I have discussed this before in my blog. I am absolutely ashamed of my complicity in the plastic problem.
I spent years convinced that if you recycled it, it was okay? Possibly because that’s the myth that has been pedalled, but let’s not let me off the hook here! Had I scratched the surface just slightly, I would have seen what a lie that myth was.
(Image, sadly not mine. I have never seen an Orca. Taken from Wikipedia commons by Christopher Michael)
According to a report in National Geographic, only 9 % of plastic has been recycled. Worse still, it seems that a lot of the recycling we assumed was being ‘recycled’ was actually being dumped, in landfill and worse, by the countries it was exported to.
(Image by Nigel Homer. Taken from Wikimedia commons again. This time, glad I haven’t seen it 😫)
All of this means that by 2050, we could face having plastic waste 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State building in our landfill….except it won’t be there, it will be clogging up our rivers, drowning animals, and making them extinct due to infertility.
Oh, yeah… That goes for us too! Unless everything (including us) dies due to the bioaccumulation of microplastic beads, or the toxic heavy metals (mercury) that stick to the microplastics and enter the food chain in concentrated form. Let’s just digest each of those one at a time for now. Because soon, like certain lugworm and other species, plastic consumption might literally stop us digesting anything useful.
Evidence that plastics cause infertility….
Do a search on plastics and fertility and you get a long list of articles about the chemical BPA. BPA is used to harden plastics and coat tin cans. Getting away from it is hard, which is unfortunate because it is also described as an ovarian toxicant. It mimics the hormone oestrogen, preventing or reducing ovulation, presumably, though the article I read here didn’t go into that level of detail. I could write an A-level biology exam question on that to test my students understanding of the menstrual cycle. I probably will. The markscheme would go something like:
BPA has a similar shape to oestrogen
So binds to oestrogen receptor proteins in anterior pituitary gland
This stops the release of follicle stimulating hormone
Which stops the development of the primary follicle around the primary oocyte
And so stops oestrogen and lutenising hormone production
So there is no ovulation….
This may not be the mechanism, but as a biology geek, I like to at least think I understand what’s happening. Also, probably way to basic, but about the level of the markscheme I used as an A level biology examiner a couple of years ago.
Scarily, some breast cancers also respond to oestrogen as a growth stimulator too….
Oh, and there’s also the fact that male fertility is globally too and that seems to be linked to the oestrogen mimicry of BPA too. I only read a telegraph article on this, then got too depressed and moved on to….
Microplastic beads and heavy metal accumulation
A study in the renowned journal, Nature, and Sciencedirect, report that fish bioaccumulate high mercury levels when fed in an environment containing microplastics. This leads to nerve damage and liver stress.
(Image wikimedia commons Georges Jansoone)
Mercury stops important enzymes from working (inhibitor). The enzymes involved seem to keep vitamin C and E reactive, preventing what is known as oxidative damage. It is beyond the scope of this post to go into what happens during oxidative damage (though some of my research centred around this and it’s fascinating) but without antioxidants like vitamin C and E, we are at risk from it every time a cell respires. In the presence of toxic levels of mercury, oxidative damage occurs and nerve cells (neurons) are damaged. In addition, mercury can cause the production of antibodies that directly affect the myelin around nerves. The consequences? Nerve damage, muscle weakness and loss of cognitive function amongst others.
But that’s just fish, right?
But who eats the fish?
Ingesting plastic: beads or bags
It makes sense that fish, birds, reptiles like turtles and mammals like whales that mistakenly ingest large plastic items are not going to fair well. This stuff takes 400 years to biodegrade. An Orca that washed up in Scotland contained a ridiculous number of plastic items in her stomach. Incidentally, she died because she got caught up in discarded fishing line and lobster pots and drowned, not from the plastic. But would she have died eventually if careless humans hadn’t killed her by other means? Possibly. A full stomach presses on pressure receptors which tell the brain we don’t need to eat anymore (if I remember). She was also infertile. Her pod has not reproduced in decades and is set to become extinct. That was the last pod native to UK waters.
But what about microbeads?
These are ingested as low down the food chain as zooplankton. Zooplankton have been shown to modulate metabolic signals that tell the small creatures to conserve energy when starving. If they have taken in plastic beads, they no longer do this. So, they starve more quickly. And everything that depends on zooplankton eventually starves too.
If only we had a Sun God like Louis in my novel on wattpad to sort this out for us….sadly, we need to sort it out ourselves and as with climate change, time is running out.
So, what can we do?
STOP USING IT!!!
If we stop buying stuff packaged in it, markets for plastic should decline. I’m no economist, but that makes sense to me.
I’ve taken the national geographic pledge to try to reduce my plastic consumption. The link is in blue, as are the others.
But how? It’s everywhere!
I’ve written too much in this post to approach this in depth now, but here’s a useful link with listsof products by plastic content.
Doing something is better than doing nothing I reckon.