Becoming Plastic — Dynamics of Plastic Pollution

Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew we had a problem in the ocean with plastic. Plastic filling the stomachs of seabirds, huge nets drifting and killing fish and mammals indiscriminately. Plastic pollution to me was seeing grocery store bags blowing trapped against fences, straws not quite making into the garbage can. But, I thought, I try to put as much plastic as we can in the recycling bin. We reuse our plastic bags. What I did not know was the extent and insidiousness of the pollution. How could plastic pollution be as dangerous as global warming ?

We produce 6 billion tons of plastic a year. We use it for everything it seems. One reason why plastic was invented was to reduce ivory use.

a scientist named John W. Hyatt set out to make a synthetic replacement for ivory billiard balls. He had the best of intentions: Save the elephants! After some tinkering, he created celluloid. From then on, each year brought a miraculous recipe: rayon in 1891, Teflon in 1938, polypropylene in 1954. Durable, cheap, versatile—plastic seemed like a revelation. And in many ways, it was. Plastic has given us bulletproof vests, credit cards, slinky spandex pants. It has led to breakthroughs in medicine, aerospace engineering, and computer science. And who among us doesn’t own a Frisbee?

Plastic recycling is difficult, and not profitable, leading to only 3-5% of the plastic produced to be recycled.

Unfortunately, recycling plastics proved difficult. The biggest problem with plastic recycling is that it is difficult to automate the sorting of plastic waste, and so it is labor-intensive. While containers are usually made from a single type and color of plastic, making them relatively easy to sort out, a consumer toy like a cellular phone may be made of many small parts consisting of over a dozen different types and colors of plastics. As the value of the material is low, recycling plastics is unprofitable. For this reason, the percentage of plastics recycled in the US is very small, somewhere around 5%.
A great deal of plastic ends up in landfills, but plastic is choking our oceans.

I often struggle to find words that will communicate the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to people who have never been to sea. Day after day, Alguita was the only vehicle on a highway without landmarks, stretching from horizon to horizon. Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.
It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. Months later, after I discussed what I had seen with the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, perhaps the world’s leading expert on flotsam, he began referring to the area as the “eastern garbage patch.” But “patch” doesn’t begin to convey the reality. Ebbesmeyer has estimated that the area, nearly covered with floating plastic debris, is roughly the size of Texas.

At the same time, all over the globe, there are signs that plastic pollution is doing more than blighting the scenery; it is also making its way into the food chain. Some of the most obvious victims are the dead seabirds that have been washing ashore in startling numbers, their bodies packed with plastic: things like bottle caps, cigarette lighters, tampon applicators, and colored scraps that, to a foraging bird, resemble baitfish. (One animal dissected by Dutch researchers contained 1,603 pieces of plastic.) And the birds aren’t alone. All sea creatures are threatened by floating plastic, from whales down to zooplankton. There’s a basic moral horror in seeing the pictures: a sea turtle with a plastic band strangling its shell into an hourglass shape; a humpback towing plastic nets that cut into its flesh and make it impossible for the animal to hunt. More than a million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish die in the North Pacific each year, either from mistakenly eating this junk or from being ensnared in it and drowning.

Though the gross pollution of the ocean is tragic, it is only the beginning of the whole story.

Plastic does not biodegrade, rather sunlight breaks it down into smaller pieces, till what you have left is a fine powder. Further photodegredation wil yield single molecules of plastic, but even these are not digestible to any known organism . What is worse is plastic can increase the concentration of chemicals such as DDT and PCBS.

As he ran his hands along one’s surface it disintegrated into a dusty powder. This, said the oceanographer, is how plastics break down and become a part of the ecosystem.
The material doesn’t biodegrade but rather undergoes a slow process of “photodegradation” as the sun breaks it into smaller and smaller pieces.
Pollutants — such as PCBs and the pesticide DDT — can be absorbed by plastics like a sponge sopping up water. The chemicals might become concentrated a millionfold compared with the surrounding water, researchers say.

