Plastic: The Forever Wonder Substance

seriesPart 3 in a special series on the presence of plastic in our lives.

We all try to do our part. We try to make conscious, low environmental impact choices when we can, but technology has outpaced awareness. Plastic hides everywhere: under our noses, in place sight, in the places we’d least expect. Case in point: a committed java junkie, I try to carry a reusable cup at all times. When I don’t, I order a medium in a large cup, so I can avoid the plastic lid. And then I learned even the paper cups have a thin layer of polyethylene lining.

Most of the scientific literature to date suggests that polyethylene doesn’t leach chemicals, but it doesn’t biodegrade, either, creating a lasting problem. So often, we don’t even know we’re consuming plastic. Even chewing gum contains plastic (poly-vinyl acetate). Check the ingredients; it’s difficult to find a single chewing gum that doesn’t contain a synthetic. Ditto beer. Fans of the hearty, local microbrew will notice the plastic gasket lining the bottle caps of glass bottles. In short: it’s everywhere.

Many face cleansers, for example, utilize plastic in their formulas to work as an abrasive. Everyone wants healthy skin, and we dutifully scrape away those older, dead skin cells to reveal the younger, fresher cells beneath. The plastic particles in the exfoliants wash down the drain, into the rivers and the ocean, where they work as a vector to absorb persistent organic pollutants at highly toxic levels – and can be ingested by fish and bio-magnify up the food chain, right back into tonight’s dinner.

Treatment plants haven’t been able to demonstrate effective capture of these plastic additives, which on personal care labels will go by names like “polyethylene micro-spheres” or “micro-beads.” Brands like Clearasil, Ponds, and Neutrogena all use synthetic exfoliants. (Luckily, there are healthy, green alternatives for younger, fresher skin, from brands like Farm Aesthetics, Burt’s Bees, and Yes to Carrots to homegrown remedies like lemon peel and coffee grounds.)

Coffee, beer, gum, cleansers – does it ever stop? Plastic is even in some brands of whitening toothpaste.

The stuff just doesn’t go away. We’ve been using plastics widely for about 40 years, with consumption spiking about 20 years ago. Within this short span of time, plastic can already be found in every part of the ocean and on every single beach in the world.  It’s made of toxic chemicals. It doesn’t biodegrade. It’s accumulating in every light and dark recess of our reality. And we don’t know what it’s going to do to us yet.

Recycling, far from being an answer, is a myth, one that makes us feel good but doesn’t solve the problem. When we throw “it” away, we have to remember one thing: there is no away. There is only out of sight. As we wash our faces, brighten our smiles, and pound our morning lattes, we’re creating an ever-, over-plasticized environment.

Editor’s note: This is part 3 in a special series on plastic. Read part 2 and part 1.

Image: Nick Harris