Monday, May 4, 2020

Our daily consumption

By Marylou Rodriguez, CCVI

I believe that the call of the earth is the call of God.  Our Catholic Social Teaching states that “We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation".  I would like to invite you to be mindful of what can you see prominently in the trash bins and in your household. 

Plastics as it is used today has been in existence since early 20th century (Beaman et al, 13).  Most events and households are usually at the convenience of having plastics around.  It has been used for its throw away property considering its price or simply the plastic is lightweight and cheap. Is it really cheap?  

The issue with growing plastic pollution has raised a global concern due to the fact that plastic is produced globally in most consumables that end up in bodies of water such as oceans and rivers.  Micro plastics and sorbed contaminants in plastics are also a concern for marine animals’ mortality and toxicity (Beaman et al, 35-36).  The micro plastics are also known to end up in sewage system (Beaman et al, 25).  There are a lot of things to learn about how man and women have become dependent on plastics and how the ecosystem carries the burden in years since its inception.

Amidst the COVID-19 impact, where the sickness is prevalent and in the places where people are hardly hit, people have more time to be in the stillness of the confinements of where they are.  Since COVID-19, there has been less people out of the house.   There are less take outs, fast food, restaurant dine-ins, no movie theaters and sports events.  A lot of these events are trash-accumulating activities where there are plastic cups, disposable utensils, straws, food containers for to-go, food packaging from various produce depending on the values of suppliers and business establishments.  Looking at the brighter side, COVID-19 caused people to enjoy home-cooked meals thereby causing people to use their own dishes, glasses, utensils and cups.  This is a huge reduction of plastics in a one month and a half of work from home. 

The danger of using single-use plastic can be found in the destination of these non-biodegradable items. The plastics end up in nature such as oceans, animals or humans.    Considering that 1 million marine birds and 100,000 marine animals die every year from plastic consumption, this mortality heightens the urgency of solution.  United Nations reports that there are 500 trillion plastic bags with 13 million tons of plastic bag leaks to the ocean each year.  More numbers can be found in various environmental reports.

WHO published its report stating that given the habits in waste, consumption and plastic production and population rate, the plastic will be double by 2025 and more than triple by 2050 (WHO p 4).  This means that if there is 405 Mt in 2015, it will be 1,215 Mt in 2050.   Given these numbers, the consumerism and behaviors around plastics, experts say that there will be more plastics in 2050 than fish. 

In World Wildlife Fund website, a plastic can decompose between 20 to 1000 years depending on the type of plastic.  The plastic bag, coffee cups, plastic straws, plastic water bottles, coffee pods, plastic cups, disposable diapers and toothbrushes can take about 20, 30, 200, 500, 450, 500 and 500 years to decompose respectively.  Information about the plastics according to UN and The Guardian:
·         500,000,000,000 plastic bags each year  (i.e. the Guardian report shows 100 billion plastic bags to landfills in America every year)
·         17,000,000 barrels of oil used for plastic production each year
·         1,000,000 plastic bottles bought every minute
·         83% of water contain plastic particles
·         50% of consumer plastics are single use
·         Only 14% out of 78 Million Metric Tons are recycled and the rest go to landfill.
·         Fishes that are exposed to chemicals that mimic estrogen causing the fishes to be undeveloped species.  The fish become intersexed due to BPA from plastics and pollutants.
·         in 2018, the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling were exported from the US to developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste.
·         In 2018, US sold 83,000 tons of plastic recycling to Vietnam
·         Malaysia is the biggest recipient of US Plastics since the China ban with 55% mismanaged going to Indonesia and Vietnam which also mismanage these by 81% and 86% respectively.

In terms micro-plastics, there is further study needed in terms of the toxicity level of micro plastic in drinking water considering that these materials pass through the GI tract and into the human waste.  If the dangers in micro-plastics are not conclusive, a separate study can be looked at to determine the harm that this chemical can pose to human.  Birnbaum, the retired National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program, states that nano plastics can pass through blood vessels, placenta and tissues which can cause cardiovascular disease.   In such report, there has been 10,000 men who died from cardio vascular disease linked to phthalates.  Because of the size of the micro and nano-plastics, these can easily be eaten by the planktons, which are food for fishes or sea creatures that eventually end up in a man’s dinner plate.   These micro-plastics are known to exist in various household items such as honey, sea salt, beer and tap water. 

There is at least 80% of adult population that has been proven to have BPA in urine samples.  Phthalates which contain persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic (PBTs) chemicals are known to be in 8 out of 10 children. The plastics are known to attract PBTs.   Phthalates are chemicals in plastics that make the plastic soft.  According to Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, these phthalates can be found in toothbrushes, auto-parts, tools, toys, food packaging, etc.  Depending on the type of phthalates, there are some types that are known to be human carcinogens or cancerous while others can harm immune system, developmental, hepatic, or reproductive organs.  In a research entitled Phthalates action plan posted by US EPA’s Di in 2015, there has been an observation that animal’s fetus can have an adverse health effects from phthalates particularly the reproductive health.  US Consumer Product Safety Commission’s final ruling prohibits certain types of phthalates that have at least 0.1 percent concentration in children’s toys due to harm that these chemicals can cause.

