I just brought home shopping in plastic bags. I feel… ethically compromised.
I haven’t used a plastic bag in years. I even made sure I brought enough fabric bags with me to Peru so I wouldn’t need to use plastic here. It’s a well-ingrained habit now and I’ll most always have a bag on me somewhere. So what went wrong today? Nothing: I deliberately left my fabric bags at home when I went to do the grocery shopping. I chose to use plastic.
Y’see, we need the bags for the house, for putting our garbage in. There are no wheelie bins in Lima, instead you set your rubbish out each night, tied up in shopping bags, and in the small hours of the morning it gets collected.† There’s also no domestic recycling, and I can’t compost in my apartment, and when even the toilet paper has to go in the bin that adds up to a whole lot of plastic bags that just end up in landfill, or even worse just disintegrating in a gutter or a creek somewhere before washing out to sea.
A couple of weeks ago I went for a surf with a friend at our local beach here in Miraflores, Lima (ok, he surfed, I bodyboarded) and saw just how bad the plastic pollution problem is. As well as the big bits of rubbish that were sloshing around in the surf, there was a thick band of plastic soup sea just beyond the breakers. There, the top half- metre or so of the ocean was thick with pieces of plastic in various states of disintegration. At one stage a tiny dot of plastic trash got stuck to my eyeball, causing a disconcerting “dead pixel” effect on my field of vision.
Gross stuff, right?
But it’s not just the ickiness of swimming in rubbish that’s the problem; there are the enormous impacts of plastic on the ecosystems of our oceans. Animals can get tangled up in the bigger stuff, drowning or starving to death wrapped up in our rubbish.[1,2,3,4,5] Over 250 species have been recorded to suffer from marine plastic entanglement! Other animals eat the stuff and die: to a sea turtle a plastic bag can look a lot like a jellyfish, and seabirds are feeding their chicks a fatal diet of bottle-tops and plastic tags they’ve mistaken for fish in a sea depleted of the small pelagic fish on which they depend.[5,8] Depressingly, studies have shown that over 50% of seabirds now have plastic pieces in their guts.
Plastic never really decomposes, it just disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces, with every piece of plastic ever made still existing out there, in our soils and oceans. Even worse, research is showing that plastic particles act like chemical sponges, soaking up the toxins produced by their break-down – nasty stuff like bisphenol A and styrene monomer – as well as concentrating other ocean contaminants.[5,6,12] Microplastics – that’s the microscopic specs of toxic plastic that are now found on every coastline on the planet[6,9] – are accidentally consumed by all marine life, with the chemicals contained within entering the animal’s blood stream, with concentrations accumulating through the food chain, including in us.[10,11,12] The fish we eat is part plastic, and so are we.‡ We don’t yet know the full potential impacts of our new polymer diets but given the chemicals involved, it really can’t be good.
Plastic pollution is huge problem, one that needs to be dealt with at all levels, from the individual to the international. We need viable alternatives for plastic materials, we need waste management and recycling services, we need moratoriums on chemical manufacture and use, and we need massive clean-up efforts to at least reduce what’s already out there.
The good news is that some of this is happening, with actions being taken at the community, national and international level to tackle plastic pollution. We’ve got a long way to go though, especially in the developing world where the waste management systems just don’t exist. In this city alone, the amount of plastic waste generated each day is staggering: not just the plastic bags but also the ubiquitous polystyrene take-away containers, plastic bottles and packaging discarded by Lima’s 9 million inhabitants. Another challenge is invisible plastics: tiny particles from washing synthetic fibres or the plastic beads used as abrasive agents in various cleaning products, from face-wash to industrial scrubbers.
Living in Lima ensures I’m part of the problem, but truthfully none of us is truly powerless, no matter how much it may seem we are. I might be stuck using plastic shopping bags, but here’s what I can do to reduce my contribution to the plastic problem:
What about you? What can you do to reduce plastic pollution?
† At least here in the posh suburbs. In many places there’s no garbage collection at all.
‡ It’s worth noting that studies have also found that we humans absorb chemicals from plastics directly, though the use of plastic packaging to store our food.
 Gregory MR (2009) Environmental implications of plastic debris in marine settings—entanglement, ingestion, smothering, hangers-on, hitch-hiking and alien invasions; Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (364(1526): 2013–2025); Royal Society Publishing, London.
 US EPA (accessed 11/02/14) Marine Debris Impacts, United States Environmental Protection Agency, US Government, USA
 EIA International (2012) Dying at our convenience: The impact of marine debris on whales, dolphins and porpoises; Environmental Investigations Agency; London, UK
 Allsopp M, Walter A, Santillo D & Johnston P (2006) Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans; Greenpeace International; Amsterdam, Netherlands.
 Derraik BG (2002) The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review; Marine Pollution Bulletin 44 (2002) 842–852; Pergamon, Elsevier. f
 Barry C (2009) Plastic Breaks Down in Ocean, After All – And Fast; National Geographic News, National Geographic Society.
 Viegas J (2013) Plastic Bags Fool Turtles Into Hunting Them; Discovery News, Discovery Communications.
 Smithsonian Ocean Portal (Accessed 11/02/2014) Laysan Albatrosses’ Plastic Problem; Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute
 Cox T (2013) Microplastic Soup: The State of Our Oceans; The Ecologist.
 vos Moos N, Burkhardt-Holm P & Köhler A (2012) Uptake and effects of microplastics on cells and tissue of the blue mussel Mytilus edulis L. after an experimental exposure; Environ Sci Technol. 2012 Oct 16;46(20):11327-35..
 Cohen J (2013) Researcher shows microplastic transfers chemicals, impacting health; Phys.org, Science X network.
 Cox T (2013) Microplastic pollution confirmed to be a threat to marine biodiversity; Phys.org, Science X network.