Hidden plastics: Glitter gum and the air we breathe

"Large scale public protest, civil disobedience, and coordinated boycotting of products that are contaminating the environment is the only thing that will make government and business act."

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SOURCENationofChange

The plastic contamination of the natural world flows from three main sources: complacency, apathy and ignorance, a poisonous trinity that is itself the result of a narrow and destructive approach to living. While there are signs of a shift in attitudes among many people, resistance to changing the lifestyle habits that feed the environmental crisis, is strong. 

This apathy is partly fueled by a lack of knowledge about what products contain plastic and the impact it has; feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis and ignorance about the interrelated nature of the Environmental Emergency more broadly. Underpinning these is the corrosive core of the issue: deep complacency within governments and businesses.

Reducing plastic use is essential if we are to clean up the seas and rivers, safeguard marine life and sea birds, and start to decontaminate the air we breathe. Unseen by the naked eye, tiny plastic fibers are all around us. According to research carried out by King’s College London and featured in the excellent BBC series, War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita, in the square mile of the City of London home to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Stock Exchange– the air is filled with an estimated two billion plastic fibers. And that’s just one area, in one city, in one country, and of course, as it’s airborne pollution it cannot be contained, it moves where the wind takes it; there is no such thing as national air pollution or national water pollution.

The King’s College team found eight different types of micro plastic in the air: Acrylic fibers and Polyester were the most common, both of which come from clothing made of synthetic textiles. We are literally shedding plastics into the atmosphere. Tests were also undertaken indoors; special filters were installed in two homes in an average street in Bristol. Here too, micro plastics were collected. Shocking and alarming, frightening to many, a source of anxiety and hopelessness – there is no alternative air to breathe.

It’s not clear what the long term health impacts are of inhaling plastic micro fibers over a life-time; respiratory diseases including wheezing and asthma probably, heart conditions perhaps, and detrimental impacts on mental sharpness – the brain doesn’t’t function well in filth. Studies are underway in various countries to investigate if there is a link between air pollution and dementia.

Concealed pollutants

Carrier bags, water bottles, supermarket packaging etc., these are obvious sources of plastic, but there are a whole host of products that one may not realize contain plastics, products that do not announce the fact. Hidden plastics.

Globally its estimated that 16 billion disposable coffee cups are used every year, they appear to be made of a sort of paper/card but they are lined with polythene; this strengthens the cup, but makes it difficult to process resulting in a tiny percentage being recycled. In the UK, e.g., Eradicate Plastic states that only 0.25% of the 2.5 billion cups used every year get recycled. A simple solution is for cafes to only offer reusable cups or for customers to supply their own. Teabags are another source of hidden plastic; on average one-third of a bag is heat-resistant polypropylene – plastic. An economic alternative is to buy loose tea in recyclable packaging.

Chewing gum is commonly made from polymer, who knew. A kind of synthetic rubber also used to make car tires. Non-digestible and water insoluble, no matter how long it’s chewed it will never break down. Glitter, gold, silver red, it’s a micro plastic – cosmetic glitter and craft glitter on cards etc., and it can’t be recycled. Cigarette butts also contain plastic – cellulose acetate, same compound used in the manufacture of sunglasses. Cigarette butts are the most common form of rubbish in the world, although somewhat surprisingly, a survey conducted by Keep America Beautiful “found that 77% of Americans do not think of cigarette butts as litter.”

While these and other products with concealed plastics are contributing to plastic pollution, the biggest source of hidden plastics is disposable wipes – wet wipes. In industrialized countries wipes are numerous and commonplace, a ubiquitous symbol of the consumer society; baby wipes, multi-surface wipes, metal wipes, window wipes, hand wipes, toilet wipes – rather than toilet paper, you name it wipes. Convenient, throwaway and for many people indispensable. They are made up of up to 80% plastic and are a significant source of plastic pollution in sewers, rivers and oceans.

First developed in 1958 by Arthur Julius in the US and marketed as ‘moist towelettes’, global usage is now estimated at 450 billion a year, about 14,000 every second. Friends of the Earth state most wet wipes are not flushable or biodegradable, no matter what the labeling claims. Yet huge numbers are flushed down the toilet, presumably by people who imagine they will magically dissolve or just disappear. In fact, they mass together in the sewers of the world together with fat deposits creating ‘Fatbergs’, mountains of filthy waste, which block sewers.

Hundreds of thousands of wet wipes flushed down toilets in London have carved out a new ‘riverbed’ in the Thames. Far from unique, this is happening in rivers around the world. The waste in the rivers flows into the oceans, the plastics slowly become smaller and smaller until, as micro plastics and Nano plastics they become part of the fabric of the sea. Ingested by marine life, some of which enters the food chain, these microscopic plastics are even in the sea salt we cook with.

Simplicity of living

For years, environmentalists have been calling on governments to ban the sale of wet wipes, but, complacent and duplicitous, none have done so. Rather the ‘non-woven’ industry has been allowed to regulate itself. This cowardly approach is symptomatic of the way governments have up until now responded, by not acting.  Why not ban wet wipes? They are certainly not indispensable; they are just another needless ‘thing’ in a world that is literally suffocating under the weight of unnecessary stuff. In the absence of a ban, and such a common-sense step is unlikely, stop buying them! Use a flannel, soap and water to wash with, use recycled toilet paper, make your own multi-surface cleaner. Simplicity of living needs to be the message.

If, and it’s a big ‘if’, we are going to really respond to the environmental crisis, governments must impose regulations on business, substantial regulations not inadequate half-hearted measures within prolonged timeframes. Otherwise they will either not act, or act in a piecemeal fashion. Take plastic production: according to Greenpeace, far from reducing it “corporations have plans to … quadruple production by 2050.”  Businesses must be forced to change their practices. If e.g. you want to drastically reduce the use of plastic carrier bags then just tell shops (all shops and market traders) that they cannot any longer provide them, neither free nor for sale.

Last year the European Union announced a range of measures on single-use plastics including wet wipes. By 2025 all wet wipes packaging within EU countries must be labeled as containing plastics; better than nothing certainly, but why wait six years? Measures like this need to be implemented immediately, forcing companies to do what they should be doing anyway – informing the public what is in their products.

In addition to accurate and clear labeling, recyclable packaging and ethical production, manufacturers should be required by law to pay to clean up the environmental mess that their products cause; making the ‘polluter to pay’ should be extended to all areas of waste pollution including investment in state-of-the-art recycling plants. Businesses, large and small are driven by profit and short-term gain, and corporate governments are obsessed with economic growth no matter the impact on the environment. Partners in mass environmental vandalism, they are complacent and blind to the scale of the crisis.

Large scale public protest (like the Extinction Rebellion and the Youth for Climate Change actions), civil disobedience, and coordinated boycotting of products that are contaminating the environment is the only thing that will make government and business act within a timeframe dictated by environmental need, not the blind demands of the market. We cannot go on as we have been and Save Our Planet. It’s an Environmental Emergency, and we need to respond to it as such. Saving Our Planet calls for actions rooted in Love, and the corporate state knows nothing of Love.

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