It's ubiquitous. It's in our food, it's in our beverages, it's everywhere, including the far-reaches of the oceans.
Just this week, a statistic came out from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that 30% of all fish have plastic in them. Visibly in them.
However, this statistic does not tell the whole story. For, while not all fish have visible pieces of plastic in them, it is almost certain that most fish, most marine animals in fact, have byproducts, chemicals from plastic, in their blood stream and stored in their fat where it bio-accumulates and passes up the food chain, eventually to us.
The total weight of plastic floating in our oceans is approaching the same weight as the total biomass of fish in our oceans. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish, and in some parts of the world, this is already the case, as described in this great Guardian article.
The primary problem starts when small marine species feed on micro-plastic bits (smaller than a pearl) found in the oceans, believing them to be food. These bits can come from micro-beads in soaps, and other cosmetic products. Micro-plastics can also come from larger plastics that have been ripped apart by ocean currents. The movie Plastic Paradise does a great job of detailing this with captivating imagery.
Larger fish and marine animals dine on the smaller fish, on and up the food chain. The larger the fish, such as salmon, swordfish, tuna, etc, the higher the concentration of contaminants found in its body; as larger fish have been exposed to the toxins significantly more times, hence, the bio-accumulation effect.
Thus, by the time fish and other seafood winds up on your plate, whether "sustainably" caught, farmed, or wild, they are sure to have detectable levels of BPA - Bisphenol A (a byproduct of plastic), phthalates - a chemical component of PVC plastic, vinyl chloride - another component of PVC, dioxins, or styrene - also components of plastic and rubber. Unfortunately for these animals and for all of us who eat fish and other seafood, these chemicals are carcinogens, possible carcinogens, or promote other negative health effects via their endocrine-disrupting pathways.
To put this in perspective, another statistic from Scientific American that I read today is that 81% of people in the United States have BPA (BisPhenol A) circulating in their bloodstreams, messing with their hormones, their reproduction capabilities, and their health.
Why is this happening?
The driving force is plastic use. As I mentioned upfront, plastic is in everything. Look down, right now, I will bet at least one item in front of you is made of plastic. It is this pervasive use of plastic in everything, for everything, that has created this problem. When we throw plastic away, it does not disintegrate, and some of it inevitably ends up in the ocean.
So, what is a person to do?
1. Stay away from plastic. Don't use it, don't buy it, don't cook with it, don't drink out of it.
2. If you must use plastic, reuse it and/or recycle it, keep it from getting into our oceans.
- Unfortunately, only about 10-20% of all plastic created ever gets recycled. The vast majority of it ends up in landfills, and eventually in our oceans.
3. Limit your contact with thermal receipts (cash-register receipts contain BPA).
4. Store food in glass or stainless steal as much as possible.
5. Purchase reusable produce bags so that at the store you can put produce into these bags as opposed to single-use plastic bags that rip half the time anyway.
6. Skip the plastic lid on a single-use coffee cup. Better still, bring your own reusable cup. You may even get discount!
7. Try to buy jarred vegetables instead of canned to avoid the BPA-filled lining.
8. Consider limiting or avoiding intake of seafood. For both sustainability reasons and for the bio-accumulation and concentration of chemicals I described earlier.
9. Skip the bag. If you are getting takeout from a restaurant, skip the plastic bag, or better; bring your own reusable shopping bag.
10. Be mindful about all the plastic in your life. Do what you can, starting today, to cut back, or cut out your use of plastic.
While it seems like a daunting task, little changes can make a big difference to your health, the ocean's health, marine-life health, and to the amount of pollution in our oceans, atmosphere, and our own bodies.
Hormone-related cancer rates are on the rise, particularly in children who are most susceptible to the endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as those listed above, found in plastic.
So, what's on your dinner plate tonight?
Not plastic, (or its byproducts)...I hope.
For more information, please see a previous blog-post