Why have we singled out plastic?
Humans get a bad rep for trashing the planet. I’m not here to defend anyone, but we’re certainly not the first species to alter the planet on a geological scale. Algae did it first with photosynthesis: poisoning the atmosphere with higher oxygen levels than the earth had ever seen. Tiny, calcareous sea creatures did it when they learned how construct homes with the calcium in seawater. Their bodies formed the iconic White Cliffs of Dover, the Champagne region of France, and, like it or not, Florida.
But humans are different. Particularly, plastic is different. The materials that make up our world follow certain patterns; minerals, rocks, and even life forms all operate along chemical principles that can be categorized, predicted, and manipulated. Plastic follows all the laws of physics — we haven’t figured out how to break those laws, yet — but it stands out chemically among anthropogenic materials. Plastic’s remarkable properties make it fundamental for modern convenience, but there is, of course, another side to the story.
But organic doesn’t mean good when it comes to pollutants.
As a complex organic molecule, plastic shares many properties with biological polymers, like chitin (a beetle’s wings) or keratin (your hair). This makes plastic much more challenging to filter out of the environment than other toxins like heavy metals, which have very distinct properties. Researchers are just beginning to uncover the full extent to which microplastics have permeated our air and water. This becomes a concern for all of us, not just ocean life. There’s a growing need for additional investment and innovation to adequately address plastics in our water treatment facilities.
Outside of human infrastructure, plastic similarly infiltrates ecosystems under the guise of an organic compound. Stories of sea turtles innocently mistaking a plastic bag for a jellyfish are a mainstay in the environmentalist’s arsenal of emotional narratives. While visually mistaking plastic for food might be a factor, recent studies are revealing that there is more going on than meets the eye. Plastic floating in marine environments actually emits a scent that mimics food to sea creatures. Giving out eye-glasses to sea gulls won’t help this situation. Plastic entices animals to eat it on the molecular level.
Plastic is a problem in the environment because carries with it additives and toxic properties. It has a propensity for attracting and retaining persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic sustances. These substances include a wide range of materials that disrupt biological processes and cause health issues.
The most crucial factor that makes plastic a threat is the human factor.
Toxins and chemical formulas sound indimitading, but plastic’s hand in re-shaping human behavior compounds the physical dangers. In just a few decades, plastic has re-trained us how to shop, eat, and bathe. For such a flimsy material, it’s become a cultural force driven by a demand for convenience. We’re wrapping our fruit in it, sealing air inside of it to protect other plastic from shipping damages, and drinking over-priced water out of it. Plastic has normalized using materials for a matter of hours, or even just minutes, before tossing it in the trash. Plastic is not the only culprit in creating a throw-away culture, but it is the clear instigator.
Reverence for convenience mixes with the insidious chemical properties of plastic to create the toxic soup that’s now rising up to lap at our coastlines.
But there is hope.
And that’s not just me living in my green bubble of environmental optimism. There are multilateral movements and innovative technologies taking shape all around the world to address this issue. Grassroots efforts are being noticed by policy-makers, international groups, and corporations. Corporate commitments have more weight behind them than ever before, and new legislation is being considered at local and national scales.
Most importantly, people actually care.
Plastic pollution is not abstract. It touches our health, our wallets, and our way of life — and we can actually see the difference our choices make. While you alone replacing your bottle of body wash for a bar of soap won’t solve the problem, the fact that you care to act at all — and millions of other Americans care — adds up to power a sea change.