Backyard Talk

Our oceans are filled with plastic. Our bodies may be, too

by Kenia French, CHEJ Communications Intern 
A study from the University of Victoria found that humans likely consume 74,000-114,000 microplastic particles per year. How does this happen, and what does this mean for our health?
What are microplastics and where do they come from? 
Every year, between 5 and 14 million tons of plastic flow into our oceans, and for a long time, we believed that it just stays there. You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: an expanse of plastic litter larger than Texas floating in the middle of the Pacific ocean. In fact, wherever there’s a major ocean in the world, there’s also a massive garbage island sitting in the middle. 
However, recent research suggests that these large expanses of plastic don’t just simply sit there: they degrade over time. This degradation has resulted in a phenomenon referred to as microplastic, or tiny particles of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters, often microscopic. These tiny particles of plastic have infiltrated not only our oceans, but all of the water systems on our planet.
Why are these tiny plastic particles so bad for marine ecosystems? 
Microplastic pollution is particularly dangerous because it has a particle and chemical aspect. Microplastics have been found in over 114 aquatic species. Plastic particles fill fish’s stomachs and clog their organs, which has been linked to disrupted eating patterns and starvation. Filter feeders (think oysters) are particularly impacted because their feeding mechanism involves sifting tiny, microscopic organisms out of ocean water— microplastics inevitably get caught up in their dinner. 
Microplastics have the potential to leach dangerous chemicals, like PCBs or BPA. While PCBs have been banned in the US since 1979, they aren’t banned worldwide, and many find their way into the ocean through illegal dumping or countries with less stringent regulations. These chemicals have been linked to liver and reproductive damage in many fish species, and to accelerating the destruction of coral reefs. 
If microplastics are having their largest impact on marine life, how do they affect people? 
The good news is that most microplastics that affect sea animals don’t make it back to affect humans. Microplastics remain in fish gut tissue, and haven’t made it to the muscle tissue, which is what we eat. 
As the University of Victoria study found, though, it is clear that we are consuming an astounding number of microplastics from our everyday foods. Seafood is not the only vector for contamination: they found that tap water, bottled water, and sugar, are just a few sources of human microplastic consumption. 
Should we be concerned about the potential impact of microplastics on our health? 
According to the National Geographic, dosage is a key concept in toxicology. While 74,000-141,000 may seem like very large numbers, they may be quite small in terms of microplastic toxicity and may not be enough to have any impact on human health. Consuming plastic doesn’t really sound healthy, but everything is relative, and there isn’t yet any evidence linking microplastics to human health problems. 
How can I limit my impact on microplastic pollution? 
What is clear now is that plastic consumption is a problem for species that live on our planet, especially ocean species. If these plastics are harmful for our oceans, then they are probably aren’t the best thing for us to consume either. 
There are alternatives: scientists have discovered ways to create biodegradable plastics, and people can push for bans on plastics responsible for leaching toxic chemicals, like our PCB ban. Overall, the best thing for a person to do to reduce plastic pollution is to try to limit your consumption of single use plastics. Single use plastics are plastics you only use once: plastic bags, like the ones your groceries are bagged in, are the main culprit, but plastic water bottles and product packaging are significant sources as well. Next time you’re at the grocery store, choose a paper bag, or better yet— a reusable one! 

Backyard Talk News Archive

McDonalds Decades Later Eliminates Foam Everywhere.

McToxicd“Mister, stop being so mean and give me my sandwich wrapped in paper,” said a young man in 1990. He was part of CHEJ’s McToxic’s campaign primarily run by young school children.
McDonald’s refused to eliminate their use of Styrofoam in their packaging of sandwiches. Young people across the country took it upon themselves to organize their friends and protest at their local McDonalds restaurants. They asked for food wrapped in paper but because of the franchise license the restaurant couldn’t change the packaging.
The win was big. McDonald agreed on November 1, 1990 to stop using Styrofoam in all of their sandwich packing.
Sadly, McDonalds did not credit the children who lead this campaign and were very active. Instead McDonald’s gave the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) all the credit including a center photo in People’s Magazine. Young people were angry that EDF did not share the credit and as one young person said, “We did all the work, but no one takes us seriously because were kids . . . that’s wrong.”  
CHEJ had an exciting time working with all the kids that made signs and challenged a multinational corporation. Not only did they get Styrofoam out of the sandwich wraps they also removed foam from the school cafeterias, houses of faith and community centers across the nation. They know that young voices matter and were proud of their win.
Today, As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group convinced McDonald’s Corp. to end use of harmful polystyrene foam packaging globally by the end of this year. A big win for the health of world oceans.
Rarely recycled, expanded polystyrene foam used in beverage cups and takeout containers is a frequent component of beach litter, breaking down into indigestible pellets, which marine animals mistake for food, resulting in deaths of marine animals.
A shareholder proposal filed by urging the company to phase out of polystyrene was supported by 32% of shares voted (share value $26 billion) in May 2017.  McDonald’s phased out foam cups for hot beverages in the United States after engagement with As You Sow in 2012, but continued to use them in foreign markets like Hong Kong and the Philippines identified as having high levels of plastics deposition into waterways. It also continued to use foam for cold beverages and food trays in some U.S. markets.
McDonald’s has posted a statement on its corporate website that it plans to eliminate foam packaging from its global system by the end of 2018.
Nine countries and more than 100 U.S. cities or counties have banned or restricted foam packaging. 15 major brands including Coca-Cola Co, Danone, Dow Chemical, L’Oreal, Marks & Spencer, Mars, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever recommended replacement of polystyrene foam as a packaging material in a report released in 2017 by the New Plastics Economy Project of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Polystyrene has been widely used for single-use containers across the world for decades, but in recent years its negative environmental and health profile have led major companies to drop it. Its hazardous constituent chemicals have been shown to accumulate water borne toxins in a short time frame, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that styrene, used in the production of polystyrene, is a possible human carcinogen.