Plastic usage is impacting our food, water systems… It’s time to make changes

Single use plastic bottles.

If you like eating plastic, you can stop reading now. On the off chance that you are concerned about consuming plastics, or the chemicals they could be leaching into your food and drinking water, read on.

Plastic waste has been a problem for years. If you need evidence of that, do a quick internet search on the Great Pacific garbage patch, or even better, take a walk along a local river or ocean beach. Most likely you will see some sort of plastic trash along your journey. But, not all plastic pollution is easy to see, and not all of it is as simple to remove as plucking a flower.

Our lives are enmeshed with plastics — from the computer or phone you are most likely reading this on to the toys your children play with to the containers your food comes in. It’s literally everywhere, and it’s even becoming a part of our food system.

“Ultimately, now, we are seeing the fish that we like to catch and eat have microplastics in them,” said Patrick Schwing, research associate at the University of South Florida and adjunct professor at Eckerd College. “The things that we have produced and thrown away are now ending up on our dinner plates, so that is a direct impact on how plastics affect the environment.”

Schwing, who has a Ph.D. in Chemical Oceanography, is involved with research that includes looking at microplastics (plastics less than 5mm) and the distribution of those plastics on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. Part of that research is also looking at the history of microplastic distribution that is recorded in the seafloor.

“[Plastic pollution] is a pretty complex problem, and there are admittedly a lot of unknowns — it’s not only having the physical plastics in the food you are eating, there is the potential for contaminants — the things that are leaching while they are degrading — to possibly impact our health, water quality, and even drinking water quality,” he said.

While there are some unknowns of the long-term effects of our current plastic usage, there are some real, definite impacts that we are likely to see.

“In the short term, we are probably going to see more and more microplastics in fish tissue,” Schwing said. “And, we are probably going to see more and more incidents of microplastics causing harm in our waterways, and our freshwater drinking systems.”

Longer term, there are already folks out there that have branded a new layer in geology called Plastiglomerate, he said. This is basically a plastic laden layer of sediment on the bottom of the seafloor.

“We may come back hundreds of years from now, dig up a piece of the seafloor, and be able to identify this time period by the all the plastic in it,” said Schwing.

Photo (taken under a fluorescent microscope) of a group of benthic foraminifera (single-celled shelled organism, “forams” for short) with microplastics (red/orange glowing pieces) incorporated into their shell. The sample was collected one mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo courtesy of Patrick Schwing.

In addition, there is a huge bivalve industry in mussels, clams, and oysters, he said. All of those guys are the ones that filter feed; they are basically filtering water through their bodies 24/7, so they actually accumulate a ton of microplastics in their tissues.

One step further than that, you can go all the way down the food chain, where you have all these really small critters that provide ecosystem services, said Schwing. What they are basically doing is either biological or chemical activities that support other critters or the ecosystem as a whole.

If you have a lot of plastics, or microplastics, that affect their ability to do those services, then you can start to shut down some of those services, then the ecosystem ultimately becomes less healthy, which then paves its way all the way up to humans or the fish that we like to eat from the oceans that we are impacting, he added.

“What I have found recently is that all of the stuff on the surface and even in the water column in the global ocean is about 10 percent of what we produced and put into the ocean in the last 50 or so years,” said Schwing. “The deep ocean and the seafloor are the two largest ecosystems in the world, and they probably have hosted the majority of the plastics that have gone into the ocean. This is one area where there is a huge question mark, and we are hoping to put a few knowns on that area.”

Steps you can take

Schwing said that when he began making changes in his plastic use, he and his wife went day-by-day and changed one thing at a time.

The first thing is, don’t get overwhelmed and think that you need to go throw away every piece of plastic material in your home or office. These are small changes that are free or low cost and that can make a difference that no matter what your income status is, he said.