We do not normally see the extent of pollution that we are contributing to the earth until we check the bodies of water polluted with plastics, animals and others dying from ingestion of these materials and the toxic chemicals that the plastics attract or contain.

We can do a lot more by looking at our daily consumption.  A lot of household consumables are throw-away and for single-consumption only which everyone must think twice if any of these can be reused or avoided.

·         Yoghurt cups or Pints
·         Coffee cups
·         Coffee Plastic Containers
·         Food Packaging (fruits, milk, creamer,  ketchup, mayonnaise, cooking oil, ice-cream, cream cheese)
·         Frozen Vegetables, Fruits, Fish, Meats and Poultry
·         Fresh produce and warm food packaged in plastics
·         Dried Foods Packaging (bread, grains, nuts, vitamins, medicines, condiments, spices)
·         Plastic Bags for Snacks from Tortilla Chips, Potato Chips, Veggie Chips, Cheetos, etc.
·         Laundry Detergent, Dish soap, shampoo, conditioner, plastic package for soap pack, Clorox, spray bottle, other bathroom cleaning items
·         Plastic Bags and containers from other products
Other household plastics that are not a single-use items must be reused or recycled. These are toys, personal care like combs, brush, vinyl flooring, carpets, paints, glue, lampshade, power plug, laptop, mouse, monitor, blow drier, clock, Tupperware, containers, folders, brush, blinds, plastic from cards, credit cards, wires, cables, floor tile, aspirin, insecticides, bags, adhesives, automobile parts, acrylic, clothing, plastic made lunch boxes, pens, pencils, markers, phones, smartphones, headsets, television, fans, air-conditioner, and many more.

Habits of plastic-free life
·         No to single-use plastic. Say no to straws, lids, plastic bags, and plastic takeaway containers.
·         Bring your own reusable bags, coffee mugs, etc. when you go out.
·         Snack on fresh fruits and vegetables without plastic instead of snacking on junk food in plastics.
·         Buy in the farmers market if possible or in place where you can use your own reusable clean containers.
·         No to products packaged in plastic (if you must eat ice cream, go for a cone).
·         Go for biodegradable alternative (wooden toothbrushes, glass jars, and etc.).
·         Reuse materials made of plastic.
·         Advocate for a less-plastic if not plastic-free life with friends, families and co-workers. 
·         Review restaurants and tell them about the plastic-free life.
·         Write representatives for a plastic free environment.

As an attempt to be plastic-free or plastic-less life, I decided to give it a try.  It takes some collaboration to get a community to agree to go for alternative or drop the items that are not bio-degradable or plastic-free.  For fresh produce, I decided not to use any plastics and simply put the produce in the cart and directly into my green bag.  For some items, there are no alternative to plastics, to be specific when I looked for a mayonnaise that is packaged in bio-degradable material, there was none.  I also looked for an angel pasta without plastic packaging but in carton.  For certain type of pasta there is none, but agreed with my community if I can buy the thin spaghetti in carton box instead of the angel pasta.  Popcorn kernels in a big container and not in single pack popcorn is also in the shopping list.  Should I buy the single packs in carton boxes instead of the popcorn in a plastic container?  It was against my conscience that I took the big container but with the acceptance that it is a recyclable plastic.  Although, recyclable items are considered a trash and still a danger to the earth.  I would still contest about it and look for better alternative and negotiate next time.

If our history was revolutionized by Stone Age, Iron Age, and Bronze Age, it looks like that we are in Plastic Age. Should we start thinking about improving our way of life to turn this age into something sustainable? It is good to be conscious about the overall impact of habits and behaviors about plastic consumption. With knowledge comes power to act on the problem. Advocating for the weakest part of our creation and cleaning our acts together through household consumables are a great start to start solving the crisis. 

I invite you to make a pledge today for a less-plastic life if not plastic-free:

Franciscan Brother’s song in the light of Pope Francis Laudato Si’s Prayer/Song:

Plastic Pollution analysis of cause and effects sponsored by UN:

Works Cited:

Axelrad, America’s Children and the Environment.  US Environmental Protection Agency. January 2013, pp. 180-189.

Beaman, State of the Science White Paper: A Summary of Literature on the Chemical Toxicity of Plastics Pollution to Aquatic Life and   Aquatic-Dependent Wildlife. U.S. EPA Office of Water Office of Science and Technology Health and Ecological Criteria Division. 2016.

Loria, Kevin. How to Eat Less Plastic. Consumer Reports. 2020.

Napper and Thompson. Plastic Debris in the Marine Environment: History and Future Challenges. Global Challenges, 1900081, April 2020, pp. 1-9. Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA,

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “CPSC Prohibits Certain Phthalates in Children’s Toys and Child Care Products”.  United States Consumer Product Commission. October 2017.

World Health Organization (WHO). Microplastics in drinking-water.  World Health Organization.  Switzerland: 2019.

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