#13 The Plasticization of the Planet
Updated: Feb 25
A meme that is floating around the web at the moment is the fact that the average American consumes an average of the mass of a credit card in plastics on a weekly basis. This is a rather depressing concept to consider, as plastics have deleterious impacts to our fertility and health and yet seem almost impossible to escape considering the dominance of oil for medicines, containers, fuel, and most every part of western capitalist culture. There are scientific advancements in recycling technology and interest in cleaning up the Pacific Garbage Patch and others, and this is incredibly important as plastics can last without action taken to eliminate them for 400 years.
The endocrine system is a delicate balance in our body that can impact muscle growth, fertility, and basic mental functioning. It turns out that plastics can mimic estrogen, cause oxidative stress, inflame the body, and decrease estradiol in mice. Beyond the mice studies, it has been replicated in other much more closely related species to humans in the impact on birth rate, weight, and conception rate. It also impacts the liver. I don’t think there is a single good quality about consuming a material that our body doesn’t have the capability to digest.
How are these plastics so ubiquitous? The primary contributor to the 2500% increase over the last century is packaging, which due to the waste disposal in countries in primarily Asia, but all around the world, ends up in one of a few plastic patches in the ocean. Two large ones are the East and West Great Pacific Garbage patch, which grows due to the currents of the ocean. If we really want to narrow things down, Panama, Guyana, Suriname, Malaysia, and the Philippines are the five highest per capita sources of plastics in the ocean.
The impact of the plastics in our world (of which Americans inhale 132-170 tiny bits of plastic on a daily basis) doesn't merely strike at our species. It severely harms every species. Some by the material impact of the physical constraints of poorly disposed plastics, and some by the long term effects on the species as a whole, as with the fertility of Rhesus monkey’s previously cited. In a couple of decades, if our production and disposal of plastics continues at the present rate, the mass of plastics in the ocean will outweigh the mass of fish. I can’t imagine a scenario where that is good for any species on the planet.
There are a great many ways to improve plastics use and disposal. After all, with 91% of plastics not even being recycled to begin with, the species can only improve. Often in the past containers of a wide variety were used – from ceramics to metal to wood. We still use many of these today, to a lesser extent. This may be due to the craftsmanship involved or the expense of the material in question, probably both. However, as with the growing danger to one of the healthiest protein sources on the planet, the question becomes who will foot the bill? Interestingly, some forms of plastics disposal can add value through energy generation.
The energy generation which could help allay the costs of revolutionizing waste disposal include using innovative pyrolysis or plasma arc gasification to generate fuels like syngas and pyrolytic oil. The first of these could substitute for something like natural gas which can pump methane into the atmosphere, and the other for your standard gasoline or diesel. They both could be a valuable source of energy in the modern day, when we are seeking other primary drivers to the engine of unlimited growth in our western capitalist society. Both innovative pyrolysis and plasma arc gasification use less water and require fewer pollution controls than a coal-fired power plant. To me, it seems self-evident the improvements that await, if one is willing to change tack from our current catastrophic course.