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Beyond plastic bags: stopping plastic pollution at source

David Hawkins

22nd April, 2010

Plastic Pollution Coalition is a new campaign calling for an outright ban on single-use plastic products. Will you support them?

Plastic water bottles and shopping bags don't come with ingredient lists, but - unknown to most - dangerous compounds contained in household plastics are leaching into ecosystems and entering the food chain.

Plastic wastes choke seas across the globe. This form of pollution is one of the biggest environmental problems we face, and it's only getting worse as plastic production continues to grow. Joining hands with the likes of the 5 Gyres project and Rise Above Plastics, an ambitious new organisation has set about trying to address this issue head on, and it's gaining momentum fast.

While researching for a film about happiness in consumer society called American Dream, Plastic Pollution Coalition co-founder Manuel Maqueda met anti-plastic campaigner Captain Charles Moore. Sharing a love of oceans and sailing it was natural they should end up discussing the vast problem of pollution in the sea.

His growing awareness of this issue led Manuel, along with Daniella Russo, Lisa Boyle, and Dianna Cohen, to launch the US based coalition at the end of October last year.

'I didn't create Plastic Pollution Coalition because I know a lot about plastic, but because I don't know enough,' he explains. 'Yet there are people all over the world who know a little bit, or a great deal, and we're trying to build the platform for this dialogue to start.'

Plastic Pollution Coalition is constructing the first online portal to discuss the problems and bring various information streams together. Teaming up with other environmental organisations as well as businesses, celebrities and individuals, this is truly a group effort. Raising awareness is the first objective.

Toxic soup

With euphemistic phrases like 'marine debris' being floated around by industry Manuel says 'it felt like there was a neurolinguistic war going on already'. PPC is a focused, clear and concerted action against this kind of verbal legerdemain and the shortsighted, unthinking approach it represents.

Manuel is anxious, but optimistic: 'Hopefully all this has just been a big experiment of how not to do things. But what we see in the oceanic gyres is plastic waste from products used five years ago. The problem is still ballooning.'

Phrases like 'The Great Pacific Garbage Patch' have become common parlance. But this is a too-simple way to mentally contain a problem that is everywhere - no stretch of water, no beach is free of microplastics.

However, due to ocean currents, in this case the Pacific Gyre, there is indeed a particular concentration of pollutants and plastic fragments in this particular area of the north Pacific. If you go there you won't immediately see 'a floating island of trash'. Yet in this water there is more plastic than plankton; it has become a toxic soup.

Health threats

Plastic fragments of all sizes have appalling effects on marine organisms, but perhaps a greater threat to humans is encountered on a microscopic level.

One of the most common chemicals in plastics is Bisphenol A. This compound is an endocrine disruptor which can mimic oestrogen and has been linked with an array of afflictions as diverse as diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, thyroid disorders, ADHD, infertility, erectile dysfunction, early-onset menstruation and obesity.

Bisphenol A and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) can pass through the placental wall and also enter infants through breast milk.

Manuel says, 'we are all contaminated. A newborn should have a chance in life to eat healthy, uncontaminated food, but they are not given this choice anymore. There is need for complete overhaul of production processes so that the precautionary principle prevails.' Swift and decisive legislative action is needed to ban Bisphenol A and other toxins such as antimony, found in many fruit juice and squash bottles.

It's difficult to locate the specific sources of these problems when they're completely pervasive. 'Often these things can be counterintuitive, like the neurotoxic flame retardants found in pillows.' And it gets more sinister: 'Plastic fragments also act as attractor molecules for PCBs, DDT, insecticides and various other toxins, and they can accumulate quantities of these substances a million times greater than that found in the surrounding oceans.'

Major culprits are nurdles. These lentil-sized plastic resin pellets are the form virgin plastic takes before it is processed. Manuel describes the way these are transported and handled as 'criminal'; they are pouring into the environment through spillage and waste. Dr Hideshige Takada, professor of organic geochemistry at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, has been examining these pellets for the pollutants they carry. Anyone who finds nurdles on the beach is encouraged to send them to him for analysis.

Plastic 'nurdles' - the feedstock for the industry. Copyright Steve Trewhella

The source of the problem

The Plastic Pollution Coalition is keen to point out that unfortunately, with plastics, recycling doesn't really help. It is costly and ineffective, resulting in a low-grade product that cannot be used for much and which will end up on the rubbish tip anyway. A more appropriate term for this is 'downcycling'.

The best we thing we can do is reduce consumption significantly. 'We need to get to the source of the problem - which is in our minds,' says Manuel. 'People need to make the connection that you cannot throw away something that lasts forever.'

At the same time the industry needs to be made accountable. Producer responsibility is crucial, whereas recycling puts the responsibility on the consumer.

Aims

The most common symbols of our disposable culture are beverage bottles, plastic bags, coffee-stirrers, styrofoam - the most ephemeral of ephemera. But, paradoxically, the chemicals in these items will be with us forever.

'I would like to see that we collectively give up single-use plastics, that these materials are phased out. That's the majority of our plastic pollution. Plastic bottles, plastic bags and food packaging are responsible for most of our plastic waste' says Manuel. This, he says, can be achieved through raising consumer awareness and by campaigning for anti-disposables legislation.

The tax on plastic bags in Ireland has proven to be extremely effective, for instance, and we may take cues from several African nations that have placed strict bans on plastic bags - with Rwanda even turning them away at the border.

Part of the basis for these radical measures is that in less industrialised countries people have to live with their waste in a way we are not accustomed to in the West, where rubbish is 'recycled' or carted out of site to landfills at home or abroad. At the same time we need to design plastics that can be properly recycled in an economically feasible manner.

So what can we do?

By taking the Plastic Pollution Coalition's Single-Use Plastic Emergency Response (SUPER) Hero Pledge, individuals can help to bring these aims closer to realisation. They preface 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle' with 'Refuse', urging us to really think about where our waste goes, and to refuse plastic products wherever possible.

Supermarkets and brands will react to consumer pressure. It's worth demanding they reduce packaging, and asking how they intend to take responsibility for its effect on the environment.

Meanwhile we need to lobby our governments to take strong action against toxic plastic products. Manuel also encourages anyone in local groups or organisations involved in this issue to join the expanding coalition - making strong connections in the UK and Europe is the next step. So get involved!

'Ultimately we should move in the direction of producer responsibility, where producers are responsible for the end-life of their products. At the moment what happens to these products after use isn't the producers' problem, it's the planet's problem. We have to reverse that equation.'

For more information on plastic pollution:

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