Short update on the Plastic Problem

Image source:  Unsplash

Image source: Unsplash

Plastic has been quite a hot topic recently.
Hot in many ways, including its contribution to the global warming and the fact that plastic waste that developed countries think they recycle, actually gets shipped to developing countries, often in South East Asia to be burned (read this if you want to know more). During our visit to Copenhagen, we attended a presentation by Kristian Syberg titled The Big Plastic Challenge organized by Kirk, Hatch & Bloom (a sustainable design studio from Copenhagen*) on the topic of plastics.
We learned a few things that we were not aware of before, and now it is time to share the unhappy news, more plastic-related facts and a few critical comments of the lecture itself.

Bon appetit, your serving of plastics has arrived

Several sources have recently shared studies showing that we consume/ingest microplastics through our food. The worrying thing is, as the quoted Guardian article also highlights, only a small number of foods has actually been tested for plastic contamination. The case is especially pressing with fish and seafood.

Microplastic pollution is mostly created by the disintegration of plastic litter and appears to be ubiquitous across the planet. Researchers find microplastics everywhere they look; in the airsoilrivers and the deepest oceans around the world. They have been detected in tap and bottled water, seafood and beer. They were also found in human stool samples for the first time in October, confirming that people ingest the particles.

The Guardian

What we learned during the Copenhagen lecture is that even though we have seen images of fish with stomachs filled with small plastic elements, people tend to neglect the problem, since the stomach is not the part of the fish they are likely to ingest. What we see is that the plastic-filled organ gets discarded, and people eat the, supposedly, plastic-free flesh. The case is different with seafood like mussels where the stomach is the part that humans actually eat. Sea creatures like mussels and clams let the water filter through them, and the small particles of plastic get caught in the flesh inside the shell - the flesh that later ends on the consumers’ plate. 


Plastic binds pathogenic cholera particles 

After conducting several studies in Zanzibar, the researchers from Roskilde Universitetscenter in Roskilde, Denmark have found a correlation between spreading of cholera disease and plastic with “pathogenic [disease-causing] bacteria binding particularly strongly to plastic pollution particles” (Syberg was the lead researcher in the team, find the link to the full study HERE). 
The evil loop tightens when we start looking at the local culture and further analyze risk factors of disease spread. In Zanzibar, the hand-pressed sugar cane juice is a common drink, sold to tourists as well as locals. The juice is often sold in re-used (not recycled, but “cleaned” and re-filled) plastic bottles. Those bottles could have been collected from waste piles and simply rinsed with water, before being sold further as a sugar-cane juice container. The juice is very likely to be drunk out of a contaminated vessel.
Sell this to a tourist who goes back to their home country, possibly infected with the cholera bacteria and you have a solid base for a cholera outbreak outside of Zanzibar too. We asked Syberg whether bioplastics would have the same property of binding the cholera molecules, but it was still unknown to the researchers. 

Now, we are far from spreading a message that discarded plastic is a sole carrier of cholera in the region; we are simply indicating that it constitutes at least one more, and rather significant, transportation means to the bacteria, which could be easily prevented.

Fifty shades of plastic pollution

This is more of an “interesting fact” rather than “breaking news”, but we also learned that the type of plastic pollution is different in the coastal areas and on open waters. In coastal areas, the researchers saw significant levels of microplastic pollution (with microplastics most likely coming from washing textiles), whereas open waters are mostly contaminated with larger plastic particles - e.g. waste coming from fishing industry.
It tells us that often in coastal areas the pollution may be difficult to see for the human eye. Not all beaches are contaminated with large plastic elements, flowing and floating single-use bags or straws, which does not mean that the problem is not real or is not urgent! We will cover the topic of clothing-derived micro plastic in poliester in our editorial next week, but what we have to understand is that it is not only what we see that harms us. Micro plastics can be barely visible to the human eye and therefore can become microscopic residue in sea creatures’ flesh - which in turn we digest later, as said above. Shades of plastic pollution are countless, some more and some less visible. The only clear fact is that at this point it is overwhelming.


turning plastic lecture into action

As mentioned above, the three insights that we are presenting you with here are inspired by a lecture we attended. And whereas we were grateful to join a carefully curated panel, organized by an interesting think-tank focused on sustainable design and design solutions, we could not help but notice a certain lack of urgency in the tone of the panel - the problem that we have often during any sustainability-oriented event. The audience was presented with research, confronted with facts, but there was no actual “call to action”. Naturally, the fact that we should limit our plastic consumption was mentioned, but without mentioning more ambitious action steps than the usual “skipping the straw and taking the tote bag when grocery shopping”. Even the textile discussions that we were (mildly, yet deliberately) provoking seemed a bit extreme for some parts of the audience. 
It seemed like it was a good forum to discuss, but not a gathering of actual future activists. Syberg even made a joke about (and showed a picture of) the sushi that he had, made of one of the fish that they caught on their research trip - right after telling how contaminated our waters are with plastics!
So what are we missing? After talking about sea contamination, risk of cholera and the fact that (endocrine-disruptive) plastic particles may already be layering inside of our bodies, there still wasn’t a palpable sense of urgency. A sense of urgency that, luckily, younger generations seem to be feeling and acting on. Let’s just hope we didn’t screw things up far beyond repair.

By the way - are we slowly entering an era of “kids saving the world”?

* Kirk, Hatch & Bloom organize events they call Salons on monthly basis. During the Salons various topics connected to sustainability are being discussed. Check the topic and time of the next meet-up HERE.