Any animals consuming the plastic will not only eat plastic, but the chemicals absorbed to the plastic and the chemicals in the plastic. Because of the microscopic nature of the broken plastic, it ends up at the lowest common denominator of the food chain — plankton.

In 2001, in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, we published the results of our survey and the analysis we had made of the debris, reporting, among other things, that there are six pounds of plastic floating in the North Pacific subtropical gyre for every pound of naturally occurring zooplankton. Our readers were as shocked as we were when we saw the yield of our first trawl. Since then we have returned to the area twice to continue documenting the phenomenon. During the latest trip, in the summer of 2002, our photographers captured underwater images of jellyfish hopelessly entangled in frayed lines, and transparent filter feeding organisms with colored plastic fragments in their bellies.
The potential scope of the problem is staggering. Every year some 5.5 quadrillion (5.5 x 1015) plastic pellets—about 250 billion pounds of them—are produced worldwide for use in the manufacture of plastic products. When those pellets or products degrade, break into fragments, and disperse, the pieces may also become concentrators and transporters of toxic chemicals in the marine environment. Thus an astronomical number of vectors for some of the most toxic pollutants known are being released into an ecosystem dominated by the most efficient natural vacuum cleaners nature ever invented: the jellies and salps living in the ocean. After those organisms ingest the toxins, they are eaten in turn by fish, and so the poisons pass into the food web that leads, in some cases, to human beings. Farmers can grow pesticide-free organic produce, but can nature still produce a pollutant-free organic fish? After what I have seen first hand in the Pacific, I have my doubts.

From plankton to our dinner table, the flow of plastic continues. If plastic was inert, this would not be such a big problem. However plastics can leach endocrine disrupters.

Endocrine disrupters are chemicals that mimic the bodies hormones. Hormones are used to signal the body process, turning some systems on and off. Interruption of this communication can cause disastrous and unforeseen consequences.

The endocrine system is finely tuned through delicate checks and balances. Disrupters can throw off the system by sending the wrong signals or blocking the right signals. The effect is often temporary in adults, whose systems are fully developed and fairly stable. Babies and small children are more vulnerable. And there can be permanent effects on a fetus, whose normal development requires certain amounts of hormones at precise times. Change the amount or the timing, and the individual may suffer problems in behavior, immune function, neurological development, or gender development. As a link between endocrine disrupters and humans is being debated, evidence of a connection between disrupters and animals is mounting.

Endocrine disrupters have caused problems in animals:

Animals throughout the world are undergoing unnatural sexual changes in response to environmental pollution, according to a group of scientists. The scientists warn that the gender-bending effects of certain man-made substances and human sewage seriously threaten polar bears, alligators, frogs, mollusks, and other wildlife.
The group’s concerns are set out in a new report compiled by an international research team for the Paris-based Scientific Committee on Problems in the Environment (SCOPE) and the North Carolina-based International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). The scientists say the report represents the first major global investigation into body-altering chemicals known as endocrine active substances, or EASs.
The masculization of female polar bears in the Norwegian Arctic was linked to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), an industrial pollutant that accumulates along food chains, according to a study published in 1998 in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases. The following year, a WWF report associated spontaneous abortions and declining seal populations along the Wadden Sea coast of the Neatherlands, Germany, and Denmark with low female hormone levels due to PCB contamination.

Studies undertaken in Lake Apopka, Florida, blame pesticide pollution for sex-organ abnormalities in Florida alligators, which researchers say have resulted in significant population losses. Females were having difficulty creating viable eggs, while males experienced premature sperm production and reductions in penis size, among other effects.
In Britain studies commissioned by the government’s main environment agency found that sewage effluents caused egg development in male freshwater fish.

Atrazine, a top selling weed killer in the United States and the world, has been found to dramatically affect the sexual development of male frogs, turning them into hermaphrodites—creatures with both male and female organs—at concentrations 30 times lower than those deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

>”What struck us as unbelievable was that atrazine could cause such dramatic effects at such low levels,” says Tyrone Hayes, an associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the frog study.
But, do endocrine disrupters affect humans ?

