So what’s the big deal about plastics?
The towns of Waynesville and Canton have recently joined hundreds of other communities in declaring a need to dramatically reduce the use of throw-away/single-use plastics.
Lurking behind these issues is the effect of changing world weather patterns on our region. Thousands of folks see the mountains as a refuge — a place of mild weather and natural beauty — and want to be here.
There are many factors contributing to climate change: burning coal and natural gas for electricity; the 1.4 billion vehicles in the world that burn gasoline. But perhaps one connection that doesn’t get enough attention — in my humble opinion — is the increase in plastic production.
In the year 1950, at the beginning of the “plastic age” about 1.7 million tons of plastic was produced annually in the world. By 2018 that figure was 350 million tons per year. What lies ahead? The transition to electric vehicles is gradually taking shape (Norway and other countries soon will outlaw new gas-powered vehicles). Electric generation by solar and wind is now cheaper than coal and natural gas.
As a result, the oil/gas industries, Russia oligarchs and Saudi princes are responding as expected to changing energy demands. To maintain their extraordinary profits as the demand for oil, gas and coal products changes over the next decades, the fossil fuel multi-nationals are planning an enormous expansion of plastic production. The heat and gas generated in the processing of petroleum into plastics will become an even bigger factor in the heating of the planet.
But what’s the big deal, many people might ask? It’s just some more plastic water bottles, some more little throwaway bags. If you clean up streams and roadways for Haywood Waterways you might get grossed out by the smelly, ugly plastic trash pulled out of our streams and riverbanks. But why worry so much?
Well, actually there is a lot to worry about, like birth defects, pregnancy miscarriages, diabetes, cancers, falling sperm counts and an astonishing list of medical dangers connected to the now overwhelming presence of plastics in our environment.
Every day in the United States, about 300 million single-use plastic bags and over 300 million plastic drinking bottles are used. Haywood County alone generates — conservatively — 5 million single-use plastic bags a year! (An important overview can be found at singleuseplastics.plasticpollutioncoalitionresources.org)
Ninety percent of these items are not recycled in any way. They break down into smaller and smaller particles called micro- or nano-plastics and remain in the environment for thousands of years. They are now found in microscopic size in almost all our food, water and air. Just last month, lung biopsies done on surgical patients in California found micro-plastics deep in lung tissue of the majority of patients. We now find plastic particles in virtually all newborns’ umbilical cord blood. Is this a problem?
Not at all — if you believe the chemical industry spokespeople and politicians who receive millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the chemical companies and industry associations.
Let it be said that some uses of plastics have helped humanity and probably will for some time. However, most of these things can be produced with plant materials that do decompose and do not pose a threat to the environment and our health.
Throwaway /single-use plastics are also massively polluting the oceans, croplands and the air we breathe. When micro plastics are found in snow samples high in the Himalayas and in the deepest areas of the Pacific Ocean, something is wrong.
Studies show a shocking increase in pregnancy miscarriages and falling sperm counts in American men that are both strongly associated with the endocrine (hormone) disturbing agents found in many plastics. Certain cancers and metabolic diseases like diabetes are also strongly suspected to be related.
A more comprehensive survey of current research into the health dangers of plastics can be found in this article — link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12403-022-00470-8 .
The research points to PBA, used to stiffen plastics into bottles, and phthalates, used to soften plastics into films, bags, etc., causing disruptions of hormonal function. This can lead to malformed sexual organs in newborns and may be related to the 30 percent increase in pre-term births since 1980 as well as many other genetic and metabolic problems..
Finally, a brief mention of the well-known situation of massive plastic pollution of the seas. There will soon be one pound of plastics for every two pounds of fish in the oceans. Eight million tons per year are being dumped into our seas. How will this affect our health and the safety of our food supply?
It is up to the human inhabitants of the Earth to decide — is this beautiful planet to be preserved? Is the health of its inhabitants — human and otherwise — to be protected? Or do we turn our eyes away and increasingly treat the earth like one giant overheated garbage dump? Join one of the many organizations dedicated to preventing this from being our children’s future.
(Dr. Stephen Wall practiced pediatrics in Haywood County for 30 years. He is a member of the Western North Carolina Climate Action Coalition.)
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As soon as the biggest polluters on the planet such as India and China go along with the cleanup and the global warming initiative Mr. Wall, then I will be onboard. Till then, spare me your save the earth speech.