Plastic provides convenience. And as a full-time student, mother of two, part-time educator and part-time research assistant, I need all the convenience I can get.
So on my way to the park with my children, do I buy a whole watermelon packaged by Mother Nature in a 100% biodegradable rind? Or do I buy cubed watermelon packaged in a plastic carton? I can always recycle the carton, right?
Many of us reach for plastic out of habit. Perhaps unconsciously we associate the convenience of disposability with modernity and wealth. But I study microplastic pollution, which means I spend most of my day looking through a microscope, counting and categorizing the remnants of our convenient lifestyles.
I have found synthetic particles in everything from dust that has settled on my computer, to ice on Lake Nokomis, to tap water left out overnight. I even found a shard of polyethylene, no bigger than a wood tick's head, in freshly fallen snow collected from my backyard. This tiny chip of plastic is the same material used to make cartons that hold foods like watermelon.
None of this is new. For decades, scientists have known that sun, wind and waves erode discarded plastic into fine particles. Recently, however, they discovered plastic bits in human food and beverages, and in the last two years, preliminary findings reveal tiny specks of plastic inside human bodies.
The problem is real, but how do we solve it? Do we harness all responsibility on the harried mother as she agonizes over options in the produce section of the grocery store, or do we look at the bigger picture? In the 1990s, the plastics industry spent $50 million each year on ad campaigns reminding us how amazing their material is, while simultaneously easing our conscience about its disposability by convincing us that plastic recycling works.
The hard truth is, it doesn't. Over the past 30 years, the amount of plastic waste generated by Americans has grown 108%. In the 1990s, we recycled only 2.2% of plastic, and by 2018 that number crept up to 8.7%.
Now in the grips of a global pandemic, we see national and international waste skyrocketing, spurred on by months of panic buying, e-commerce and takeout food services. Furthermore, the pandemic-induced glut of petroleum makes new plastics cheaper than recycled plastics.
It now costs 83 to 93% more to make a bottle from recycled material than from petroleum. This is great news for the plastics industry because recycling, that thing they insist works, is actually a competitor.
Besides peddling illusions of sustainability, the plastics industry is now also feigning concern for public health. Last March, the Plastics Industry Association, a trade organization representing the $427 billion plastics industry, transformed a global crisis into an opportunity. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the association candidly asked for a public statement to support single-use plastic bags, containers and cups as health and hygiene tools and to oppose any state and municipal restrictions on these convenience-oriented items.
The association was successful in seven states and countless cities where restrictions were suspended or postponed. In the same letter, the association cited three studies as evidence that reusable bags are vectors for pathogens. However, only one study involved a virus and it failed to mention that the pathogen would have stuck to plastic just as well, if not better, than fabric.
Another study concluded that washing reusable bags removes 99.9% of bacteria. This finding, contrary to the association's claims and sadly lost to the public, illustrates the sustainable and hygienic advantages of reusable bags.
As we ease out of this global pandemic, we cannot allow the plastics industry, with their financial interests and twisted interpretations of science, to drive public health decisions. The 2020 global pandemic took us by surprise, but if we take charge now we can actually prevent a crisis of environmental contamination. The calamitous circumstances of 2020 brought about the swiftest vaccine development the world has ever seen. If we can accomplish that, surely we are capable of finding a way to make plastic truly sustainable.
Mary Kosuth is a graduate student and research assistant at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health.