Plastic is no longer something we throw away, Dr. Sherri Mason, co-principal investigator on a landmark study that found micro plastics, pieces small enough to not see with the naked eye, in significant quantities in Lake Erie, told a Cleveland City Club audience this week.
Plastic is in our drinking water—double in plastic bottles than tap—it's in mother’s milk, in beer, salt and in fish from the Great Lakes where an estimated 22 million pounds of plastic ends up each year. Microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses, and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals.
There are 46,000 parts of plastic per square kilometer of Lake Erie water—second highest to the “last” Great Lake, Ontario, which has 230,000 parts of plastic per km2. Ontario is on par with the Pacific gyre, a swirling patch of plastic the size of Texas, Mason said.
Key takeaways from Mason:
- Scientific sampling has found 5.45 micro plastic particles per liter of tap water globally, which means, we are ingesting 5,100 particles of micro plastic per year simply from water.
- Plastic is so pervasive that babies are ingesting it while in the womb, and have detectable levels at birth.
- Plastic has a chemical composition that smells like food for microorganisms like the sea worm which are eaten by fish, moving up the food chain (scientists see this as an opportunity as well).
- A recent study of the plastic pollution concludes that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.
And yet, as Scientific American writes this week in "More Recycling Won’t Solve Plastic Pollution: It’s a lie that wasteful consumers cause the problem and that changing our individual habits can fix it" the victims have been complicit in a systematic blame game.
“The real problem is that single-use plastic—the very idea of producing plastic items like grocery bags, which we use for an average of 12 minutes but can persist in the environment for half a millennium—is an incredibly reckless abuse of technology.”
Bottle deposit laws and bag fees, like the legislation Cuyahoga County introduced only to see the usual beneficiaries of keeping the 340 million tons of plastic per year pumping out of factories throw their weight into defeating it, are the answer, Scientific American writes. Both have been effective in reducing the use of single-use plastic in states and cities that have them.
When asked at the City Club if she thinks it’s naive to suggest Americans suddenly give up plastic and that industry become more responsible, Mason said, “We had a society before there was bottled water. I remember it growing up in Texas. Before there were all of these conveniences.”
Mason agrees that more federal legislation, like the 2015 Congressional ban of micro beads, is needed just as much as industry responding to market demand to reduce, reuse and yes, even recycle despite the recent collapse of the industry as China decides to reject American recyclables.
Like Scientific American, Mason agrees that industry has had it too easy. The chemical industry, for example, is enabled by law to put the current 300 chemicals, like it did with bisphenol A, on the market without consumer health testing.
“The laws are backwards in the U.S.,” she explains. “It is incumbent on us, the consumer, to pay for the testing that industry should be doing, and prove that harm is being caused by their products. I’m in favor of the precautionary principle like they have in Europe. If there is strong evidence of harm, the law should protect us. People are going to have to voice what they want, and do it loudly to the companies and the legislators. The more we demand it, the more it will happen.”