7 Dangerous Lies About Plastic
By Stiv Wilson
To receive a Ph.D in industrial chemistry in the U.S., no American university requires candidates to take even a single toxicology class as part of their course work. We churn out new chemists with the divine power to manipulate the very structure of nature itself, without teaching them the divine wisdom of how to wield that power.
Nearly everything we consume or even interact with these days is made of plastic. The industry that produces plastic, largely represented by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), has an annual budget of more than $120 million to protect its interests. But as the plague of plastic that wreaks havoc on our environment slowly gains the attention of policymakers, concerned citizens and the media, the makers of plastic resins and the companies that package their products have become increasingly aggressive about defending their respective bottom lines.
Taking tactics from Big Tobacco's playbook, the industry engages in bully tactics, politician buys and wide-scale misinformation campaigns meant to confuse the public and turn truth to speculation. Big Plastic is big money and survives regulatory scrutiny by creating big spin.
Because of slashed budgets to regulatory agencies, little private-sector money for watchdogging industry, and a lazy mainstream press that simply regurgitates its claims, the petrochemical industry goes largely unchecked. Here are some of the biggest whoppers.
Lie #1: Plastics are safe.
To date, we use more than 248,000 chemicals in commerce and we don't know which ones are harmful or safe. Why? Because the vast amount of research on plastics we use in our lives comes from the plastic industry.
Much of the plastic we see on a daily basis we know by its designated recycling numbers 1 through 7. These plastics are not pure; rather, they're a proprietary formulation of additives, some of which have been shown to be endocrine disrupters, carcinogenic and pose countless other health concerns, but very, very little data exists on additives, toxicologically speaking. In the U.S., chemicals that make plastics are innocent until proven guilty, leaving the burden of proof of toxicity to the vastly underfunded and under-staffed Environmental Protection Agency. With 248,000 chemicals on the market, don't expect any light shed here anytime soon.
Perhaps the best-known additive is bisphenol-A, or BPA. Though it's gained media traction having been shown to cause sexual mutations, cardiovascular disorders, obesity, and diabetes, the $6 billion annual industry makes the plastics industry protect it fiercely, even though Centers for Disease Control studies have shown that 93 percent of the adult population has BPA present in their urine. BPA has been on the radar of environmentalists for years but few policy victorieshave been won because industry-funded studies repeatedly don't show adverse effects, though all the independent studies do
Lie #2: The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch does not exist.
In a 25-page report for the Save the Bag Coalition, meant to refute claims made by the media and environmentalists about the presence of plastic in the ocean, attorney Stephen Joseph wrote that the "so-called 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch,' which is alleged to be twice the size of Texas, does not exist." To keep the speculation on the table, industry hammers on a single point; in early 2011, Oregon State University issued a press release titled, "Oceanic "Garbage Patch' Not Nearly As Big As Portrayed By Media" and a huge media storm ensued calling out environmentalists as a result.
Why this press release was so widely distributed is strange, because the woman who issued it isn't even a relevant name in the plastics research world. But seeing an opportunity to pound environmentalists, the plastic industry created a PR blitz sending press releases to media and form letters to lawmakers. What's interesting is that no one can attribute who first made the Texas-sized analogy, and no primary source for the quote exists, though it certainly went viral.
The researcher from OSU, Angelique White, is correct in her assessment from the best available data, but the data available isn't enough by several degrees of scale to accurately predict spatial distribution of plastics in the gyres (which any scientist who works on the issue will tell you, explicitly), or the ocean in general. To do so would mean that 70 percent of the surface of the earth surface had been sampled.
Well, that's not going to happen anytime soon, as research vessels cost about $30,000 a day and funding is very limited in this field, because so many corporate interests that might sponsor such research depend on plastic to deliver their products. What scientists do know is that 200 billion pounds of plastic are produced each year, and that number is on the rise, and mitigation strategies for keeping plastics out of the ocean are failing, horribly. Greenpeace estimates that of the 200 billion pounds produced annually, 10 percent makes it into the ocean.
To date, the best estimate of how much plastic is in the gyres comes from Columbia University. Researchers took all the major data sets (of which there are very, very few) that exist and calculated 73,878,000 pounds of plastic in the area of the gyres, which accounts for just 16 million of the earth's 315 million square kilometers of ocean surface.
Another problem with determining the scale of plastic pollution is that half of the plastics that are made sink and to date no data exists on how much plastic lies beneath the surface of the water. But when speaking only of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottles, a type of plastic that sinks, we know that Americans alone discard 22 billion a year. Scientists who work on plastic in the ocean often refer to it as, "the world's largest dump." But without "conclusive" data, industry can stay on the offensive.
