the conscious consumer interested in doing their part in the global effort to shrink waste and harmful environmental impact, has seen the rise of a business model known as the ethical supermarket. Zero-waste, low-impact grocers offering alternatives for those looking to make the switch to a world without plastic and toxic plastic waste. Leading to the burgeoning partnerships of small business owners, local farming co-ops, farmers and larger chain markets working together to create a different kind of consumer experience in the form of supermarkets the likes of The Fillery (Brooklyn, NY), in.gredients (Austin, TX), and Original Unverpackt (Berlin, DE).

It is absolutely clear to my mind that the global community is beginning to recognize the severity of  the harmful longterm effects of plastics on the environment and ultimately on us. However efforts such as these represent only the tip of the iceberg of steps yet to be taken in order to lessen and hopefully eliminate the use of plastics in exchange for more sustainable and less harmfully impactful alternatives.

Ultimately we find ourselves at the beginning of things. At the time of this writing, I myself am curious to see where this newfound information will lead us. Will the upcoming findings be the information that marks the tipping point in our perceptions of the waste we create? Will it ultimately bring the literal closing of the gap in our collective minds between waste and the basic things we as humans need to survive? Healthy food from healthy environments, and the consideration on the end-of-life of the products we consume. A shift in perspective on waste and material goods as single-use-here-today-throw-away-tomorrow conveniences to one of minimalist, eco-conscious/conservationist environmental harmony maybe? A tall order perhaps. But the dreamer in me likes to keep hoping. Time will tell, and by all accounts, time seems to be limited.

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