Plastic: An Invasive Species We Created and Must Confront

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Common Dreams

Plastic: An Invasive Species We Created and Must Confront

(Credit: flickr / cc / Bo Eide)

Plastic was created with the best of intentions. In fact, plastic was invented when a billiard company offered a $10,000 reward to find a replacement for ivory in pool balls. Yes, we used to play pool with elephant tusks. Similarly, the plastic bag was developed to reduce pressure on the forests providing raw materials for paper bags.

Often, what makes invasive species a problem is not an inherently bad characteristic, but rather an overabundance in the wrong place at the wrong time. Plastic is no different. We literally can’t move through a day without coming into contact with it hundreds or even thousands of times. Interestingly, this is a rather new development. Our grandparents didn’t grow up with plastic and was largely unheard of in civilian life until after World War II. So what happened? How did we become a society that is now producing approximately 300 million tons of plastic annually—roughly 50% of which is used just once and then discarded?

Whether a plastic bag dangling from a tree in the park near your house, the conversion of massive areas of open ocean into plastic soup, or the frightening yet invisible endocrine disrupting compounds in 90% of our bloodstreams, the effects of our rampant plastic use are everywhere. While it’s common to see images of seabirds and turtles dead from strangulation or consumption plastic, we tend to hear less about the linkages between plastics and human health. Yet, chemicals like BPA and phthalates have been linked to changes in the human body ranging from obesity to developmental disorders and various cancers.

Understanding the role of plastic in our lives is critical to effectively protecting ourselves, our children, and our environment from harm. After more than a year of thinking and writing about their role in society I’ve come to see various plastics as fitting into three categories — the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The Good plastics are the ones we want to keep.  From medical, research and recreational equipment, to computers, cell phones, and essential components of our energy and transportation systems, the good plastic greatly improves our lives. The Bad plastic products are those that get reused again and again but leach toxins into our food and drink or emit them into the air we breathe. Products like this are more common than you’d think, and it’s easy to find them in the average home. Shower curtains, sex toys, canned foods, and more all have the potential to endanger our health. The Ugly plastic, is just that—ugly and is comprised of those single use items we possess for a moment and then toss. This is the plastic we most commonly see littering roadways, waterways, beaches and streets.

Unlike biological invasive species, plastic doesn’t have its own agenda. We decide when, how and where it is created, used, reused, recycled, buried or littered. And options abound to change the way we interact with plastic on every level and under each of those scenarios. From broad changes in policy to making wiser personal choices about the products we buy and chemicals we expose ourselves to, there are countless opportunities to redefine the role of plastic in our lives.

Tightening of sanitation streams, advances in recycling, methods for turning plastic waste back into usable fuel oil, upcycling and novel bioplastics all have the ability to reduce waste generation and mitigate our plastic footprint.

Making changes on a personal level is easier than you might imagine. Even if you feel overwhelmed by life and think adding much more to your day is impossible, there are a number of nearly effortless changes you can make to better manage your relationship with plastic. In most instances it’s simply having the knowledge to make more informed purchases and then substituting one product for a safer or less wasteful version. Swapping that PVC shower curtain for a cloth one will lessen your exposure to toxic chemicals with literally no effort. Trading bottled water for a reusable water bottle will save you money and reduce waste. Just be sure that you get the right kind of bottle or you might be exposing yourself to those endocrine disrupting chemicals I mentioned. Which raises another critical point—what exactly does ‘BPA free’ mean? Is it safe? Answer: In many cases—No.  

It goes on and on, from touching cash register receipts to eating from plastic lined cans to the completely unnecessary decision to place each vegetable from the produce section in a plastic bag. We encounter numerous personal choices that can affect our health and the amount of waste we each generate every day.

There’s nothing stopping us from taming the invasive nature of plastic and in the process cleaning up our bloodstreams and environment.  And remember, I’m not proposing we eliminate plastic entirely. Plastic is central to our modern lifestyle. Rather, we should rethink our relationship with plastic, learning to keep the Good, limit exposure to the Bad and eliminate the Ugly.

Michael SanClements

Michael SanClements is an ecologist at The National Ecological Observatory Network and affiliate faculty member at the University of Colorado Boulder Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. He is the author of the new book, Plastic Purge: How to Use Less Plastic, Eat Better, Keep Toxins Out of Your Body, and Help Save the Sea Turtles!  (St. Martin's - 2014). Find more of his work on his website or follow him on Twitter: @msanclem