Archived Opinion

Plastics everywhere — should we be worried?

Plastics everywhere — should we be worried?

A baby whale washed up on a beach. Eighty-eight pounds of plastics were found in its stomach. Should we care? 

Two hundred brands of bottled water were tested. Only 17 were found to be free of microscopic plastic particles. Is this a problem?

The “Plastics Blob” floating in the Pacific is one and a half times the size of Texas. What can I do about that?

Why have nations around the world, and communities in the USA, declared July 2023 “Plastic Free July?” 

What exactly are plastics? Why should folks in Western North Carolina care about this at all?

If current trends continue, plastics production will consume 20-30% of all the oil and gas the world produces. This increasing production will release hundreds of millions of tons of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Can we expect more extreme flooding events in the Pigeon River Watershed? More polluted air drifting down from Canadian wildfires?

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Once used and discarded, plastics break down into smaller and smaller particles that stay around for hundreds of years. We now find microplastics in the 6-mile deep Marianas Trench in the Pacific, and on the peaks of Mount Everest.

In the U.S., we use about 300 million plastic shopping bags a day! The average American family uses over 1,000 bags a year. A large store that serves 1,500 families distributes 1.5 million plastic bags a year.

We use approximately 300 million plastic bottles a day in the United States. Only 10% of all this plastic is recycled. The rest goes into the giant waste bin called Earth, where it all breaks down into trillions of microparticles that hang around for many centuries.

But is it really bad for us?

Chemicals found in plastic items or used during the manufacturing process are a concern for human health. Phthalates are the chemicals that make plastics flexible and thin. It’s likely that these chemicals cause serious effects on human reproduction. Female infertility, gestational diabetes and increased miscarriages were noted in animal and human studies. Miscarriages in the U.S. are now around 30% of pregnancies and increasing. Micro plastics may be a big part of the problem.

BPA is another component of the plastics industry, used for stiffness in water bottles and other containers. It is now banned in baby bottles but still widely used. BPA mimics the action of the female hormone estrogen. Studies showed that exposure can lower sperm counts and cause fetal abnormalities. Sperm counts in U.S. men have declined over 30% during the past few decades. Plastics exposure is probably a major factor.

So what can you do?

Ask your grocery manager if  it would be cheaper for the store, and better for our community, if they gave everyone reusable  bags that can be used repeatedly. Suggest that their store become a community leader for sustainability with the effort to reduce plastics. Instead of plastic throw away bottles that harm the environment and our health, use BPA-free reusables and tap water. Save  money, and help prevent major public health and environmental problems.

Will it make a difference? If enough of us do this, it will.

And check out the “Plastics Free July” event at 6:30 p.m. on July 6 at Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville.

(Steve Wall is a retired pediatrician and a member of the Environmental Action Community of WNC, a 501c3 non-profit organization.

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