It is one of those days…one of those days when nature is in a warm and lazy frame of mind. The sky is a pool of deep blue and I cannot imagine a thing wrong with the world. We are quite alone on a pristine beach. The tide is out; our favourite mussel rock lies exposed. As we stroll over to collect lunch, small waves gently push the white sand into ever changing Zen graphics – mother nature doodling in the sand. A pair of Oystercatchers land and adds their imprint on nature’s transient creations.
Setting the mussel bag aside, I lift my camera to try my hand at some wildlife photography, but the birds are coy and stride purposefully to the low dunes that hem the beach. Sinking into photo-hunter mode, I stalk the birds over the dunes, into a hidden world of roosting Oystercatchers and…plastic. The black birds pick their way through a wild sprinkle of bright colour; bottle tops, buckets, nylon rope, plastic crates, toys, bottles, and electric light fittings crowd out the white sand under my feet.
How can this be? I look over my shoulder at the perfection behind me and then at the mess at my feet. I feel compelled to do something. In the distance, a 50-liter bucket lies half-buried; digging it out of the sand unearths yet more plastic. Within ten minutes, I have filled the bucket with plastic and have not made the slightest impression on the scene.
The urge to do something remains, but what? I decide I will be scientific about it and shall start with a small investigation.
The bucket of plastic gets loaded into the car, along with a bag of plump mussels. While the mussels are being prepared for lunch, I do some sorting and counting. My ten minutes of clean-up yields 1069 pieces of plastic; ranging from large identifiable objects to small micro flakes.
One item stands out – plastic lollipop sticks – 105 of them. The lollipop sticks can be easily dealt with, simply by changing our own behaviour. Shout out to all the mommies and daddies. Lollipops are bad for your child, make their teeth rot, make them fat, make them hyperactive, – just say NO!
Ok, that was not too hard, but what about all the other random pieces of plastic from light fittings to coat hangers? These are not items that were dropped on the beach…I think. But what do I know? Perhaps there are those who prefer their beach towels well pressed and their sun umbrellas fitted with artificial light.
Funnies aside. How did all this plastic get to this secluded beach?
Inspecting my map, I see that the beach is part of a small bay that faces the open ocean. It is one of those bays that face the wind and tides in such a way that it acts as a trash trap. Scooping the floating debris from the current and dumping it on the beach. I have created an interactive map here . Add beaches in your area that have the same problem.
You may be thinking; who cares, this is a secluded beach where no one ever goes. So an occasional sea bird is entangled in some fishing line, it’s not your problem. Or is it?
Research is increasingly showing that plastic on the beaches of the world is not just a localised eyesore, but a very small part of a much bigger problem. Of all the 1069 random pieces of plastic that I picked up, 192 lids made up the biggest single group. The accompanying bottles and containers probably also landed in the ocean but – having filled with water – are now somewhere at the bottom of the sea.
Research from 24 expeditions (2007–2013) across all the know ocean gyres estimates a minimum of 5.25 trillion particles weighing 243978 tonnes (1) of plastic are floating in the ocean. These surveys only deal with particles that can be sifted from the sea. As plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller microscopic particles it can eventually not be separated from the water, and is slowly turning the ocean into plastic soup. This plastic soup has potentially far more damaging effects on marine life than basic entanglement. “This leaves sequestration in sediment the likely resting place for plastic pollution after a myriad of biological impacts along the way, thus reinforcing the need for pre-consumer and post-consumer waste stream solutions to reverse this growing environmental problem.”(1)
The scope of the problem only becomes apparent if we consider that; since the 1950’s, a billion tonnes of plastic have been produced. In 2015, the plastic industry expects to produce 300million tonnes of virgin plastic. Plastic does not biodegrade, so all these tonnes of plastic still exist – in some form – somewhere in our environment.
It is only when I start investigating the medical research into plastic pollution that I really see the full severity of the problem, and how fundamentally it affects human lives.
Science is showing us that we need to redefine what we mean when we say ecosystem and environment. Humans tend to think of themselves as separate from the environment; it is something humans must save. Biologists have come to see our bodies also as environments, containing various ecosystems, which they call microbiomes. There is a growing body of scientific research showing that the plastic pollution affects both our inner and the outer environments equally dramatically. When seen in this light we recognise that marine plastic is a problem that potentially threatens the health of every vertebrate species on the planet, including homo sapiens.
Since the early 1970’s research started showing evidence, that plastic has the ability to mimic hormones, specifically estrogens. When plastic enters the marine food chain, these hormone mimickers affect the endocrine systems that regulate all the functions of life. This has earned this particular type of pollutant the collective name of endocrine disruptor. “Already over 10 years ago, it was concluded that the state of the science justified regulatory action (2).” Only in the past few years has some regulation been enforced on some types of plastic, notably the increased banning of plastic bags and the banning of certain plastic in baby bottles and soothers.
While this is a baby step in the right direction, it does nothing to address the endocrine disrupting properties of plastic, their build up in the water system, and entry into the food chain. Below is a list of just a few of these chemicals and their known effects on health.
BPA– Mimics Estrogens – can cause breast and others cancers, reproductive problems, obesity, early puberty and heart disease.
Dioxin – Long lived, builds up both in the body and in the food chain. Disrupts both male and female sex hormone signalling in the body. Carcinogens, negatively affect the immune and reproductive systems.
