Post No.: 0380
For many here in the UK, it took a highly visual documentary (Blue Planet II) on plastic pollution gathering around innocent islands across the world, and being able to directly trace some of that waste to our country for the labels and brands found on those plastics, to make us realise without any remnant of doubt the problem of plastic pollution and how the world’s ecosystems are ultimately interconnected.
But there are also invisible greenhouse gases, slower environmental changes such as costal submergence, biodiversity losses, as well as other gradual or immediate negative effects of global warming and pollution around the world that many of us are still ignorant about or still deny are real pressing problems connected to our own choices and behaviours. We tend to neglect what we cannot sense with our own naked senses.
Microplastics are pieces of plastic ≥5mm in diameter, whether made that way or worn down/degraded into this size. We cannot see, smell or taste the levels of carbon dioxide or microplastics in the air, for instance, but they’re there. We need to therefore open our minds to the less-visible things around us and to trace their impacts back to ourselves too. If we just rely on our own personal pair of eyes, we can be too blind to see.
Plastics, or polymers, are an amazing group of materials. The modern world wouldn’t be possible without them. Their ability to last for a long time is a favourable attribute in some contexts but in others it’s the main problem. 60% of the world’s oceans are ‘international waters’ – simultaneously no one’s and everyone’s. And here, the tragedy of the commons amongst different sovereign nations is occurring, such as over-fishing and pollution. Plastic didn’t exist until humans synthesised them – now it’s in every environment on Earth, including under the Arctic ice shelf and on the coasts of remote tropical islands. Microplastic particles are being carried via the waters and being blown by the winds.
Large pieces of plastic can snare or trap marine animals, medium-sized and small pieces can be ingested by birds and kill them directly, and research on the negative effects of microplastics on the health and fertility of animals – including humans – and ecosystems is still relatively young. Microplastics get into the food chain, from the smallest to the largest organisms – and this again includes humans too – for which the long-term effects are being investigated.
There’s growing research in the area of whether or how pollutants – of all kinds – negatively affect the physical and mental health of developing children and adults. We definitely know for sure that certain sizes of plastics and microplastics visible to the naked eye harm animals such as birds and fish when they accumulate in their stomachs, as they would with humans if humans consumed them too, but it’s unknown whether microscopic-sized pieces of microplastics are harmful to humans or other life, and in what quantities are they harmful, in the short, mid or long terms yet. But we can guess that they’ll do no good. Well humans, and other life, certainly didn’t evolve to breathe in or ingest microplastics because they’re only a recent invention in the evolution of life on Earth.
Some may argue that, after breathing in all this air with microplastic particles in it and not getting sick, what’s the fear? Well maybe that’s true with current levels but greater levels are known to increase the risk of lung cancer thus we need to keep vigilant. We don’t want problems we could’ve prevented, and then end up trying to deal with them only when it’s too late. The risk-to-reward isn’t rationally worth it, especially since mass space colonisation is at least several decades away. Living away from Earth isn’t easy, and likely won’t be as great as living on Earth for long periods as opposed to for just a few months or for tourism – so let’s not ruin our furry home planet. Woof!
Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are chemicals found in some plastics and have been linked with several health risks, albeit only with doses much higher than most people will ever typically face; hence current regulations aren’t presenting any fearmongering. There are some concerns yet they shouldn’t be overblown. Studies in this area have increased and we should ultimately be guided by the scientific findings, although they might take some time to appear because we’re trying to find out the long-term effects of them. We must also not forget that other things carry more scientifically clearer and immediate risks to our health, such as consuming too much sugar or salt. And we must again remember that plastics bring many benefits to our lives too – some products we (should) want to last essentially forever and don’t want to biodegrade, rather than ‘chuck away for something new just because we want something new’ when it’s still usable. So single-use plastics, such as in food packaging, are a main problem – they’re used for maybe a week then they might last in the environment for many decades if not recyclable/recycled.
Polyester, acrylic and nylon clothing will shed microplastics (because these are clothes made from plastics) into the environment, particularly when washed. However, cotton and wool products have their disadvantages too (the amount of water used in cotton production, and wool comes from sheep farming if one is vegan). It might be surprising for some to learn that the clothing industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. That’s why we’ve got to make our clothes last for much longer and get away from a ‘fast fashion’ culture. We’ve got to ultimately get away from excessive vanity and consumption.
Now things are frequently more complicated than they at first seem. Even if a cotton substitute uses only a fifth of the amount of water that cotton uses per kilogram, that’s still quite a lot (that’d still be ~2,000-4,000kg of water to produce 1kg of fabric). It’s like ‘diet’ snacks aren’t totally guilt-free hence not snacking as a regular habit would still be comparably better. We therefore still need to reduce our overall consumption – perhaps buy higher quality items but make them last far longer. And make it normal (again) to repair any small holes rather than automatically throwing well-worn clothing away.
