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 Perhaps you’ve heard of recent studies regarding where all those plastic
water bottles we’ve all sworn off of at one time or another are ultimately
ending up. Or maybe you’ve stumbled upon that cute little TED Talk in your Facebook
feed. The cheerful yet informative illustrated short detailing the various
life-cycles of 3 “single-use” water bottles. And maybe by now you’re
curious about the potential dangers of ingesting foods, mainly of the aquatic
variety, that may contain some level of these ‘microplastics’ you’ve been
hearing about. Is there cause for concern? The jury of the scientific
world is still out but the evidence points to a serious need to address our
prolific use of the ubiquitous
man-made “miracle” material and just what it means for us humans to
ingest the offensive substance.

 

    How do microplastics make it into
our food and on our plate? The short answer begins with one simple fact:
Plastic never biodegrades. Never. It breaks down into ever smaller pieces
known as microplastics. These tiny pieces of plastic, ranging in size from
5mm down to 10 nanometers, then attract microorganisms. These microorganisms
use them as floating barges on which to grow. The subsequent leaching of
chemicals that are contained within the plastics over time due to continued UV
exposure (chemicals we use for the desirable attributes that they then create
within the polymers – flame retardancy, antimicrobial
properties, etc.) sometimes give off an odor that then tricks smaller animals
into thinking of it as food. Small animals get eaten by larger animals. It
travels up the food chain until it finally makes its way onto our plates and
into our bodies.

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  But did you know that the consumption of tainted seafood is not the only
way in which we ingest plastics? Microparticles of plastic are even
finding their way into our drinking
water in the form of fibers that are far too small to effectively
filter out of our waste water. A quick google search of the long-term effects
of exposure to chemicals contained within plastics show them as linked to such
ailments as hormone disruption, genital malformations, reduced fertility and
even cancer.

 

With so
many points of contact, it’s difficult to assess how severely humans are affected
by exposure to microplastics. Regardless, there is enough evidence available to
hopefully begin to create pause within our minds. Have we gone too far into the
depths of our addiction to this miracle of modern science: this product we have
come to know and use so frequently, that has made daily life more convenient
and single-serving-friendly. It is a product able to save lives as
indiscriminately as it would take or
end it.

        

    Now
you may be asking yourself, “So am I supposed to abandon
plastics altogether? Is that even possible?” The trouble tends to stem, in
large part, from the ubiquitous use of what is known as ‘single-use
plastics’ in our everyday life. Single-use plastics typically refer to the
shopping bags we get at markets and shops; the plastic wrapping we
unceremoniously rip away from packaged goods ranging from food items,
electronics, to beauty and cosmetic products; to the inexpensive plastic
containers we get our take-away food orders neatly packaged into for us which
are then put in yet another single-use plastic bag to cart off and enjoy at
home or at our desks at work. Walk not ten steps into your average grocery
store or corner convenience mart and you’ll be confronted with row upon row of
pre-packaged food goods, cleaning supplies, cosmetics and sundries all
pre-packaged, wrapped, and bagged in the offensive, chemical laden, miracle
polymer.

 

    It
all seems so unavoidable and an impossible endeavor to take on. Giving up
plastic in its entirety seems completely unrealistic to almost every single
person I’ve approached with the idea. And unless you’re extremely mindful and
intentional about foregoing the use of it altogether, it’s easy to overlook
just how much plastic you consume and consequently throw out on a daily basis
or even on your weekly trip to market.

 

   Believe it
or not, the plastic-free, zero-waste lifestyle is gaining popularity in light
of so much attention and support from various scientific communities confirming
the presence of plastics in our food and water supply. Many municipalities are
adopting ordinances banning the use of plastic bags altogether or charging the
consumer for its use rather than give it for free as a courtesy upon checkout
as it was previously done. In December 2015, President Obama signed into law
the Microbead-Free Waters Act which banned the production of rinse-off
cosmetic products (products including toothpastes, shower gels and cleansers)
containing plastic microbeads as exfoliating agents. A ban on production of
these products in the U.S. began in July 2017, the sales of which will be
banned from July 2018 onward. Other countries participating in similar efforts
include Canada, EU, UK, Japan, China and Korea.

 

     The spotlight of social media and
grassroots community support, along with the ever-growing mountain of evidence
in support of the need for alternative options for the conscious consumer
interested in doing their part in the global effort to shrink waste and harmful
environmental impact, has seen the rise of a business model known as the
ethical supermarket. Zero-waste, low-impact grocers offering alternatives for
those looking to make the switch to a world without plastic and toxic plastic
waste. This has led to the burgeoning partnerships of small business owners,
local farming co-ops, farmers and larger chain markets working together to
create a different kind of consumer experience in the form of supermarkets the
likes of The
Fillery
(Brooklyn, NY), in.gredients (Austin, TX), and Original Unverpackt (Berlin, DE).

 

    It is
absolutely clear to my mind that the global community is beginning to recognize
the severity of the harmful long-term effects of plastics on the environment
and ultimately on us. However, efforts such as these represent only the tip of
the iceberg of steps yet to be taken in order to lessen and hopefully eliminate
the use of plastics in exchange for more sustainable and less harmfully impactful
alternatives.

 

    Ultimately,
we find ourselves at the beginning of a change. At the time of this writing, I
myself am curious to see where this newfound information will lead us. Will the
upcoming findings be the information that marks the tipping point in our
perceptions of the waste we create? Will it ultimately bring the literal
closing of the gap in our collective minds between waste and the basic things
we as humans need to survive? Things such as healthy food from healthy
environments, and the consideration on the end-of-life of the products we
consume. A shift in perspective on waste and material goods as
single-use-here-today-throw-away-tomorrow conveniences to one of minimalist,
eco-conscious/conservationist environmental harmony, maybe? A tall order
perhaps. But the dreamer in me likes to keep hoping. Time will tell, and by all
accounts, time seems to be limited.

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