Rick Smith is the executive director of the Broadbent Institute and the co-author with Bruce Lourie of Slow Death by Rubber Duck
I have an embarrassing secret to share.
About once a month, late at night so my neighbours won’t see, I find myself easing my 6-foot 6-inch frame into the top of our family’s recycling blue bin in the alley beside our house. Standing at more than a metre tall and containing the equivalent of six blue boxes, the bin is enormous – the largest the City of Toronto offers. The problem is that, despite its capacious interior, it’s become too small to contain the recyclables that our family of four, including two preteen boys, regularly disgorges.
So, on a more regular basis than I care to admit, there I stand, jumping up and down to compact the bin’s overflowing contents to buy us a few extra days of disposal. The (meagre) upside of this gruesome experience is that it allows me to examine – up close and personal – the sum total of my family’s detritus. Unsurprisingly, virtually everything squishing beneath my feet is plastic. Plastic bottles, plastic wrap, plastic bags and the small plastic sarcophagi that encase every leafy green at our local supermarket are the most common items: a microcosm of our society’s accelerating plastic addiction.
Recently, we got a taste of just how profoundly this addiction is starting to bite.
In late October, in a little-noticed presentation given by an Austrian researcher at a medical conference in Vienna, the first evidence of plastic pollution in the human body was announced.
On a scale of one to 10 in terms of scientific significance, this discovery is an 11.
Using a new testing technology, the research team sampled human-stool samples from eight volunteers around the globe and found microplastic particles in everyone. All the different plastics present in my recycling bin – such as polypropylene, PET (what every disposable water bottle is made of) and polystyrene – were represented.
Although the researchers were typically cautious in their interpretation, they pointed out the obvious enormous implications for human health. Spoiler alert: It’s disastrous. While they have only, so far, found microplastics in the gut, the smallest particles are certainly capable of entering the human bloodstream, lymphatic system and may even reach the liver. It’s only a matter of time before further studies find plastics embedded throughout our bodies.
Why is this happening? Because plastics are filling up the food chain. It’s estimated that 2 per cent to 5 per cent of plastics wind up in the oceans. Time and wave action breaks the material down into tiny particles that have been found in tuna, lobster and shrimp. In fact, plastic particles are now so pervasive they’ve been found in tap water, and many types of food, around the world.
So we eat and drink plastics on a daily basis.
The component chemicals of plastics – such as bisphenol A (BPA) – have long been found in the human body. Until now, scientists thought this was because these chemicals leached from commonly used plastic items.
Little did we know that humans are regularly ingesting the plastic itself.
The scale of plastic use is stunning. Globally, we are now producing nearly 300 million tonnes of plastic every year, half of which is for single use. More than eight million tonnes of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year. If nothing is done, plastics in the ocean will outweigh the amount of fish by 2050. Canadians alone generate more than three million tonnes of plastic waste every year, including 57 million plastic straws each day. Up to two billion (yes, that’s “billion” with a “b”) coffee cups are used by Canadians every year, most of which – complete with plastic lids – wind up in the trash.
Just a few weeks ago, the European Parliament took a bold step and voted to completely ban single-use plastics from the European Union market by 2021. New Zealand has just banned the use of plastic bags. Canada needs to follow suit.
The most ambitious efforts to dramatically reduce plastic use are called for.
We really have no option. The plastic problem is clear for all to see. There’s not enough room in my blue bin any more. There’s not enough room on this planet. And there’s certainly not enough room in the seven billion human bodies we now know are the ultimate waste receptacles.