Substitutes can simply shift the problems to elsewhere too. For example, the push towards greener electrical energy production and away from fossil fuels results in more sulphur hexafluoride being used to avoid electrical fires in the industry. But it’s the most powerful greenhouse gas we currently know of and it lasts for a long time in the atmosphere too! It’s only a problem if it leaks from systems and, even accounting for its greater greenhouse-effect potency, it’s still not as bad as the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted from flying and driving when using fossil fuels; but it’s something that must be accounted for. There are also numerous other types of particulate emissions and pollutants other than carbon dioxide when we drive (e.g. microplastics from the tyres), and they can affect the local level (e.g. by increasing asthma rates) and/or the global level (e.g. by contributing to the greenhouse effect and rising average global temperatures). We would like things that are convenient, cheap and/or luxurious and are sustainable for the environment, but that cannot always be possible. We would like to implement effective ways to mop up all of the waste we produce, but things like recapturing every piece of leached microplastic on Earth is probably an unfeasible task. So again we cannot ignore the answer of simply consuming less, especially those of us in ‘developed’ countries.
Accounting for the balance between the physical protection of goods (including wrapping fresh fruit and vegetables) and the waste produced if they weren’t so protected – it’s not always clear what’s better for the environment. (Well let’s start by not wasting any food we buy.) Different plastics have different properties and compositing them might produce the best cost-to-performance and/or least weight. But different plastics, generally, cannot be recycled together, and these composite materials make it harder to separate the plastics in order to recycle them. If plastic ‘bags for life’ or cotton bags aren’t used enough times before discarded then they’re going to be worse for the environment than flimsier bags that are only used once or twice. Consumers say they want less waste, yet at the same time want more convenience, so which desire will win according to market forces? Can we just rely on the market to make the right long-term choices? Plastic alternatives are being researched and developed but in the meantime customers need to accept, in larger numbers, less-than-perfect fruit and vegetables, and/or grow some of their own if possible so that a long shelf life is less important.
Even if we want to recycle, it can be confusing what can be recycled or not in a particular local council or district, and erring on the side of ‘recycle’ can actually cause more problems (e.g. plastic bags that clog certain recycling machines, composite-material coffee cups that cannot be recycled). Bioplastics (which don’t come from petrochemical sources) and other compostable plastics only currently biodegrade in soil, not in water or the sea, or may need industrial rather than garden composters. It also depends on whether the land used for producing bioplastics takes away from biodiversity or food production. Nothing comes for free!
Glass is better for recycling but it’s heavier and more fragile, which increases transport costs; hence, in the market, a firm that uses glass tends to get beaten by a competitor who uses plastic (all else being equal) because the latter has lower costs and so can beat the former on price. And if you’re not as profitable as a direct competitor in your industry then shareholders are more likely to de-invest from your company and invest in your competitor(s) instead. So if it’s all about maximising profits and shareholder value then such a company would be more-or-less forced by market forces to use plastic too. Market forces can therefore clearly directly lead to sub-optimal outcomes for the environment. Market forces care more for relatively short-term interests over multigenerational-term interests.
When something is damaging the environment yet corporations heedlessly follow the rule of ‘supply what’s demanded’ then that’s basically admitting that market forces can sometimes lead the world to peril. We can become ‘shareholder activists’ within corporations but that requires having enough money to buy enough shares to have a meaningful vote within that company. Most people are able to vote for which governmental manifesto they want for their country but can’t vote in a company unless they possess shares (with voting rights) in them. So strong regulatory pressures and/or market incentives are the more realistic answers – but the former faces resistance in the form of industry lobbying plus the conflict between looking after the economy (encouraging spending) as well as the environment, and we need to all reduce demand regarding the latter.
When independent research highlights a problem within an industry or range of products and then firms reply with ‘well there’s no law against it’ or ‘governments are allowing it so it’s their fault’ or similar – this highlights how much these firms prove that they cannot, or cannot be bothered to, regulate their own industries or products. For example, a study found that bottles of water contained pieces of microplastics in them and one company essentially replied with ‘well there’s no regulation to compel us to care or change our ways’! And if consumers also put convenience above the environment, then market self-regulation will evidently be, or is, a complete failure in this context. People don’t tend to move or move enough unless forced to, and that’s why we seem to need laws and regulations to incentivise more desirable behaviours in the face of collective action problems, as Fluffystealthkitten expressed in Post No.: 0356.