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Reducing Plastic Pollution: A Priority

Chances are high that within your reach are many things made of plastic. Since the second World War plastic has become the material of choice for many of the products we use. It is lightweight and durable, and inexpensive to produce and purchase. In fact, many of the plastics we use are intended for only a single use. But while many find plastics cheap and convenient, there are hidden costs of allowing a material made from chemicals to become so ubiquitous in our lives.

You may have seen some of the startling photographs of wildlife tangled in plastic, animal stomachs full of plastic debris, or massive islands of garbage floating in our oceans. Images such as these are alarming reminders that plastic waste is a major environmental plight. Yet even more threatening are the invisible hazards of plastic waste. Microplastics and plastic chemicals have infiltrated our environment – our soil, our air, our waters. In one study of 33 tap water samples taken across the US, 94% contained plastic particles.

Some of this pollution is due to larger pieces of plastic eroding and breaking down into smaller particles, but often, microplastics are already present in the products we buy. Synthetic clothing such as polyester blends, which make up nearly 60% of clothing on the market, have been shown to shed massive amounts microfibers into the air and water.  Research has shown that an average of about 700,000 such fibers can be washed out of a single load of synthetic clothing. These microplastics are too small to be filtered out by conventional washing machines and most municipal water filtration systems lack the technology to keep these minute particles from flowing into our waterways or entering our drinking water supplies. Because synthetic fabrics are inexpensive, low income folks may have greater exposure to microfibers. Furthermore, plastics manufacturing often involves emissions of toxic air pollutants and is more likely to take place near communities of color or low income.

The implications of so much plastic in our water are yet largely unknown, but there is evidence of some serious health concerns. Plastics have been found in the stomachs of sea birds, fish, whales, and other water-dependent animals. From zooplankton to top predator fish like tuna, plastics can work their way onto our dinner plates. Furthermore, plastics can both absorb and leach toxic chemicals from the surrounding environment. If there are plastics infiltrating our taps, this can amount to chemicals in the water we drink, as well as foods cooked with water. Many of the chemicals that are used for making plastics have not been subjected to toxicology studies for effects on human health, yet plastics are used to handle and store our food, bottle our drinks, clothe our bodies.

Some plastic chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA) are known to cause cancer and disrupt the endocrine system and the production of hormones. While BPA has been banned from use in certain products, chemicals that are used to replace BPA have not been proven to be any safer. Unlike some European nations who employ the precautionary principle to test chemicals to be sure they are safe for human use before they hit the market, the US applies the opposite approach often taking years to remove unsafe chemicals from use. Currently, EPA does not currently have standards for plastics or plastic chemicals in our drinking water. Such chemicals are not even up for consideration on the list of potential contaminants for the next 6-year review of federal drinking water standards.

While many of the problems with plastics are invisible, they urgently need our attention. There are a number of measures that can be taken, from individual choices to industry pressure to political action, that amount to fewer plastics and plastic chemicals in our environment. Plastics are a serious concern, but we can work toward reducing the risks if we decide to make it a priority!

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