Lie #3: Plastics don't kill sea life or pose a threat to people eating fish.
While occasionally industry will acknowledge that marine animals do eat plastics from time to time, they make a point of stating that they don't know if the plastics are definitively responsible for the animal's death. To date, 177 species of marine life have been shown to ingest plastics and the number is likely to get much higher as more research is done. Recently published evidence has shown that shards of plastic eroded from synthetic clothing in the washing machine is so small that it can enter an animal at the cellular level.
But determining death, or eventual death of an animal based on a necropsy (autopsy for animals) is notoriously difficult in some cases. What's at issue is that again, industry takes advantage of the "unknowns" to make the assertion that their products don't cause morbidity. Scientists can't absolutely know what causes an animal's death unless it lives and dies in a controlled environment. But opening up a turtle stomach and finding pounds of plastic in it might give them a clue. How long would a turtle have survived with this much plastic garbage in his guts?
We know that most types of plastic aren't passed by a turtle and that it wreaks havoc on their digestive systems. We also know that carrying around a stomach full of plastic is going to slow him down and change his natural buoyancy. Sharper plastics, cause gut impaction and the potential for stomach wall and intestinal perforation. In the wild, everything about an animal's health and agility matters in determining his survival quotient.
In December, a study was published in Science Of The Total Environment that looked to see if the digestive juices of turtles could make plastic bags decay. Three common types of shopping bags (including bioplastic) were subjected to the gastrointestinal fluids of Green and Loggerheads turtles. Without exception, the ubiquitous High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) bag showed "negligible" biodegradability—which means if a turtle can't pass it, he's stuck with it forever.
Beyond turtles, 9 percent of base food chain fish (which represents as much as 50 percent of the biomass of fish in the entire ocean) sampled in the North Pacific have been shown to ingest plastics, and along with it a toxic soup of PAHs, flame retardants, DDE (a persistent form of the outlawed DDT) and PCBs. Concentrations of these chemicals in ocean-borne plastics have been shown to be up to a million times higher than the ambient sea water around it.
Bigger fish eat the fish that eat these toxic bombs and so do humans at the top of the food chain. All humans have levels of these toxins in their blood and men can't get rid of them. Women can only pass the chemicals through the umbilical chord and through breast milk, and thus, a higher and higher chemical burden in the human body will result from generation to generation.
Lie #4: It shouldn't be called "plastic pollution" but rather "marine debris."
What's the most common type of plastic found on the surface of the ocean? According to the Ocean Conservancy's annual report, 11 percent of beach litter is plastic bags. But what happens when a plastic bag enters the ocean? Plastic doesn't biodegrade in any meaningful timeframe, but it photo-degrades. Thin, flimsy plastic like HDPE with a lot of surface area (like the common bag from grocery stores) photo-degrades faster than thicker plastic. Ultraviolet rays from the sun break the polymer chains of hydrocarbon molecules into smaller pieces and what you end up with is small fragments. So, you might not find a plastic bag in the "garbage patch" but you surely will find the remnants of them. Plastic bags are of the class of plastics recyclers refer to as "blow trash" as they tend to be picked up by the wind and blown out to sea. They're huge offenders of plastic pollution as Americans consume more than 100 billion a year.
Keith Christman, managing director for plastics markets at the ACC, maintained that "marine debris" is a better phrase than "plastic pollution" for describing the trash in the ocean even though 90 percent of the contents of the gyres is plastic. Christman, understanding the negative implications of his product's association with the word "pollution," mentioned that it's not just plastic, but derelict fishing gear as well. All modern fishing gear is made of polypropylene, i.e. plastic. This is a sore spot for the ACC, and marine plastics research and education groups that receive funding from the ACC are typically "mandated" to refer to oceanic trash as marine debris to keep the burden of guilt from resting squarely on their shoulders.
Lie #5: "Plastic retail carry-out bags are 100-percent recyclable and made from clean natural gas."
This is a direct statement issued by the American Progressive Bag Alliance to the city of Dana Point, California in a letter regarding a proposed bag ban. That plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable isn't the issue; it's that by and large, they are not recycled. Plastic bag recycling is governed by supply and demand. People assume that if they place a bag in a recycling receptacle this means the bag will in fact be recycled. That's not necessarily true. In order to show (very) modest positive trending in recycling, industry lops all polyethylene (PE) films, wraps and bags all into one category. But for bags discretely, which are high-density polyethylene, the numbers are atrocious. In 2009, the rate for recycling is 6.1 percent; in 2010, the rate is 4.3 percent.
