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“Zero Waste” is a highly popular topic these days, with good reason. More and more people have begun to look more closely at the waste we are all creating on a daily basis and attempting to limit this to strictly what is necessary. We were all taught to “reduce, reuse, recycle” in attempts to reduce garbage waste. But maybe we all need to take a better look at that recycle part. A fellow blogger mentioned Kathryn Kellogg’s book “101 Ways to go Zero Waste” which I recently read. It did a wonderful job of illustrating just how flawed our current waste management/recycling system really is. Did you know that only 9% of plastic ever created has been recycled? Did you know that our “recyclables” are so contaminated that a large number of facilities won’t accept them anymore? Recycling won’t save us or the planet. What we all need to focus on more and more, is LESS waste, and less things needing to be recycled. Use less packaging, use less products, buy fewer material things.
But it doesn’t just end there. In reading Kellogg’s book, I was introduced to the topic of microplastics. I’ll be honest and say that I hadn’t heard much about this before reading her book. I had heard of microbeads, the little synthetic plastic beads that were popular in body washes and toothpastes, and how they aren’t used anymore because they’re essentially just little balls of plastic that couldn’t get filtered out properly and ended up in the ocean.
I started doing some more research into microplastics, and what I found was alarming.
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it photodegrades. This means that over time, it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, until they’re microscopic. BUT THEY’RE STILL THERE. And guess where these teeny tiny pieces of plastic end up? You guessed it. Our water.
In fact, a study from Orb Media showed that microplastic fibers were present in a staggering 83% of tap water tested worldwide. In the US, that number is an even higher 94%. Plastic, in our tap water. What about the highest quality bottled water? Yes, microplastics were found there too. They’re everywhere, and it’s really only getting worse.
You know how when you get a new fleece sleeper for your baby, and it’s so soft and fluffy? And with every wash, it’s less fluffy, until it looks really worn down. That’s because it IS getting worn down. Fleece is made of polyester, which is made from plastic and petroleum. The plastic basically gets liquefied and forced through tiny holes, making the synthetic fibers of fleece. This synthetic material breaks down every time it’s washed, and studies have shown that synthetic fibers can give off thousands of microscopic plastic fibers with every wash- up to 700,000 each washing load. These then get drained with the water through the washing machine and are out into our water systems. To put that into perspective, the Orb Media study estimated that 1 million tons of microplastic fibers are put into waste water worldwide every year “where more than half evade treatment and escape into the environment.”
According to the study, synthetic fibers in the wash are not solely to blame. It’s also tire and paint dust, microbeads, synthetic fibers in the air, as well as secondary microplastics -these are the ones that come from the plastic floating in the ocean breaking down. They call these “mishandled plastic waste.” Remember that statistic about 9% of the plastic ever made has been recycled? This is where you’ll find the rest of it: landfills and oceans.
So it’s not just the 150 million metric tonnes (according to OceanConservancy.org) of “mishandled” plastic that currently circulate visible in our oceans, damaging the ecosystem and polluting the waters. It’s also the tiny microplastic particles that we can’t even see.
Much like larger bits of plastic being ingested by marine life and causing internal damage, we also need to be concerned about the ingestion of microplastics by all life forms. Aside from the chemicals used to create some of these plastics (such as endocrine-disrupting BPA, which only in recent years now we have avoided due to it’s toxicity), the microplastic particles themselves absorb chemicals, toxins, and pesticides. And when we drink microplastic contaminated water, we are ingesting these toxins. Remember how I mentioned that plastics don’t go away, they only get smaller? Plastics have even been found in nano-scale (that’s one millionth of a millimeter), which means they’re small enough to pass through the intestinal wall, and get into lymph nodes and other internal organs of the human body. Think about that for a minute. Nano-particles of plastic, in your water (and really then, inevitably in most of our food if you think about it), that can pass right through your intestinal wall and freely move about your body.
Researchers have only recently began looking into effect of microplastics on human health, but I haven’t been able to find any definitive research on the effects of nano-plastics. I can’t imagine the results would be good though, if we are continue on the path we are going.
What we can do is strive to eliminate as much plastic as possible from our lives, so that less and less of it ends up in the environment, and subsequently, our bodies. Single use plastics are undeniably convenient, but it’s safe to say it’s about time we all attempted to change up our habits in order to preserve the planet for our kids, as well as to prevent our drinking water from being even more contaminated.
Topics like this seem daunting, as though one person can’t make a difference. I urge you to consider otherwise. Big change happens with individuals. You can influence your family and friends, who in turn can influence others. To start I would recommend clicking through to the studies I’ve linked to read them fully for yourself, and start doing your own research.
Kellogg’s “101 Ways to go Zero Waste” is a great place to start and is full of suggestions on how to cut down your plastic use. From stainless steel and glass straws, to reusable grocery bags, eco-friendly skin care, and plastic-free periods (as a side note- did you know that one disposable period pad contains the equivalent of 4 plastic grocery bags? Think about how many you’ve put in the landfill over the years…).
Personally, my family and I are looking at ways to reduce our waste and our plastic use. Notably, I make my own skincare serum and deodorant (to avoid toxins and reduce plastic packaging), I’ve stopped purchasing and wearing makeup (I do have a small supply which I use for special events), I’ve switched to an eco-friendly menstrual cup with washable cloth liners, we don’t use straws, we use reusable grocery bags, and we use stainless steel water bottles. We also avoid synthetic fabrics, through I’ll admit we have been doing that for a while, long before I knew what it was doing to our water, as it seemed to worsen both my boys’ eczema. However, I’m realizing more and more that we have lots of room for improvement in reducing our plastic use, which I’ll share our progress of in a future post.