Humanity makes some 650 billion tons of plastic every year, and it's not going away -- not, at least, for a few thousand years. In the meantime, those trillions of polymer tons will break into ever-smaller pieces, eventually being absorbed by plants, animals and finally us.
This wouldn't be so worrisome if the chemicals added to plastic -- to make it supple, flame-retardant and generally miraculous -- weren't such a devil's cocktail of carcinogens, neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors. The problem is driven home poetically and frighteningly by Susan Carey's "Plastic Ocean," published in Best Life Magazine and anthologized in The Best Science and Nature Writing of 2007:
We're eating these plasticizing additives, drinking them, breathing them, and absorbing them through our skin every single day. Most alarming, these chemicals may disrupt the endocrine system -- the delicately balanced set of hormones and glands that affect virtually every organ and cell -- by mimicking the female hormone estrogen. In marine environments, excess estrogen has led to Twilight Zone-esque discoveries of male fish and seagulls that have sprouted female sex organs.
On land, things are equally gruesome. "Fertility rates have been declining for quite some time now, and exposure to synthetic estrogen, especially from the chemicals found in plastic products, can have an adverse effect," says Marc Goldstein, M.D., director of the Cornell Institute for Reproductive Medicine. Dr. Goldstein also notes that pregnant women are particularly vulnerable: "Prenatal exposure, even in very low doses, can cause irreversible damage in an unborn baby's reproductive organs." And after the baby is born, he or she is hardly out of the woods. Frederick vom Saal, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia who specifically studies estrogenic chemicals in plastics, warns parents to "steer clear of polycarbonate baby bottles. They're particularly dangerous for newborns, whose brains, immune systems, and gonads are still developing." 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.
"Plastic Ocean" starts off by describing the discovery of the Eastern Garbage Patch, an area of the Pacific Ocean where floating trash now clogs an area twice the size of Texas. The climate change blog Celsias recently did an extended post on oceanic plastic and its tendency to accumulate up the food chain -- bad, bad news for billions of people who rely on seafood for protein.
I might not crunch my way to six-pack abs or write a novel in 2008, but I think I can scrap the bottled drinks and overly-packaged goods.
Synthetic Sea [Celsias]
Plastic Ocean [Best Life Magazine]
Polymers are Forever [Orion]
Video: From the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, founded by Charles Moore, who sailed through the Eastern Garbage Patch in 1997: "Depressed and stunned, he sailed for a week through bobbing, toxic debris trapped in a purgatory of circling currents. To his horror, he had stumbled across the 21st-century Leviathan. It had no head, no tail. Just an endless body."
- Reproductive Disorders Probably Caused by Common Plastic ...
- Garbage In, Plastic Out: Searching for Green Polymers
- Plastic, Heal Thy Self: Researchers Make Self-Repairing Polymer
- Scientists Turn Trees Into Plastic
- AAAS: You aren’t what you eat
- Male Births Drop Mysteriously in US and Japan
Click on Title link to view entire article. Source: A New Year's Resolution: Use Less Plastic by Brandon Klein, Wired Science.