Joseph and Sandra Jacobson, psychologists at Wayne State University. The Jacobsons have been tracking the developmental and intellectual performance of children whose mothers regularly consumed Lake Michigan fish before and during pregnancy. Those fish contain elevated levels of PCBs and other contaminants. In September 1996, the Jacobsons reported that the children of fish-eaters showed persistent, measurable intellectual impairment. This finding was highlighted in “Our Stolen Future,” the 1996 best-seller that helped kick off public interest in endocrine disruption. But Joseph Jacobson has drawn no conclusion about what particular mechanism might have caused the impairment. In an interview, he called the idea that PCBs disrupted hormone function in the brain before birth “pure speculation.” Early brain development, he said, is “such a complex process, and so many things could go wrong, that we just don’t have any basis for concluding that it’s endocrine related.”

In 1992, Danish endocrinologist Niels Skakkebaek determined that sperm counts had declined by 50 percent worldwide from 1938 to 1990. He later suggested that PCBs and pesticides, including DDT, may have been the cause. But sperm counts are not down everywhere, said Harry Fisch of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1996. They varied greatly in different areas, and hadn’t declined at all in 25 years in the three U.S. cities he analyzed.

Yet when Shanna Swan of the California Department of Health Services recently reanalyzed Skakkebaek’s data, adjusting for regional variations including the type Fisch had found, she discovered an even steeper global decline. Of all the explanations offered so far, Swan says, endocrine disruption seems the “most coherent and best supported by animal data.” Over the next few years, Swan, with researchers in Europe and Africa, will be analyzing regional differences in semen quality. They will compare the sperm count of fathers-to-be with their level of sex hormones, steroids, and the time it took their wives to conceive, a sensitive marker of fertility. Stay tuned.

Disturbing public health trends are bearing out these grim theories. Maida Galvez, M.D., a New York-based pediatrician, often talks to parents concerned by the accelerated rate of their daughters’ sexual development. “I’ve seen the onset of breast budding as early as the age of six,” Dr. Galvez says, noting that normal breast development begins to occur around ages ten to 11.

To date there has been little research in the area of “precocious puberty,” as it’s called, but Galvez is currently part of a multicenter study of 1,200 adolescent girls to determine if exposure to the hormone disruptor family of phthalates is behind the trend.

A much-publicized 2005 study was the first to show the connection between phthalate exposure and incomplete genital development. Dr. Shanna Swan’s study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives (August, 2005), showed that pregnant women with higher urine concentrations of some phthalates were more likely to give birth to sons with “phthalate syndrome”—incomplete male genital development—a disorder previously seen only in lab rats. Swan’s findings support the hypothesis that prenatal phthalate exposure to levels found in the general U.S. population can adversely affect the reproductive tract in male infants.

Environmental exposure to EDCs is the suspected cause of declining male testosterone levels over the past two decades, as well as the declining male birth rates in industrial areas such as Seveso, Italy, and the Dow Chemical Valley in Sarnia, Ontario.

There are a lot of conflicting studies. However, there are no unaffected controls – anywhere on earth no matter how remote. The other disturbing fact with endocrine disrupters is the low concentrations at which their effects are seen. Since the effects of endocrine disrupters can be seen at such low levels, some studies might not have been sensitive enough.

Please note that the chemicals found mimic hormones which are active in our bodies down to concentrations in the parts-per-trillion range while the testing done by Consumer Reports was at parts-per-million.
That is a difference of six orders of magnitude or six zeros.
1 million = 1,000,000
1 trillion = 1,000,000,000,000

Common endocrine disrupters are:

