By DEBORAH E. LANS
GHENT–Those of a certain age will remember that in the movie “The Graduate,” Benjamin received the advice of an elder that the future was, in a word, “plastics.” That has proven true, in its way.
Two-thirds of all clothing contains plastic, according to Matt Simon’s book “A Poison Like No Other.” Plastic can be found in carpets, tires, construction products, eyeliner, lipstick, fleece, teabags, and take-out coffee cups not to mention the 44% of all plastic that is in obvious places like soda and water bottles, containers for thousands of products, bags and food packaging.
When clothes are washed, millions of plastic threads are produced (the more so if hot water is used) and then drain off into water systems. Every year in the U.S. 3 billion pounds of plastic fibers are shed by car tires and then, via runoff, enter the waterways. Globally, 800 billion pounds of plastic are produced every year and production is increasing. America produces more plastic than any other nation and generates more plastic waste than any other — 500 pounds per person every year.
According to the Plastic Soup Foundation, of the 9.2 billion tons of plastic produced before 2017, only one-quarter is still in use, only 600 million tons has been recycled and the rest is to be found in landfills and the environment. Plastic does not degrade but instead fragments into smaller and smaller particles.
Not surprisingly, plastic particles have been found everywhere. At 29,000 feet above sea level on Mount Everest. At 36,000 feet below sea level in the Mariana Trench. On land, in the air and in rivers and oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now estimated to cover 600,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean and contain 1.8 trillion plastic shards.
Closer to home, in November 2023 state Attorney General Letitia James sued PepsiCo and its affiliate Frito-Lay for creating a public nuisance and engaging in unfair business practices connected to their production of single-use plastic bottles and packaging that litter and contaminate the Buffalo River and area public water supplies. Studies of waste around the river showed that PepsiCo/Frito-Lay products were the number one branded producer. (In fact, according to the complaint filed in the case, PepsiCo was found to be either the number one or number two producer of branded plastic waste collected across the country. Globally, the Plastic Soup Foundation says that distinction belongs to Coca-Cola.)
Even closer to home, a 2019 sweep of the Hudson River by Riverkeeper volunteers found abundant plastic bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers and plastic bags along the shoreline. Hudson River water, unsurprisingly, contains microplastic shards.
As the Attorney General’s lawsuit explains, plastics are not only found “out there” in the environment but inside of fish, plants, and, of course, the human body: in lungs, the digestive tract, the blood stream and even placentas and breast milk.
Ninety-nine percent of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. As the Conservation Law Foundation explains, fossil fuels and plastics are simply two sides of the same coin, and the world’s top seven plastic producers are fossil fuel companies. Put another way, plastic production accounts for 12% of oil consumption. The production of plastic expels greenhouse gases.
So, plastics contain a host of chemicals, including the PFAS that were the subject of last week’s article, and (like PFAS) as it breaks down plastic generates not only a “forever” residue of pollutants but it also emits carbon and other greenhouse gases.
While estimates vary, recycling does not account for the disposition of most plastics. First, only around 12% of plastics are recycled, and only two types of plastics (Nos. 1 and 2) are recyclable, with 17% incinerated and the balance to be found in landfills and the environment.
Second, plastic fibers degrade on recycling and therefore can only be reused a limited number of times before the components are no longer usable to form, for example, a bottle.
As concerns water pollution, the aging and fragmentation of plastics is at the heart of the problem. Plastics constantly shed on contact. Physical abrasion and mechanical action – even the opening of a bottle or of packaging – causes minute pieces to break off. Exposure to heat and the elements furthers the process. (So, preparing infant formula in a heated plastic bottle has been likened to cooking up a plastic soup and cutting vegetables on a plastic cutting board will generate a plastic-infused side dish.)
Over time, plastics break down into “microplastics,” meaning particles smaller than 5 millimeters and as small as 1 micrometer (1/25,000th of an inch) and “nanoplastics,” meaning particles smaller than one micrometer. For reference, the width of a human hair is 70 micrometers.
Nanoplastics are so tiny that they can pass through human intestines and lungs and into the bloodstream and organs. Moreover, other toxins and pathogens are known to “hitch” onto plastics and thereby enter humans, and others.
The effects on humans of plastic consumption are largely unstudied as yet. It is known that fish and mammals that ingest plastics may starve to death (they reduce their nutritional intake as their bellies are filled with plastic), may see disruption of their hormone systems leading to early puberty and reduced fertility, and may suffer diabetes, obesity and increased rates of certain cancers as well as liver dysfunction. As nanoplastics can cross the blood-brain barrier, it is suspected that brain development may also be affected. Researchers believe the same effects will be found in humans.
Given that recycling cannot provide an answer to plastic pollution, the question naturally arises: what are we to do? The answer, in general, is to reduce the production of plastics in the first place by minimizing usage.
Both that goal, and concerns about the safety of drinking water, in turn flow naturally to the issue of bottled water.
According to Consumer Reports, American consume 15 billion gallons of bottled water each year, both for reasons of convenience and out of a belief that it is safer than tap water. The amount of plastic bottle waste is enormous.
Bottled water is either spring water or tap water. It is subject to Federal Food and Drug Administration testing rules, which are similar to those applied to public water supplies, but of course testing occurs only once and pre-bottling.
Recently, a number of studies have looked at the safety of bottled water, and have found it wanting. In January 2024 the National Academy of Science published a study by Columbia University scientists using a newly-developed technology. The scientists found that a liter of bottled water (33.8 ounces) contains some 240,000 detectable particles of plastic (mostly nanoplastics), likely the result of the bottles themselves shedding fragments.
Of course, reusing a plastic bottle or allowing it to heat in the sun exacerbates the shedding and therefore will worsen the situation.
Plastic contents aside, a 2023 study published by Environment International found that of the bottled spring waters sampled, 67% contained arsenic, 17% contained lead, and 57% contained uranium. The study concluded that bottled water is not of “systemically higher purity than public tap water.”
In sum, drinking plastic-bottled water is not only no guarantee of better quality water, but also, because it generates plastic waste, the practice worsens the overflow of plastics that already surround us.