When plastic became available for convenient disposable packaging, it literally changed the world. Despite recent awareness campaigns, our plastic crises did not begin a couple of years ago; nor did it begin ten years ago.
As far back as the 1960s, notable scientists and environmentalists had already begun to warn the general public about the long-term dangers of plastic waste. These warnings were spurred on by the discovery that all the plastic products used in the years leading up to that era had not yet decomposed; and this fact compounded by the increased reliance on plastic made the scientists of the day worry about the future of the planet.
Efforts at fighting the plastic crisis (then and now) have yet to be as successful as many have hoped because, despite the endless flow of publicity on the subject, the concern for our general plastic consumption has mostly remained an issue for scientists, environmentalists and planet lovers. Put differently, humans in average (not to talk of the less than average) societies of the world still don’t “get it”.
The main reason for this I believe lies in convenience. From the companies that package products in unnecessary layers to their consumers’ disposable cups and cutlery sets, every one of us seems to be hooked on plastic. Plastic offers a level of convenience for everyone (except the planet) that no other material as yet offers, so that many of us find the idea of living plastic-free inconceivable.
Another reason for this selective ignorance is that to the average person, the idea of plastic as a threat to the planet is so distant that it is almost an abstract concept. Only few people have ever seen the Great Pacific garbage patch up close; and even fewer still have ever come in contact with a dead fish stuffed with plastic in its stomach. In the same vein, very few people have ever actually thrown any plastic in the ocean; they just throw it out of the window. It is difficult to get most people to change their habits to stop a crisis they don’t believe they made worse in the first place.
The plastic crisis is less of a priority to many (if it is a priority at all) because there doesn’t appear to be any human victims; just some fish and birds. If this had been about human starvation and deprivation in say Yemen, or Siberia, no one would require conviction to join the cause because the direct consequences of selective ignorance in these examples would reflect on our human faces. Are there any people directly affected or injured because I threw out my used plastic bag out of my car window? No right? Why then should I decide to change my ways? These had all been very difficult questions to answer, until now.
A few weeks ago, a new study showed that humans are actually eating plastic. The study which was commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and led by researchers at the University of Newcastle, Australia, disclosed that human beings ingest around five grams of microplastics in their weekly diets — or roughly the equivalent of an ATM card. Microplastics are small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life and is now entering the food chain.
According to this report, the biggest source of these microplastics being found in human bodies is through the water we consume. It found that the average person consumes as many as 1,769 particles of plastic every week just by drinking water – bottled or from the tap. Shellfish is the second highest source followed by salt and then beer. Scary right?
Now, unlike many commenters on this issue, I do not see this as a bad development. While it isn’t great news for humankind, it may help push people to finally care. The silver lining in this report is the fact that the plastic crisis has taken on a new dimension; a human dimension. At this point, it is difficult to ignore the problems posed by plastic seeing as it is no longer an issue for birds and marine life.
So what are the health implications of this human consumption of plastic? The study does not say and so far, not much research has been done to determine the health effects of humans ingesting microplastics. In all honesty, I don’t think it matters much because focusing on the answer to this question would only serve to distract from the plastic pollution issue. What really should matter to us all now is that plastic has come knocking. If we all can ingest plastic through drinking water (and it’s much worse when drinking bottled water) then it is no longer a challenge for just the scientific or eco-conscious community. This means that better action can (and should) now be expected from individuals, institutions and governments worldwide.
According to the WWF, they hope that the study will “ring the alarm for governments” to take action and regulate plastic waste. “Plastics are polluting not only our oceans and waterways but also marine life and humans. Urgent, global action is needed to face this crisis,” the organization relays in a public statement. This is a hope I share with the WWF.
Now that we know that we’re eating plastic, can we please stop wasting it?
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