  • Bisphenol–A: A synthetic substance widely used to make polycarbonated plastics found in food and drink containers, the lining of tin cans, toys, baby bottles, dental sealants, flame retardants, and plastic wraps. This chemical easily leaches out into food and water.
  • Phthalates: Synthetic substances added to plastics to make them softer, more flexible and resilient. They also extend staying power. They are found in IV tubing, vinyl flooring, glues, inks, pesticides, detergents, plastic bags, food packaging, children’s toys, shower curtains, soaps, shampoos, perfumes, hair spray and nail polish. For more information, please refer to our article on holistic skincare.
  • Parabens: Compounds used as preservatives in thousands of cosmetic, food and pharmaceutical products.
  • PBDE’s (polybrominated diphenyl ethers): Flame retardants used on furniture, curtains, mattresses, carpets, television and computer castings. Categorized as a persistent organic pollutant (POP), this substance is stored in animal fats and thus found in dairy products, meat, fish, and human breast milk, and has been banned in several countries. It has also been detected in house dust.
  • PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls): Another group of highly toxic synthetic chemical compounds found on the list of POP’s, once used widely as insulation fluid in electrical transformers, lubricating oil in pipelines, and components of plastics and mixed with adhesives, paper, inks, paints and dyes. Since 1976 PCB’s have been banned in new products, but they are highly stable compounds that degrade very slowly, and these chemicals still persist.
  • Dioxin: Dioxin is a general name applied to a group of hundreds of chemicals that are highly persistent in the environment. The most toxic compound is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD. Dioxin is formed as an unintentional by-product of many industrial processes involving chlorine such as waste incineration, chemical and pesticide manufacturing, and pulp and paper bleaching. Small molecules are diffused into the atmosphere, then land on soil, where they are eaten by soil microbes. From there they pass up the food chain into meat, fish, and dairy products and breast milk. We absorb 90% of the dioxin in our bodies through food sources, though you won’t find it listed on any label. Levels have been decreasing since the 1990’s with environmental measures, but it is still probably the most prevalent toxic chemical in our environment.
  • Pesticides and herbicides: In particular, atrazine, simazine, and heptachlor and other organophosphates and organochlorines have been found to be toxic to the nervous system and to show damaging reproductive (e.g., decreasing sperm motility) and developmental effects.
  • Heavy metals: Cadmium and arsenic are two heavy metals in widespread use whose endocrine disrupting mechanisms of action have been described. Mercury and lead are also implicated, and more studies are underway on heavy metals

Endocrine disrupters can have their greatest toxicity in fetal and developing individuals.

Also critical appears to be the timing of exposure to these chemicals. Many of these compounds are lipidophilic — they “like fat” and accumulate in fat tissue. They are not easily detoxed or cleansed from the body and thus are stored up over decades, particularly in women’s bodies — we just have more fat naturally. These contaminants can be transferred across the placenta to a growing fetus. We know that there is a critical window of time for fetal reproductive development as well as for the behavioral, nervous and immune systems.

The presence of these chemicals in the toys is disturbing, because we are poising our future.

Specifically, they worry about diisononyl phthalate or DINP, a plasticizer commonly used in soft vinyl products made for babies, such as bath books, rubber ducks and teething rings as well as bisphenol A (BPA), a building block for polycarbonate plastic used in shatter-resistant baby bottles.

One chemical of special concern is Bisphenol A. Bisphenol A is everywhere and everyone is eating it.

Bisphenol A is ingested by practically everyone in Canada who eats canned foods or drinks from a can or hard plastic water bottles…Now a controversy is raging over the safety of widespread public exposure to the chemical, which is known to act like a synthetic female sex hormone.
Derived from petroleum, bisphenol A is the chief ingredient in polycarbonate, the rigid, translucent hard plastic used in water bottles and many baby bottles. It’s also used to make the resins that line most tin cans, dental sealants, car parts, microwaveable plastics,(plastic baby bottles), sports helmets and CDs.

Environment Canada and Health Canada last year selected it as one of 200 substances that a preliminary review deemed possibly dangerous and in need of thorough safety assessments. The 200 were culled as the most worrisome chemicals from among about 23,000 substances in use in the 1980s and grandfathered from detailed safety studies when Canada adopted its first modern pollution laws.

It seems obvious that a high dose of a poison would be more dangerous than a lower one, but bisphenol A is creating a stir because it doesn’t follow this seemingly common-sense rule. Researchers say this oddity results from the fact that bisphenol A isn’t a conventional harmful agent, such as cigarette smoke, but behaves in the unconventional way typical of hormones, where even vanishingly small exposures can be harmful.
Although it has been known, since a search for estrogenic drugs in the 1930s, to act like a sex hormone, bisphenol A has recently emerged as one extremely odd compound, perhaps the most unusual in widespread use. Research has found that it seems to turn modern toxicology on its head by being more dangerous at very low exposures than at high ones, a finding that is focusing attention on the possible health repercussions of the relatively small amounts leaching from consumer products.