Atrazine – Atrazine is a pervasive drinking water contaminant. Even low levels of the herbicide atrazine can turn male frogs into females that produce eggs. Linked to breast tumours, delayed puberty, and prostate inflammation in animals.
Phthalates – All round baddy for men – can trigger “death-inducing signalling” in testicular cells, also hormone changes, lower sperm count, less mobile sperm, birth defects in the male reproductive system, obesity, diabetes and thyroid irregularities.
Fire retardants – They are going to be contaminating people and wildlife around the globe for decades. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, imitate thyroid hormones and disrupt their activity. Can lead to lower IQ.
Arsenic – Enough will kill you outright – lesser concentrations can cause skin, bladder and lung cancer. Disrupting the glucocorticoid system, which has been linked to weight gain/loss, protein wasting, immunosuppression, insulin resistance (which can lead to diabetes), osteoporosis, growth retardation, and high blood pressure.
Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) – Do not break down in the environment ,ever.
That means that even though the chemical was banned after decades of use, it will be showing up in people’s bodies for countless generations to come. PFOA exposure has been linked to decreased sperm quality, low birth weight, kidney disease, thyroid disease, and high cholesterol, among other health issues. (4) The full article here.
The field of Epigenetics is relatively new, but research is already showing very alarming evidence that our diet and exposure to toxins is not isolated in time, but evolutionary (11). The more we expose ourselves to these endocrine disruptors, the greater the impact of these chemicals on our future generations. Diseases and syndromes such as addictions, obesity, autism, cancer, and infertility could become the new normal. The alarming increase of children with autism in the USA (119.4 percent from 2000 (1 in 150) to 2010 (1 in 68) an increase that affects males 4.5 times more than females) has been extensively linked to endocrine disruptors. A simple online search with keywords, scholarly, endocrine disruptors and autism, will result in thousands of research results.
Conclusion from: Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: Associated Disorders and Mechanisms of Action. Sam De Coster and Nicolas van Larebeke
There is substantial evidence indicating that endocrine disruptors contribute to the risk of cancer, developmental problems, diabetes, and possibly also obesity and the metabolic syndrome. Also, it seems highly likely that endocrine disruptors can contribute to infertility and subfertility. That is why both the Endocrine Society  and the American Chemical Society  (with 161.000 chemical scientists and engineers as members, the world’s largest scientific society) recently issued scientific statements on endocrine disruption. In their statements, these scientific societies recommend increased efforts at identifying and studying endocrine disruptors, expansion of education throughout the formal education structures in universities and schools, and better information to the public in general and to health care professionals and to chemists in particular. The Endocrine Society stresses the importance of the precautionary principle in the absence of direct information regarding cause and effect and considers the principle to be critical to enhancing reproductive and endocrine health. The American Chemical Society recommends more Green Chemistry research aimed at identifying and developing functional alternatives that do not have endocrine-disrupting activity. It remains, however, very difficult to determine which substances, at which point in time and at which concentrations, actually increase risk. Implementing the physical-chemical hygiene is in this context certainly indicated. (5) full report here.
What the research is showing is that we are possibly engineering not just mass extinction of other species, but also our own. Other than have a full-blown panic attack, what can we do? The usual R’s come to mind, reduce, reuse, recycle. One could add; redesign, refuse, repurpose, but all these words point to one global action we can – no, let me be emphatic – we must all take. That is to rethink.
Currently our thinking about recycling plastic is to send the used plastic somewhere, where something is done to it, to allow something new to be made out of it, and so we feel appeased that we have done our bit. However, only 5-7% of plastic gets recycled globally. This leave the remaining millions of tonnes produced every year somewhere in the environment. No matter where the plastic lands, a huge portion of the chemicals it leaches will enter the food chain, and one day – perhaps today – we will eat them.
The best way of recycling is to make things out of materials that nature can break down completely. There are already fully biodegradable alternatives to Styrofoam and plastic. However, there is another bit of rethinking we have to do, before we will find these biodegradable alternatives acceptable. It is our fixation on permanence. To satisfy this demand we have created an unbreakable thing called plastic, out of which we make things designed to break – on purpose – because our current economy demands that we buy the same things over and over, in order that the economy remains healthy.
ps: Another possible rethink would be to recognize that, as plastic is as indestructible as gold, it is not trash. It is a valuable resource that can be used over and over. It should be treated like gold and never land in the garbage.
You may now be thinking that structure of the economy is the driver of this madness, and you may be right. But, in context of this article – specifically about the impact each one of us has on the environment, and the impact it has on us – the thing to rethink is your personal impact on the environment.
If you think that one person cannot make a difference. Think of it this way. Each lollipop stick and each bottle top that I collected is direct evidence of one mindless person making a difference. Imagine then the difference a mindful person could make.
To help me work through how this change of mind can be achieved, I have launched a new participation piece, which presents you with a conscious choice, between being mindless or mindful.
A symbol of solidarity for mindful people. Mindful people recognise that their smallest action makes a difference, and that each action should be thoughtful, with the intent to do no harm. To join the growing global revolution of the mind, read more here.
Now you must excuse me, the delicious aroma of mussels in wine sauce, served with a crusty loaf, is calling me to table. Unfortunately – with all my new knowledge top of mind – I look at the mussels in trepidation, and I ask myself; do I or don’t I eat them?
References and further reading: I would like to suggest that when you read ‘rat’ substitute the word ‘human’ in your mind, to allow the full impact of the research findings to hit you.