If you are on our website it is most likely that you’ll think: that’s a silly question, of course plastic is bad!
Well, the answer might not be that simple: plastic is not bad per se, it’s the common use of plastic around the world that makes it a threat for our entire ecosystem.
Plastic is extremely versatile, a strong material made to last for hundreds of years. Its light weight has helped revolutionize the automobile industry, has save fuel and reduced greenhouse emissions, it is used in construction of buildings and infrastructures, has made everyday appliances more affordable and is used to produce sport safety gear.
As you can see, the world today wouldn’t quite be the same without plastic, so we are not here to demonize it altogether.
Unfortunately, most of the plastic you encounter in your everyday life is made to be used only once and then discarded. To the point where 75% of all plastic ever produced is waste.
This includes items like food wrapping, bubble wrap, mail satchels, carry bags, coffee cups and takeaway containers, we are all guilty of being using too much over the past months during the Covid-19 global health crisis.
On average, Australians use 130 kg of plastic per person each year (that’s something like 1300 blueberry muffins for those of you with a sweet tooth) and only 9% of that's recycled.
Which means that 130,000 tonnes of plastic each year in Australia end up in the landfill, into our waterways or into the ocean.
And once it’s out there, plastic will endanger our wildlife: animals will end up ingesting plastic, which they can’t digest and process through their digestive system, ultimately resulting in internal blockages and their death. If they are somehow lucky to survive from ingesting just a small piece of plastic, the toxins that plastic contains will likely impair their breeding and immune system.
However, what is most shocking is that a study by the University of Newcastle, Australia, has suggested that humans are actually ingesting plastic too!
The study suggests that an average person could be ingesting approximately 5 grams of plastic every week. This equals to a credit card’s worth of microplastics that ends up in your stomach every week.
But how is that possible?
All that plastic that is thrown out and not recycled (and that includes also those new Bioplastic we wrote about here) will sooner or later disintegrate into microplastic particles so small that are passed through the food chain directly to our plate or glass.
The most common microplastics in the ecosystem are microfibers shed from clothes containing nylon and polyester. When going through a washing machine cycle.
Fragments of plastics used for bags and straws were the second most common plastic found in nature.
And the problem is that even if you do everything perfectly at home, sorting all your rubbish to the letter, your waste will still probably not be recycled as a result of underdeveloped waste management centres and infrastructure. Your plastic will likely be openly dumped or managed through uncontrolled landfills to become part of the world plastic pollution.
So, what are the foods most at risk of containing plastic?
The study has found that the largest source of plastic ingestion is drinking water, and not only in your tap water but in bottled water as well!
A study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that people who meet their recommended water intake through tap water ingest around 4,000 plastic particles annually, while those who drink only bottled water ingest around 90,000.
Another key source is shellfish, eaten whole after a life in seas polluted with plastic. Shellfish can account for as much as 0.5 grams of ingested plastic a week.
The other two foods highlighted by the research are beer and salt.
Another source of microplastics in the human body is inhalation, which generally speaking is a negligible portion, but vary highly depending on the environment we are most exposed to.
The study showed that indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air because of limited circulation and heavy presence of synthetic textiles and household dust.
What is the effect of ingesting microplastic on human health?
The specific effects are not yet fully understood, and we don’t know quite yet what is the maximum dose of plastic that our bodies can tolerate before starting to show them.
However, if we look at the effects microplastic have on wildlife, we are in for inflammation of the respiratory tract (after all, our lungs were not built to breath plastic!) for sexual disfunction, fertility issues and increased occurrence of mutations and cancers brought by chemicals, dyes and additives contained in some plastics.
Unfortunately a completely 100% plastic free diet is not achievable anymore and the WWF is asking Governments to fund more research so that we can fill the knowledge gaps and understand better how plastic and microplastics affect living organisms’ health.
What can we do to limit plastic pollution?
We understand that when take away was the only option and cafes were not accepting your keep cup, avoid plastic containers was a bit difficult but when restrictions start to ease, we will all need to re-evaluate our plastic consumption habits.
Here are some things that we can do to limit plastic pollution:
- Every time you get something plastic, ask yourself: how many times and how long will I use it for?
- Don’t trust the recycle symbol on the packaging you buy, check with your Council there actually is a facility in place to recycle those items. Otherwise they will just end in the landfill.
- When comparing prices, consider the true cost of plastic pollution to nature and people.
- Do some research how a product is made and how sustainable its supply chain is (ever heard of Australian grains being sent to Italy to make Pasta and then sent back in those fancy packagings?)
- Swap for plastic free alternatives or, if not possible, buy in bulk.
- Read our blog 15 tips to reduce your waste for more ideas.
We leave you a video made by the WWF about this, inviting you to encourage politicians to beat plastic pollution and phase out the 10 worst single-use plastics in your state or territory!
The Study from the University of Newcastle was written by Dalberg Advisors, Wijnand de Wit and Nathan Bigaud.
Published in June 2019 by WWF – World Wide Fund For Nature
(Formerly World Wildlife Fund), Gland, Switzerland.