Bisphenol A also has a bizarre pattern of research results, with the funding source of a study the best predictor of whether scientists find it harmful or safe. All major industry studies into bisphenol A’s safety, and they number about a dozen, haven’t found anything worrisome in low-dose exposures.

However, about 90 per cent of studies by independent researchers over the past decade, numbering about 150, have found adverse effects, ranging from enlarged prostates to abnormal breast tissue growth.

Dr. vom Saal’s research spurred him to throw out every polycarbonate plastic item in his house, and to stop buying plastic-wrapped food and canned goods (cans are plastic-lined) at the grocery store. “We now know that BPA causes prostate cancer in mice and rats, and abnormalities in the prostate’s stem cell, which is the cell implicated in human prostate cancer,” he says. “That’s enough to scare the hell out of me.”

This “controversy” about Bisphenol A has been visited before with car seatbelts, smoking and teflon. Industry will always be focussed on economics. People and the environment are just considerations for green washing and not really important in the pursuit of profit. Leadership has to come from the people because it is unlikely that governments and certainly not industry will take any responsibility for our health.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested 72 name-brand beauty products for industrial chemical ingredients. Their report, “Not Too Pretty” (2002), found that nearly three quarters of commercial products contain phthalates, used to keep mascara from running and polished nails from chipping.
The grassroots consumer action resulting from the report was enough to pressure OPI (the major supplier of products to nail salons) as well as manufacturer Sally Hansen into agreeing to reformulate their products in late 2006.
In December 2006, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to answer this charge when it banned baby products containing any level of BPA (plastic #7) and certain levels of phthalates. San Francisco officials based the ban on the European Union model that requires about 30 thousand chemicals be tested prior to their approval.

Other cities have also taken to banning plastic bags.

Leaf Rapids became the first municipality in Canada to ban plastic shopping bag. The new bylaw prevents retailers from selling or distributing the single-use bags. Ignoring the ban could result in a $1,000-a-day fine. In anticipation, officials have been handing out cloth shopping bags to residents.
John Roach, the assistant manager of the Co-op grocery store, told Canadian Press recently that customer feedback to the ban has been overwhelmingly positive. He said the store went through at least 2,000 plastic bags a week and the litter they created was an eyesore.

Even the farming town of Modbury, in southwest Britain started a ban.

Shopkeepers in Modbury, population 1,500, agreed to stop giving out disposable plastic bags to customers on Saturday. They said paper sacks and cloth carrier bags would be offered instead.
internationally, legislation to discourage plastic bag use has been passed in parts of South Africa, Ireland and Taiwan, where authorities either tax shoppers who use them or impose fees on companies that distribute them. Bangladesh already bans them, as do at least 30 remote Alaskan villages.

I had initially thought after reading about the dangers of bisphenol A, that I would simply avoid it. Have you taken a good look at what is around your home and kitchen? Plastic is everywhere. Food is wrapped in it, water and pop in bottled in it. How about that thing you stick in your mouth in the morning — your toothbrush—plastic. But, How can you avoid the persistent, and insidious pollution of microscopic plastic. There is no place o earth that is not contaminated. We are eating and breathing plastic and don’t even know it.

Have any of my habits changed ? I still use plastic bags to pick up doggie poop. We no longer have a plastic kettle. We gave away the microwave several months ago, so that doesn’t count. I will suffer with a cold lunch, not wanting to heat things up in the microwave at work. But, I sometimes use a plastic container for my lunch. When we buy groceries, I still put stuff in plastic bags if I don’t remember to bring anything else to carry the goods. When we shopped at Superstore (where they charge you for the bags), I seemed to have had a better memory. My water pipes are made from plastic. I try and stay away from canned food, but I am not always successful. But Friday, I used a tiffin carrier for my lunch. Knowledge and awareness are a start, not an easy start, but a place to begin.