  • Eliminate single use plastics. Schwing suggests starting by eliminating single use plastics. “Yes, your computer may be composed of plastics, but you are not going to throw it out anytime soon,” he said. “I would focus on things, such as straws, plastic bags, plastic utensils, that kind of stuff.” Those things are relatively easy not to use, said Schwing. Bottles of water are another single use plastic that you can easily cut out. For the most part in the U.S., the water that comes out of the tap is potable, he said. It may not taste great, but it is potable. As an alternative, you could invest in a water filter or use a water filling station to fill large water containers that you then use to fill smaller reusable water bottles.
  • Keep alternatives on hand. One way he avoids unnecessary single use plastics is by keeping a reusable pack of utensils, straws, and chop sticks in the glovebox in his car. “That way if we are grabbing food for takeout or if we are eating somewhere where they only have plastic dinnerware, then we just bring our own,” said Schwing. He said he does the same thing with cups. “I’ve noticed a lot of bars will give you a beer in a plastic cup, so if that is all they have, we also have two silicone cups in the back of the car to use in these instances. I know it’s another thing to think about, but that is a relatively easy thing to do.”
  • Purchase a microfiber wash bag. “The other major thing that I don’t think a lot of folks think about is their clothing,” said Schwing. Any stretchy fabric, such as yoga pants, or synthetic fleece, release a lot of fibers in the wash, and the machines themselves don’t have the filters to catch the microfibers that come off of those clothing items, he said. “A lot of those plastics that we see in our waterways — both fresh and salt — are these fibers from synthetic fabrics,” said Schwing. There are reusable washing bags that you can buy that you place synthetic clothing items in before washing. These bags capture the microfibers before they go into the water. After washing, you simply empty the bag into the trash.
  • Watch out for liquid plastics. It’s not only the bottles that these products come in, but also what is inside the bottle, he said. A lot of exfoliating creams, body washes, or even toothpaste can have plastic microbeads in them. On Dec. 18, 2015, Congress passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which set deadlines in July 2018 and July 2019 to stop the introduction or delivery of “rinse-off” cosmetics, including toothpaste, that contain intentionally added microbeads and are intended to exfoliate or cleanse the body. But, until those deadlines have come to pass, there is still a chance of products containing microbeads.
  • Look for alternative packing, or refill stores. In addition to avoiding plastic-free liquids, try to find liquids that come in a different type of container, such as glass, said Schwing. Some towns also have stores where you can bring in your own container or jar and purchase shampoo, toothpaste, dish soap, etc., in bulk, he said. If your area doesn’t have a specialty store geared towards that, many health food stores and food co-ops also offer bulk sale areas where you can bring your own containers. These options range from soaps and cosmetics to food. Another easy thing to do is to bring reusable shopping bags. You can use them at any store you visit, not just the grocery store.
  • Consider natural fiber clothing. Schwing is not advocating for people to go and throw all their clothing away, and then head out and by all new natural fiber clothing. He recommends starting with the microfiber washing bag, and washing the synthetic clothes you already own in there. That is a much more feasible, economic option for people, said Schwing. When that synthetic fleece or pair of yoga pants wears out, then consider replacing them with a natural fiber solution.
  • Shop secondhand. Another thing is that people often go right to the new retailer when there are a lot of good options for secondhand clothing, he said. If you are thinking economically here, that is always a good option, and, it’s not producing anything new. “I know that it can be a challenge to find the right size, the right color, etc., but that is sometimes a viable option,” said Schwing. There are also large secondhand retailers on the internet that make finding “new to you” clothes as simple as typing what you are looking for into a search bar.

Where are we headed?

Schwing said that he doesn’t see a point in his lifetime where society becomes plastic free, but does have hope for the future use of plastics.

Patrick Schwing on deck of a research vessel. Photo Courtesy of Patrick Schwing.

There is a lot of promise for new plastic technologies that can be recycled more readily, he said. There are a couple groups made up of physical chemists and organic chemists that are working on the type of plastics that can go through the recycling process and completely reorganize itself back into the same quality plastic it was in the first place.

And, that’s the biggest challenge, said Schwing. Now, when you throw a bottle in the recycling bin, it gets recycled, it is usually melted down into pellet size, and it ends up a lower grade of plastic than it was previously. “I see a lot of hope in the future for not necessarily plastic free, but better plastic recycling technologies,” he said.

Plastic has completely revolutionized our medical fields, said Schwing. For example, the gloves and tubing that are used are going to be really hard to find substitutes for that are broadly available and affordable in the near future. “Eventually, I think we can use a lot of the plastics that we have and recycle them better,” he said.

For more information on the work Schwing is doing, visit https://patricktschwing.weebly.com

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