Thus one of the main targets legislatively, is plastic shopping bags. The biggest player in the bag market, Hilex Poly, has become a master of spin tactics to attempt to paint a rosy picture of its business. Hilex, the largest recycler in the US, writes posts on its Web site patting itself on the back for increased recycling rates claiming that PE rates are up from 2009 to 2010. What it fails to mention is the distinction between the different types of PE, and that EPA itself doesn't independently audit the recycling industry, it just compiles industry's reporting.
There's another problem with plastic bag recyclability. According to Mark Daniels of Hilex Poly, only 30-percent post-consumer HDPE can be used to make a new bag, which means 70 percent of a "recycled" plastic bag comes from virgin sources (natural gas). Sometimes, recycled HDPE gets down-cycled into other products like decking materials. The problem here is that plastic decking materials have a lifespan as well, and no strategy for reclaiming them at the end of their lifespan has been introduced to the recycling markets.
When speaking of plastics in general (including plastic bags), even when there is a modest gain in recycling rates, those rates are far outpaced by higher consumption. From 2009 to 2010, plastics generated in the municipal waste stream jumped from 59,660,000 to 62,080,000 pounds. This is an increase of 2,420,000 pounds. In terms of recycling gains, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports 440,000 more pounds of all plastics recovered from 2009 to 2010.
So, if we subtract the increase in gains in recovery from the increase in generation we still get an increase of plastic generation of 1,980,000 pounds. This is the central conspiracy of the plastics industry tactically. If industry can convince the public that the environmental consequences of their consumption habits are offset by the industry-backed solution of recycling, industry is guaranteed that its bottom line will grow by hoodwinking the public into believing the myth of recycling.
What about natural gas, the stock for plastic bags? It is becoming scarcer and dirtier to get. According to the US Energy Information Administration, 35 percent of domestic natural gas drilling comes from fracking, and will reach 47 percent by 2035. Though natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, getting it out of the ground by fracking creates potent greenhouse gas emissions of methane and other undesired consequences. According to a congressional report released in April, the 14 biggest fracking companies released 3 billion liters of fracking fluid into the environment, including 29 chemicals known or suspected to be carcinogenic to humans. This is where your plastic bag comes from—or at least 70 pecent of it.
Lie #6: Reusable bags are dangerous.
The American Chemistry Council is worried that Americans might not understand the danger of things when they get dirty. Like your underwear, if you don't wash your reusable bag, bacteria might grow in it. So, rather than issue a press release telling people to wash their bags, they funded a study looking at bacterial contamination of reusable bags.
Bacteria are myriad on everything we touch, but the presence of bacteria is natural and the microbe kingdom has a pretty good system of checks and balances. The study found that 12 percent of its 84-bag sample size found E. coli, and all samples but one contained bacteria. This finding spawned scary headlines in newspapers such as the Washington Post that read "Reusable Bags Found To Be Full Of Bacteria." But here's the problem: None of the bacteria (salmonella and listeria were not found), or the strains of E. coli present in reusable bags are harmful to humans.
The ACC, though absolutely knowing this, still went ahead on a PR blitz trying to scare the hell out of people about bacterial exposure. Thankfully, the study was officially debunked by Consumer Reports. My favorite bit from the article comes from a senior staff scientist at Consumer Reports, who said, "A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study."
Lie #7: We care about polar bears and recycling.
Coca-Cola is one the world's largest producers of plastic waste. Coke creates cause marketing campaigns with corporate-aligned NGOs like World Wildlife Fund which is working with the Canadian government to to find an area of ice that can withstand climate change to create a sort of polar bear refuge, hoping to save the white bears from drowning because Artic ice is melting.
In total, Coke has pledged $2 million and another $1 million matching funds to consumer donations. What's ironic is that Coke uses a plastic bottle for much of its product's packaging and one-third of the volume of a plastic Coke bottle is what it takes to produce it from oil, and another third is what it takes to transport it to market. That's a lot of fossil fuel burning. Fossil fuel burning that melts polar ice that kills polar bears.
But perhaps the most egregious offense is that Coke vehemently opposes the only program proven to reduce its bottles' impact on the environment: bottle bills. Statistically, for states that have bottle deposits, the recovery rates for recycling are off the charts compared to those that don't. In California, recovery rates top 70 percent for PET bottles.
So what's a citizen to do? Unfortunately, cutting through the spin is a difficult task, but as always, when there is a lot of money to be had, injecting oneself with a healthy does of skepticism about the intentions of chemical companies that manipulate nature for profit is a good start. What's the best solution? Remember this: if you don't consume it in the first place, it can't damage you or the environment.
Avoiding plastics is not just a personal responsibility, it's an environmental mandate and should be as common in our global society as turning off the lights when you leave the room. There is no silver bullet solution to plastic pollution, more like a silver buckshot, but it all starts with you saying two words: "No Plastic."
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>