11 responses to “Becoming Plastic — Dynamics of Plastic Pollution

  1. dlnorman May 22, 2007 at 3:20 am

    I’ve been thinking about how to reduce the amount of plastic I use/consume/absorb. It’s everywhere. I wear it. I eat it. I drink it. I decorate my house with it. I walk on it. My car is made from it. etc. etc… Even if you completely remove plastic from your home and fridge (good luck with that), you can’t avoid it. It’s everywhere. What we really need is for oil to hit $250/barrel, so petroleum-based plastics are no longer affordable. As long as it’s cheaper to pump out a billion plastic bags than to carry around a couple canvas ones, you know what’ll happen…

  2. Pingback: D’Arcy Norman dot net » Blog Archive » Hope for Peak Oil. Soon.

  3. Inali June 6, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    Cheers to that dlnorman, but that could take a little longer than I’d like. So far yours is the best idea I’ve seen though 😦

    well, it worked to save the elephants eh? USE CANVAS BAGS… SAVE THE HUMANS! then again… who would want to save humans? They’ve really made a mess of things ;P

  4. Aaron Fay July 7, 2007 at 2:39 am

    I just wanted to leave a couple things, firstly: thanks for such a heavy post! I aspire to put that much time and effort into something that people read, but rarely find the time. I guess if you’re passionate about something, you find time…keep up the good work.

    Secondly: It always bugged me going by the landfill (or ‘Waste Management Area’) out by Seba Beach overpass and seeing the grocery bags hung up in trees for a half-mile in any given direction. Furthermore, not many companies recycle plastics commercially really, as you say, and it’s frustrating that almost *anything* you purchase nowadays comes wrapped in sometimes 2 layers of it. And now I find it no surprise that when it breaks down it is really bad for the ecosystem. I’m afraid sometimes that the only change that could correct our misguided ways will be the most painful one, either way.


  5. dlnorman August 2, 2007 at 7:34 pm

    bioplastic is coming (or is already here). Made from corn, it’s biodegradable, and usable in just about any production process. I don’t know how strong/durable it is, though…

  6. niransab August 2, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    I wonder how biodegradeable this product is . I could not find the information on the website – how long does it take for this product which can resist hot water and hot oil to break down ? What products are created in the breakdown product ? But, I think anything not made from oil is a big step in the right direction.

  7. Pingback: Is there Chicken in that Chicken Nugget ?: Creating sustainable, ethical food « Incredible Visions

  8. Esther December 10, 2007 at 6:25 pm

    I found this site because I was looking for
    “scientific proof” to convince my partner not to use a plastic electric kettle. He’s otherwise pretty smart about such things. Maybe like many other humans, he finds that the bigger picture so daunting that it seems futile to take the small steps. Personally, I take the cynical position that humanity is suicidal, but hey that’s no reason not to try to make things better.
    Thanks again for your research.

    plastic is so huge in the lives of human beings that I believe humans are overwhelmed and can’t take the initial small stepsshould not bought our 3rd generation plastic kettle. I think I’m seeing him boiling up a chemical brew, but I have no “scientific proof”. The heating component seems to be a teflon protected disk on the interior bottom. I suppose that’s to keep the nickel from leaching into the water. But the container is plastic for god’s sake!

    Anyway, I’m still looking for the specific info., but I think forwarded your info will do the job.

  9. Esther December 10, 2007 at 6:29 pm


    Below is edited version of my comment. Sorry.

    I found this site because I was looking for
    “scientific proof” to convince my partner not to use a plastic electric kettle. He’s otherwise pretty smart about such things. Maybe like many other humans, he finds that the bigger picture so daunting that it seems futile to take the small steps. Personally, I take the cynical position that humanity is suicidal, but hey that’s no reason not to try to make things better.
    Thanks again for your research.

  10. Pingback: Update on Bisphenol A and Plastic Toxicity « Incredible Visions

  11. polythenepam June 19, 2008 at 9:23 am

    hi I have been boycotting plastic for 18 months now – see for alternatives

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