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Plastic? Poison

26 April 2018

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Sachini Muller is a Research Officer at the Development Policy Centre and co-editor of the Devpolicy Blog. She is currently completing a Master of Globalisation at the ANU. Her interests lie in research and the aid and development sector.

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The world’s overconsumption of plastic is threatening more than just marine life, Sachini Muller writes.

Climate change, sustainability, and environmental damage are now common topics in households around the world. But what we’re not talking enough about is how much plastic we’re producing, using, and not disposing of properly.

Plastic is already severely impacting our environment. And although we don’t yet have adequate research to know for sure, it’s probably also negatively impacting our health. We’ve heard about the chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA), commonly used in food packaging, and its links to disorders such as infertility and tumours such as breast and prostate cancer. We know we should reduce microwaving our food in plastic containers because they can leach chemicals into the food.

But did you know that plastics that break down in the ocean are making their way into our food chain?

First, let’s take a look at what happens to plastic once it enters our oceans. It is clear that our overconsumption of plastic is having an effect on the environment, with some estimates suggesting each year at least 100,000 marine mammals are killed by plastic pollution. However, it is not just lives of marine animals that are under threat, but the balance of entire ecosystems.

Plastic isn’t biodegradable, which means that even when it breaks down, it just breaks down into smaller pieces. These micrometre-sized pieces are called microplastics. These can include fibres from synthetic clothing, or the microbeads found in many cosmetics.

In a Macquarie University study, beach hoppers (small jumping crustaceans at the bottom of the coastal food web) were fed microplastics. After five days, the beach hoppers had gained weight, reducing their ability to hop, and in some cases, had died. Beach hoppers are crucial to decomposing seaweed, cycling nutrients back into the beach, and in moving energy up the food chain. Reduced numbers (or extinction) of beach hoppers can, therefore, change essential coastal processes.

The Plastic Oceans Foundation has argued that plastic should be considered toxic once it gets into the natural environment, as it can attract poisonous chemicals “like a magnet”. When ingested by animals, the chemicals from microplastics transfer into the tissue of the organism. This was found to be the case for lugworms, which are eaten by birds and fish and are commonly used by governments to test the safety of chemicals discharged into marine habitats.

Beyond seafood, we should also be worried about our water. In a global survey of tap water from six regions on five continents, 83 per cent of samples analysed contained plastic particles. And don’t think drinking bottled water will spare you. A recent study found that more than 90 per cent of some of the world’s most popular bottled water brands contained microplastics, prompting a health review from the World Health Organization. And we know that if plastic is in our water, it’s also definitely in our food.

It gets worse.

Professor Frank Kelly, an environmental health expert from King’s College London, gave evidence to an Environmental Audit Committee in the UK in 2016, saying that we may be breathing in harmful microplastics from the environment. Research published earlier this year in Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health supported that claim, and added that chemicals from the plastics can be absorbed into the body and have health effects such as interfering with reproduction and causing cancer or DNA mutation.

So plastic is clearly quite a health issue, and we haven’t even started to see its full impact.

By the time the US phased out the use of PBDEs – a compound widely used in electronics, baby clothes, and furniture – exposure to this chemical had already cost the country US $266 billion and was responsible for 43,000 cases of intellectual disability in the US each year.

Research into the health effects of microplastics on humans is only just beginning. By the time governments legislate on how to handle this issue, many of us will already be facing health issues from it.

What can we do about it? We’ve all heard the easy stuff – like buying re-usable shopping bags, but there is more we can do. We need to support initiatives such as Plastics for Change, which connects plastic waste-pickers in the developing world directly to buyers to recycle ethically-sourced plastic into eco-friendly product lines.

More on this:Stop blaming China for the state of the world’s fishing stocks Policymakers also need to address this issue, as without legislation the uptake of plastic-free practices will be very slow.

Waste-to-energy technologies use various methods to turn plastic and organic waste into gas and liquid fuel but have faced hurdles in Australia so far. Such initiatives must be encouraged, and will hopefully be easier to implement since the conversation about them has already begun. Waste-to-energy technology has more use than just as an energy source – it is a key method of reducing landfill and our impact on the environment.

This is an issue Australia must take responsibility for, particularly since China banned the import of foreign waste in July last year. The government needs to explore other avenues of both reducing and disposing of our waste. Perhaps consideration should be given to a plastic-bag tax, like the one proposed by the European Union. Australia might also follow Britain’s example – Theresa May has pledged to eliminate avoidable wastes within 25 years

We need a solution to the problem of plastic, even if only because we have nowhere to put it. Increasing awareness is helpful, but policymakers need to take notice and find and implement solutions, preferably before we run out of places to stockpile this waste.

This blog was inspired by the documentary A Plastic Ocean, which I would highly recommend to those who want to hear more about this issue. The plastic oceans website also contains some great resources, including ways to take action. This piece was first published on Policy Forum, Crawford’s website for public policy analysis and debate.

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