Letter: Take action to solve our plastics problem

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Is there plastic in that beer? And are we all becoming plastic people? They do say you are what you eat. Before you roll your eyes and think, “Another doomsday exaggeration from tree huggers,” read on.

Since the 1950s, plastic production has skyrocketed, with the world on track for 20% of global fossil fuels used for making plastics by 2050. Our food comes in plastic shrink wrap and our water in plastic bottles. Plastics have become so ubiquitous that scientists believe that we have entered a Plasticene, or Plastic Age — a period when plastic production and waste are dramatically impacting the environment and human health.

Unfortunately, we can’t recycle our way out of this problem. Despite what you might hope as you sort your trash, less than 10% of discarded plastic is actually recycled in America. It’s cheaper for manufacturers to use new, virgin plastics.

Instead, plastic waste ends up in landfills and our environment, where it can persist for centuries. It’s in the air we breathe: The average person inhales 22 million plastic particles yearly. It’s in the water we drink, with about 94 particles per liter of bottled water and 4 per liter of tap. It’s in the food we eat — even organic! One study found plastics in Asheville’s favorite beverage — beer! It’s no surprise that plastics have been found in human blood, brain, lungs, colon, liver, placenta, breast milk and carotid arteries.

This perfect storm of exploding production, ineffective recycling and centurieslong persistence is outpacing our ability to study plastic’s effects on human health: What is plastic really doing to us?

Here’s what health researchers have learned so far. Plastic particles, especially the tiny ones, can enter cells, upset energy production, create inflammation and disrupt the signals sent between our organs. Plastic exposure has been associated with falling sperm counts, infertility, premature births, birth defects, developmental disorders, diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, cardiovascular disease and cancer of the breast, kidney and testicles. Almost 60% of patients in one study had plastics in their carotid artery plaques, which was linked to a 4.5-fold risk of stroke, heart attack and death within just three years.

It’s clear that we need to pump the brakes on plastic production. To be sure, there are many useful, if not lifesaving, uses for plastics. But one way that we can make a big impact quickly is by reducing demand for single-use plastics, which comprise 40% of plastics produced.

So don’t despair. Instead, do this:

First, visit plasticfreewnc.com [avl.mx/drb] to find actions to reduce plastic pollution. Other resources are the film We’re All Plastic People Now and the websites for Beyond Plastics and NCPIRG.

Second, take action in your daily life. Use reusable, nonplastic shopping bags. Patronize Asheville stores where you can buy in bulk. Bring your own takeout containers to restaurants. Never buy “disposable” water bottles. For more ideas, check out the Less Plastic Asheville Challenge.

Third, urge your lawmakers to take action. Ask your congressperson to support the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act and the REDUCE Act, which seek to force producers to take responsibility for plastic pollution and incentivize the use of recycled plastics. Ask your state senators and representatives to support the Break Free from Plastics & Forever Chemicals bill and the Consumer Opt-In for Single-use Foodware bill. Links for these resources are found at [avl.mx/drb].

Earth Day was April 22, and this year’s theme was Planet vs. Plastics. If we don’t take action to solve our plastics problem, there will be less and less environment to celebrate — and maybe even more plastic in your beer.

— Elissa Klein and Christine Mauck


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